Observations and analysis from the 12th week of the college football season, including thoughts about some of the nation’s top defensive prospects.
One bright spot on the Virginia defense this season has been the play of five-technique defensive end Nate Collins. Collins, a 6-2, 290-pound lineman, doesn’t quite possess the height or length to play as a 3-4 defensive end at the next level, but he showcases the initial burst, power and suddenness to definitely make the transition inside to defensive tackle in the NFL. He did a great job Saturday vs. Clemson consistently exploding off the snap, maintaining his leverage and fighting off blocks while making his way into the backfield. He displays a violent set of hands and exhibits the body control and power to effectively bull-rush opposing linemen and cleanly redirect past their blocks. He finished with four tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass breakup and looks like a guy who could certainly develop into at least a rotational type of interior lineman at the next level, maybe more.
One of the more intriguing junior cornerbacks who could potentially enter next year’s draft is Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling. The 6-2, 200-pound defender possesses a great-looking frame and long arms and displays the range to effectively track the football in pursuit. However, the more I watch him, the more I think he’s a free safety-only prospect at the next level. Dowling isn’t a real flexible athlete, and although he possesses impressive strider speed, he simply takes too long to get out of his breaks and into second gear. Plus, he’s rarely asked to play up close to the line of scrimmage, flip his hips and turn to run with receivers down the field, as he typically plays way off in coverage and has the luxury of opening his hips early and using his big strides to stay with receivers vertically. I just don’t see the type of suddenness or burst in Dowling’s game to make me think he has the ability to stay with receivers in man coverage at the next level. Now, there’s no denying the kid is a gifted size/speed athlete, but I think his future is at free safety in the NFL.
Another immovable object in the SEC
I’ve been critical at times of LSU’s defensive line play this season. However, if the Tigers had two defensive tackles with the power and strength of Al Woods, there’s no way Ole Miss RB Dexter McCluster would have rushed for 148 yards against them Saturday. Woods was absolutely immovable at times vs. the Rebels and not only does a great job taking on double-teams, he can consistently anchor on contact. He isn’t a real gifted athlete and struggles to make plays away from his frame, but the guy knows how to eat up blocks inside and looks like a capable two-down lineman at the next level.
Questions still remain
This isn’t a ringing endorsement of the current play of Arizona cornerback Devin Ross. He isn’t a real polished corner, lacks ideal instincts in man coverage and will open up his hips too early in his drop, which causes him to struggle staying balanced when changing directions. On top of that, he isn’t real physical in press-man and struggles to generate much of a bump when trying to disrupt the timing of the pass game. However, Ross is a gifted athlete who can certainly turn and run with NFL-caliber receivers down the field and possesses the type of physicality in run support I love to see from defensive backs. Now, the guy was beaten at least three times last weekend vs. an Oregon receiving corps that is average at best. But you can’t knock the kid’s physical skill set, and with some proper NFL coaching he has an upside that would make you think he could potentially end up starting in the league. Right now, though, I would grade him out more as a sub-package corner, with a very high ceiling.
A year of dominance
Ever since my initial player rankings were posted in September, Murray State’s Austen Lane has always been a top-20 defensive end prospect in my mind. As soon as you pop in a tape of any Murray State football game and watch Lane perform, it’s obvious the guy is ready to take his game to the next level. He finished the season with 64 total tackles, 19½ tackles for loss and 11 sacks and wrapped up his college career last weekend vs. Tennessee Tech with 10 total tackles and 1½ tackles for loss. Lane possesses a freakish combination of size (6-6, 258), length and body control and has a physical skill set very similar to Miami Dolphins OLB/DE Jason Taylor. In no way am I saying Lane will have a career similar to Taylor’s because those kinds of expectations are too much for any prospect to live up to. However, what I am saying is that Lane is a highly gifted athlete who, with a strong postseason showing, could end up being one of the most coveted pass rushers in the draft.
Transfer making good on promise
One of the lost storylines coming out of the Kansas State-Nebraska game was the play of Wildcats defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, a transfer from Virginia, has very quietly been one of the Big 12’s top defensive linemen and looks capable of playing in just about any scheme at the next level. The 6-4, 280-pound defensive end already has experience in both a 4-3 and 3-4 fronts and possesses the type of power to consistently hold the point in the run game and get after the football. He finished with eight tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack and will likely end up grading out as a potential dirty starter when it’s all said and done.
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