FINALLY, we’ve arrived at the only “meaningful” game of the college bowl season, the National Title Game. The storylines have already made themselves clear, and ESPN and other major outlets have milked those to death already.
But this game is, from my perspective, the final game for many of the prospects in the national championships. Both teams have talent on every level on both sides of the ball, either juniors or seniors, that have to deal with fantastic talent opposite them and the pressure of the championship game.
Notes by Eric Galko and Alex Brown of Optimum Scouting
(JR) A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama – #10, 6’4, 205
A.J. McCarron, though he won’t be declaring for the 2013 NFL Draft, will certainly be near the top of his respective draft class, possessing the tall body type, arm talent and football intelligence to become a starter at the next level. McCarron is clearly most comfortable dropping in bucket throws to either sideline, showcasing outstanding touch and anticipation on post-corner or traditional flag route patterns. In his overall mechanics as a passer, McCarron can be a bit upright at the top of his pass drop but still remains light and active on his feet for a quick setup, delivery and release. Early in the season, McCarron drew favorable reviews from evaluators (including myself) for “plus” decision-making and pocket adjustments under pressure; as the season unfolded, however, both of these skills seemed to digress, particularly in the Texas A&M game where he misread coverages and turned the ball over as a result. Over the final few weeks of the season, McCarron’s coverage reading and sight adjustments have been on par, but struggles with his release point have led to missed opportunities and overthrown passes. If McCarron can get on top of his throws and do a better job of maintaining a firm throwing base under pressure, Alabama will certainly have chances to attack this Notre Dame secondary, especially in the play action game.
(JR) Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama – #42, 6’0, 220
A power back in every sense of the term, Eddie Lacy declared himself eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft a month ago and should be selected in the top three rounds. Running behind his pads and lowering his shoulders prior to contact, Lacy exhibits the physicality you want out of a back his size. On the other end of the spectrum, however, Lacy is surprisingly light on his toes and able to spin off initial contact for additional yardage. This ability to run through or elude defenders allows Lacy to setup his blockers with patient running and simply react to oncoming tacklers. At his best in the zone stretch game, where he can pick his hole, Lacy’s ability to get to and through the smallest of holes comes to the surprise of many, considering his overall physique; regardless, Lacy is a strong, agile runner that should perform well in this game, due to his 50-50 timeshare with freshman stud T.J. Yeldon (who could wind up being a better pro prospect than Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram).
Michael Williams, TE, Alabama – #89, 6’6, 269
In my preseason evaluations, I was highly unimpressed with Michael Williams lack of receiving skills and perceived underachieving as a blocker. After the first few games of the 2012 season, my tune quickly changed, as I saw Williams develop into a consistently active, polished and occasionally dominant blocker. Equally effective in pass protection or run blocking, in a variety of traditional tight end, wing tight end and H-Back alignments, Williams has learned to play with better base and overall hand usage at the point of attack. Looking like an extra tackle at times when asked to block playside on power-o or zone stretch runs, Williams has done a tremendous job of either sealing or kicking out the defensive end, swiveling his hips into position after a strong initial punch. Improvements with Williams’ game don’t stop there, however, as he’s also taken strides as a route runner and pass catcher. Most effective when asked to delay release, Williams sells his pass set by engaging the defender, only to shed to either side and breaking to the flats. Look for Williams to be targeted in the redzone if the Crimson Tide have a first down opportunity inside the 5-yard line.
(JR) D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama – #76, 6’6, 335
The most prototypical and intimidating right tackle in this draft may very well be D.J. Fluker. A true “road-grader” in the sense that creates consistent movement in the run game, Fluker flashes dominating upper body strength and leg drive after engaging his opponent. Possessing massive and heavy hands at the point of attack, Fluker rarely lets go of his man once engaged; this can work as a double-edged sword for the aggressive tackle though, because Fluker can overextend himself from time to time. Beyond having the skill set to move bodies up front, Fluker more importantly assumes a mean disposition and serves as a vocal on-field leader for the offensive unit. Pass protection is where Fluker draws the heaviest criticism, and rightfully so, as he’s struggled at various points in this season (and season’s past) to cut off the speed rush with a fluid kick slide. Having seen a majority of his snaps this season, I believe that Fluker has more than enough range to stay at right tackle in the NFL. Teams will have to determine for themselves through individual workouts at both the 2013 NFL Combine and Alabama Pro Day, as to whether or not Fluker is a next level guard or tackle prospect.
(JR) Anthony Steen, OG, Alabama
Easily overlooked by viewers because of the immensely talented teammates he is playing next to, right guard Anthony Steen is a very good pro prospect in his own right. Returning for his senior season, Steen can build momentum heading into his final year of eligibility with a strong outing versus Notre Dame’s standout defensive unit. Bending at the knees and sinking his hips into an ideal pass set, Steen is consistent with his punch and reset to control his opponent. In watching Steen, and the other Alabama offensive linemen for that matter, every NFL blocking scheme and technique is on full display. Working in tandem well with center Barrett Jones, Steen uses good initial leverage (working low to high with his hips and hands), while adjusting his shoulders and hands to pick up or pass off the defensive tackle. Also utilized quite frequently on the move, Steen does a nice job of staying on his tracks and reacting to flow from second level defenders. In this game, Steen will have to clean up his down blocking angles to the second level, especially as the playside counter guard, because he may have an opportunity to seal Manti Te’o at the second level on more than one occasion.
Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama – #65, 6’3, 320
The cream of crop on this Alabama offensive line unit is without a doubt, senior left guard Chance Warmack. Revealing his barrel-chested midsection and landing his heavy hands with force, Warmack has had his way with nearly every opponent he’s faced in the last two seasons. With a frame packed mostly with muscle and healthy girth, Warmack’s body type is primed and ready for the NFL game. And while he’s prepared from a physical standpoint, Warmack is even more prepared on a technique level. Warmack’s block engaging and sustaining should be used by offensive line coaches at every level of the sport in my opininon, as he consistently lands his punches on the defender’s chest plate, resets to avoid holding calls and locks out before driving his legs. Warmack earned my highest preseason draft grade of a 9.5/10 and a “Can’t Miss” prospect distinction; this evaluation won’t change in the slightest after an impressive senior campaign, and it can be safe to assume Warmack will be a top 20 overall draft selection.
Barrett Jones, OC, Alabama – #75, 6’5, 311
Though he might be least physically impressive blocker of all five starters up front, Barrett Jones is the captain and unquestioned leader of the offense. Intelligent both on and off the field (graduating with a Masters in accounting with a 4.0 GPA), Jones is as good or better than most starting NFL centers at diagnosing presnap alignments and communicating adjustments across the line. Always in control, Jones more importantly understands proper hand placement and how to win versus stronger or quicker opponents. Securing his blocks regardless of the size (see his game versus Tennessee nose tackle Daniel McClullers) or speed (see his game versus Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson), Jones’ ability to hold his own versus more talented opponents speak volumes to his savvy style of play and highly polished skill set. Despite not being particularly powerful, Jones’ movement skills as an on the move blocker, versatility (having started games at every position across the offensive line) and polished skill set should make him for a day one starter in the NFL.
Damion Square, DE, Alabama – #92, 6’3, 285
Defensive end Damion Square belongs in a 4-3 defense as a base end, instead of a 3-man front. Lacking the length to play the 5-technique or quickness to beat opposing guards at the 3-technique position, Square compensates for such limitations by playing with great leverage, bend and anchor strength at the point of attack. Square does a great job of holding gap assignment responsibility by getting underneath the blocker and snapping his hips upward through contact. Punching and extending with inside hand placement, Square creates enough separation at the point of attack to be able to shed versus longer-armed opponents. Likely to be a day three pick and rotational guy early in his career, Damion Square will get an opportunity to work in a system and develop into a starter down the road.
Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama – #54, 6’3, 320
Bama’s starting 5-tech in 2011 and starting nose tackle during this past season, Jesse Williams is capable of lining up all across the front and wreaking havoc. Creating an initial surge and sinking his hips to anchor down, Williams has the girth to compress space off the snap, before using his meaty hands and powerful arms to shed into tackling position. Williams’ “plus” read and react skills at the line of scrimmage can be seen in the way he adjusts his movement to down blocks, pulling guards and the occasional screen play development. In 2012, Williams greatly improved his pass rushing skill set, now being able to work his hands inside on the blocker’s chest plate and put on a devastating bull rush. Notre Dame’s two guards and center will certainly have their hands full with Williams, who appears more and more likely to be a first round prospect.
(JR) C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama – #32, 6’2, 232
Now famous for his SEC Championship sealing pass breakup at the line of scrimmage, Mosley has been a consistent force and exciting player to watch on Alabama’s stout defensive unit. Mosley’s instincts and awareness in coverage only heighten his elite level athleticism, “plus” range and outstanding closing speed. Sitting into a low, athletic stance, Mosley does an excellent job of locating and addressing crossing patterns with a high level of activity in zone coverage. Also very effective on delayed, a-gap blitzes, Mosley uses his explosive burst and acceleration to time up the snap, defeat slower interior offensive linemen and run through the opposing quarterback with impressive force. Mosley’s great range and speed will be tested by Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson’s mobility, and he’ll need take ideal angles of pursuit in order to keep scramble yards to a minimum. Additionally, Mosley may also draw man coverage assignments with the Fighting Irish’s running back/wide receiver Theo Riddick, which should make for an intriguing matchup. Mosley is expected to return for his senior season, but has said recently that the decision will be up to his family; regardless of his decision, pay attention to Mosley as he’ll be a top round selection in this year’s draft or next (barring injury).
Nico Johnson, ILB, Alabama – #35, 6’3, 245
Johnson has proven to be more of a 2-down run stuffer than anything this season, as he continually was taken off the field in nickel, dime and sub-package defenses. With that being said, Johnson still is a very promising next level run defender, considering his ability to fend off blockers, fill downhill aggressively, wrap up opposing running backs with form tackling and drive his strong lower half through the ball carrier. Johnson consistently takes proper read steps to flow and follows his read keys to the play, rather than eyeing the football. Still, Johnson can be a step late with his fits and tackles, giving up 3-5 yards on runs directed at him. What causes this late fill is Johnson’s tendency to pop upright out of his stance in reading the play. Coming up out of his stance, hesitating and looking through his teammates at his read keys, Johnson consequently is unable to showcase the instincts or quick-twitch to always beat the back to the hole. These late run fits, result in either grab and drag tackles or missed tackles altogether. With an extra month of film study and preparation I fully expect Johnson’s anticipation level to improve, hopefully removing the hesitation viewed at times this season. Lacking a three-down skill set, Johnson won’t warrant a top 100 draft choice but should be selected soon thereafter in the middle of the 4th round.
(JR) Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama – #28, 6’1, 196
Likely to be our top rated cornerback (should he declare himself eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft) Dee Milliner not only excels as the boundary cornerback, but also factors heavily in run support and can cover the slot dependant upon matchups. In his junior season, Milliner has proven himself equally capable of playing off-man or press coverage at the line of scrimmage, having the physicality and mirror skills to stay connected with the route downfield. Long and powerful throughout his frame, Milliner will beat up any receiver that attempts to block him in space. Punching and pulling, stacking and shedding, or hitting and spinning off of blockers, Milliner utilizes a variety of shed techniques on the perimeter to protect the sideline and wrangle down ball carriers in space. Scheme diverse in that he has the speed and range to play in a cover-3 or cover-1 heavy defense, Milliner more than looks the part of an elite cornerback prospect.
Robert Lester, S, Alabama – #37, 6’2, 210
Overvalued by some evaluators due to his experience in Alabama’s defense, production in the SEC, and ideal size at safety, Robert Lester has struggled at various points in his final season of eligibility with subpar tackling and poor driving angles in coverage. Seeing and reacting to the throw isn’t the issue for the senior safety, as Lester has continually shown himself to have plus ball skills and a nose for the football. Where Lester gets himself into trouble often and likely will struggle at the next level, involves the drive angles that he takes to attack the throw. Lacking the closing speed necessary to take such aggressive driving angles on the football, Lester can be exposed in deep coverage where his tight hips and rigid hip turns are on full display. Still, having ideal size, length and “plus” ball skills, Robert Lester certainly is a solid next level prospect with the ability to start for some teams. Showing aggressiveness and decisiveness with his high hat/low hat reads, Lester also has improved in terms of his run fits, nevertheless critical errors in extended coverage clearly illustrate why he should be viewed as a day three, 4th round NFL Draft prospect.
Others to Watch
(JR) Kevin Norwoord, WR, Alabama – #83, 6’2, 195
Quinton Dial, DE, Alabama – #90, 6’6, 304
(JR) Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama – #49, 6’4, 282
(JR) Deion Belue, CB, Alabama – #26, 6’0, 170
Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame – #5, 6'2, 245
Arguably college football’s most important defensive player, Te’o was as consistent of a defensive player as there was in the country this year, and he seemingly was the leader on a defense that was ready to play each week. While “instinctive” gets overused at times, Te’o optimized the word by read and reacting offensive linemen and running back reactions, based on his film study, to effectively fill holes, scrap to slow the running back, or quickly transition to the passing game to make a play there. His vision and understanding of the linebacker position combined with his much improved coverage ability is what makes him truly a complete inside linebacker and a 1st round value.
Theo Riddick, RB/WR, Notre Dame – #6, 6'0, 200
Despite playing a more running back-focused role for much of his time at Notre Dame, Riddick projects as a receiver at the next level. He doesn’t have a great base and lower body build to project as a runner, though he is very balanced and runs with good pad level in the open field. Cutting laterally well, especially on the interior, Riddick shows the ability to pick up chunks of yards after the catch to cut across the field. Good, not great vertical speed, Riddick will be a receiver first, but a situational playmaker in the NFL regardless.
Cierre Wood, RB, Notre Dame – #20, 5'11, 209 (JR)
Wood was mostly supplanted by Theo Riddick much of the year, but still managed to show enough talent this year to at least consider the 2013 NFL Draft (though I would HIGHLY recommend he stick around for another year). Wood is ideally a one cut and go running back with good bulk, room to get stronger, and vision up and through the hole. Downfield speed and explosion at the second level concerns me a bit, as he sometimes looks to break tackles and not attack any open spaces because of that lack of speed.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame – #80, 6'6, 250 (RS JR)
While Eifert isn’t as dominating as a complete tight end or force on the interior as I would like for a top considered tight end, there’s no doubt he’s going to be a match-up nightmare at the NFL level. Eifert gets vertical smoothly, is devastating in the seam with his length and smooth transition upfield, and high points the ball as well as receiver in jump ball/red zone situations. A truly special talent, Eifert should have a chance to show his completeness and big play ability against the Crimson Tide defense.
Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame – #9, 6'3, 325 (RS Soph)
For a player his size, Nix is able to control the line of scrimmage thanks to his lateral quickness for his size, his ability to punch and redirect as an interior rusher, as well as the ability to drive with both hands and attack double teams effectively. While he’s still a bit raw in his pad level off the snap at times, his need to place his hand more consistently, as well as develop more consistent rush moves in one on one situations, it’s clear that, because he’s already announced he’s returning, he’ll be one of the premier eligible 2014 NFL Draft prospects, and should give Barrett Jones of Alabama a tough task today.
Others to Watch
Zeke Motta, S, Notre Dame – #17, 6'2, 215
Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE, Notre Dame – #, 6'4, 306
Chris Watt, OG, Notre Dame – #, 6'3, 310M
ike Golic, OC, Notre Dame – #, 6'3, 295
Bennett Jackson, CB, Notre Dame – #2, 6’0, 185J
amoris Slaughter, S, Notre Dame – #, 6'0, 200
Zach Martin, OT, Notre Dame – #70, 6’4, 300 (JR)
Prince Shembo, OLB, Notre Dame – #55, 6’2, 250 (JR)
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame – #7, 6’5, 270 (Soph)