Friday, November 6, 2009

Draft Watch: LSU @ Alabama

* The Quarterbacks: Right now, neither signal caller—LSU’s Jordan Jefferson or Alabama’s Greg McElroy—is at the forefront in terms of quarterback prospects. Of the two, Jefferson (6’ 5”/19 years old) has more upside—he’s younger, bigger and faster. The true sophomore was forced into early action last year and not surprisingly has been inconsistent. Through the first six games of the season, LSU was conservative. Not that they didn’t allow their quarterback to throw the ball, they did, Jefferson attempted more than 25 passes in four straight games leading up to the Florida game. However, he wasn’t put in game-deciding situations, especially when they played Florida. Coming off a bye week, Jefferson set career-highs with his 21 completions, 31 attempts and 242 yards against Auburn. Last week against Tulane, he averaged a season-best 9.6 yards per attempt. Now, Tulane isn’t Alabama (btw…neither is Auburn), so it will be interesting to see if head coach Les Miles chooses to put the game in Jefferson’s hands or not this Saturday. How Jefferson performs against Alabama’s stout defense, could go a long way in his progress as a quarterback.

While Jefferson is progressing, McElroy appears to be regressing. In his first two games, the junior out of Texas threw for 471 yards; and in his first SEC start he torched Arkansas for 291 yards and three touchdowns (no interceptions) on 17-of-24 passing. In the four games since then, McElroy has failed to reach 150 yards in any single game, throwing for a season-low 92 yards with two interceptions (no touchdowns) against South Carolina. At Ole Miss he completed just 44.1 percent of his passes. In his last three games, McElroy has lead the Crimson Tide to one offensive touchdown, as Alabama has bogged down whenever they get into the red zone. Their only offensive touchdown in the last two games, saw Mark Ingram take five straight snaps from the Wildcat formation against South Carolina as he led the way to the end zone. An extra week to prepare did worlds of wonders for Jefferson, we’ll learn on Saturday if this is the answer to McElroy’s woes. Although he is a junior and 21 years old, prior to this season, McElroy attempted just 20 passes in his career. The extra practice time is an opportunity to work on some individual skills. McElroy has a solid arm and frame (6’ 3/220) and early on it appeared Alabama might actually expand their offense from a year ago. But he has struggled against tougher defenses; this is a chance for the Southlake native to turn that around.

* Running Between the Tackles:
With Charles Scott checking in at 6’ 0”/234 pounds and Ingram 5’ 10”/212 pounds, the two backs don’t physically resemble each other, but both do most of their damage between the tackles. A senior, Scott entered the season as one of the top running backs for the Draft Class of 2010. He is a big bruising back whose greatest asset is his lower body strength. Scott keeps those legs churning and does an excellent job of leaning forward to get that extra yard or two. The Louisiana native’s numbers are down significantly from a year ago—1,174 yards, 5.4 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns to 459 yards, 4.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns. A big game in Tuscaloosa and Scott can regain some lost momentum.

Conversely, Ingram has thrust him into the Heisman conversation with his play this season—1,004 yards, 6.6 yards per carry and eight touchdowns. Ingram is an extinctive runner who uses his great vision to find the wholes and when they aren’t there initially, he possesses the patience to let the wholes develop and allow his blockers to do what they have to do. Ingram is a powerful runner—low center of gravity, great leg drive and he always keeps his legs moving after contact. The Michigan native does a nice job coming out of the backfield as a receiver as well; he looks to immediately take it up-field, he doesn’t dance, but can make people miss with his moves or by running them over. He makes such quick cuts in the open field. Ingram leads the SEC with 11 total touchdowns. The only thing missing from Ingram’s game is breakaway speed, but his game speed may be underrated.

* The Pass Catchers: At 6’ 4” and 211 pounds, true sophomore Julio Jones has prototypical size for a wide receiver—the youngster already looks like an NFL wide out. He is among the most talented pass catchers in the nation despite pedestrian numbers (20 receptions, 220 yards, one touchdown), which have been curtailed this season by some nagging injuries for Jones, as well as very inconsistent play by first year starting quarterback McElroy. They are a shocking 0-for-12 when trying to hook up in the red zone. Jones is a mismatch for most defensive backs—he cannot only run away from defenders, but the kid is so physical. He’s almost like a tight end, seeking out DBs to punish when he gets the ball in his hands. Throw out the numbers…with an extra week to rest, Jones could be a ticking time bomb ready to explode. Jones is also the Tide’s backup punt returner and he has surprising quicks for a guy so big. He will be the best receiver on the field this Saturday.

LSU does not have a clear cut number one wide receiver—junior Terrance Toliver leads the team with his 38 receptions and 501 yards, not to far behind is senior Brandon LaFell who has recorded 37 receptions for 478 and a conference-high eight touchdown grabs. At 6’ 3” and 206 pounds, LaFell has an excellent combination of size and speed. He is a very natural and fluid runner with the ball in his hands; dangerous after the catch, which is why the Tigers often like to get him the ball quickly—don’t be surprised to see more than one screen pass go LaFell’s way. He is not afraid to across the middle of the field. After a disappointing sophomore season, Tolliver has finally broken out as a junior and provides the Bayou Bengals with another player who can stretch the field. At 6’ 5” Tolliver is a big target and LSU’s Jefferson will look to use that long frame. Tolliver makes his opponents pay primarily working the sidelines. He is not as polished as LaFell, but may have more upside once he reaches his full potential. He still needs to be more consistent with his route running and at only 206 pounds at his height; the Texas native could pack on a few pounds. LaFell and Tolliver give the Bayou Bengals two wide outs who will challenge Alabama’s talented secondary.

Don’t sleep on the tight ends either. Georgia Tech transfer Colin Peek has flashed the ability to make plays for Alabama. He has a solid frame at 6’ 6” and 255 pounds and he can go get the football. Senior Richard Dickson for LSU isn’t as big (6’ 3”/240 pounds) as Peek, but is probably more dangerous after the catch. Dickson projects as a potential H-Back or even fullback at the next level.

* The ‘Backers – Stud/Sleeper:
Alabama’s Rolando McClain is a no-doubt NFL talent and the best overall prospect in this game of prospects. There may not be a better defender in the nation. McClain has the size (6’ 4”/258), speed, instincts and intelligence to play almost any linebacker position. Ideally, he will fit in as inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense with he bulk to take blockers head on, shed them and make the play. He is also a student of the game and seams to improve on a weekly basis, with the knowledge and leadership skills that are earning him a reputation as a coach on the field. He should be a top 10 pick when he decides he is ready for the NFL. On the other of the field, LSU’s Kelvin Sheppard is one of the most underrated linebackers in the country (bright, can play all three linebacker positions). He possesses athleticism, speed, quickness and a very good frame (6’ 3”/239). Sheppard comes in playing his best football; he’s a sure tackler who has the ability to make plays in the backfield. The junior hasn’t had the hype of previous LSU linebackers such as Ali Highsmith and Darry Beckwith, but he will play on Sundays.

* Ranking the DBs:
Where do we begin? Not only do all four starters on each team have a chance to play on Sundays, but so do some of their backups:

(1) Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU – The sophomore has it all—size, speed and athleticism. It will be fun with him match-up one-on-one with Jones; Peterson more than held his own when locked up with Georgia’s A.J. Green earlier in the season. Not just a cover guy, this kid is a football player who will play against the run.

(2) Chad Jones, FS, LSU – The junior has really stepped up his game in his third season on the Bayou. Since he was a freshman we all knew the ability was there, but he was raw, more an athlete than a football player. This season it is starting to come together. Jones can fly and at 6’ 3” and 225 pounds he has prototypical size. He has also displayed the knack for making the big play at the right time.

(3) Mark Barron, SS, Alabama – The sophomore safety leads the SEC in both pass deflections with 11 and interceptions with four. Like Peterson and Jones, Barron brings both size (6’ 2”/214) and speed, and if the numbers are any indication, he possesses the ball skills. Barron waited his turn last season behind Rashad Johnson and this year he has more than lived up to the recruiting hype. Jefferson must know were he is at all times.

(4) Kareem Jackson, CB, Alabama – Jackson has excellent instincts and displays an understanding of the game. He gets his hands on the ball a lot and often it appears as if he knows it’s coming, which speaks to his ability to translate the game plan to the field. Not as big as Peterson, but Jackson is not undersized by any means (6’ 0”/193).

(5) Javier Arenas, CB, Alabama – Arenas is a unique player among this group. He lacks ideal length (5’ 9”) but is built solid (195 pounds). He also plays big—his four sacks are second on the team and the senior leads the Crimson Tide with his 8.5 tackles for a loss. It’s safe to say he is very comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage and coming on a blitz—run or pass. Earlier this year he stole the ball from Shay Hodge of Ole Miss for an interception, another example of his physical play. More quick than fast, he looks like a prototypical slot cover man, who is also a special returner.

(6) Justin Woodall, FS, Alabama – Because he lacks ideal speed, Woodall doesn’t have the upside of Jones or Barron, but he is a solid football player who has excellent size (6’ 2”/221), he’s the biggest defensive back on the Crimson Tide. He is a solid tackler, who has made two interceptions and six pass deflections.

(7) Chris Hawkins, CB, LSU –
The senior cornerback is an ideal number two cover man, with good speed and length (6’ 1”), but NFL scouts will probably like to see him bulk up a bit (182 pounds). Like Woodall, Hawkins can get lost in the mix with so many phenomenal athletes stealing the spotlight, but worthy of mid-round consideration.

(8) Jai Eugene, CB, LSU –
Eugene probably has more upside than Hawkins, but is not quite there as a football player. The junior had some talking him up as a future number one corner, but that was before Peterson took the field. Eugene has shown flashes, but needs to more consistent. He seams to lose confidence and give too much respect to the opposition (read: cushion).

(9) Brandon Taylor, SS, LSU – You have to love Taylor’s closing speed when he attacks the line of scrimmage as he is doing a nice job of stepping into big brother Curtis Taylor’s shoes. He is undersized for a safety (191 pounds), but he is a good open field tackler. Not a big hitter, however he possesses coverage skills that many college safeties lack.

(10) Marquis Johnson, CB, Alabama –
Johnson is part of a group of unheralded seniors on the Alabama defense that have surprised many with their level of contribution. The backup corner isn’t going to wow anyone with his measurables but seams to have a nose for the ball and is tied with Jackson for second in the SEC in passes defended per game (1.25) for a total of 10.

(Bonus) Harry Coleman, SAM, LSU – The Bayou Bengals’ strong-side linebacker at 6’ 2” and 206 pounds is not playing linebacker at the next level—the former defensive back projects as a strong safety. Coleman is having a great senior season with 52 tackles and five tackles for a loss, which has caused him to rise up some draft boards, however it has to cause some concern that he is having more success at linebacker than he did at safety.

* Scout’s Will Also be Watching:

In the Trenches:
The Tigers’ are best on the perimeter with left tackle Ciron Black and defensive end Rahim Alem, neither of whom has helped their stock this season. For Alabama they are built inside-out with noseman Terrance Cody having an excellent seasons as the prototypical noseman for a 3-4 defense and left guard Mike Johnson their most NFL ready offensive lineman.

Boom or Bust: Senior tackle Al Woods is finally seeing consistent playing time after being an enigma in his first three seasons at LSU. He was seen as a potential first round talent, but failed to deliver on the field. Woods could significantly improve his status with a strong finish to his career.

LSU’s LB Perry Riley is considered a solid, not spectacular player and he can get a stock upgrade if he does a good job against Ingram and company. Junior college transfer James Carpenter is a talented left tackle for Alabama who is still learning the game and can make people take note if handles Alem. How about son of Bobby Hebert and LSU center T-Bob Hebert who will lineup across from Mount Cody? If he holds his own, the sophomore will start to garner recognition. LSU junior right tackle Joseph Barksdale is a very good prospect and will get a chance to show what he can do both in the pass and run games against the physical front seven of Alabama.

Senior Sleepers: Alabama: OT Drew Davis, RB Roy Upchurch, DE Lorenzo Washington, DE Brandon Deadrick, OL Cory Reamer; LSU: RB Keiland Williams, RB/RT Trindon Holliday, DT Charles Alexander, LB Jack Cutrera, DB Danny McCray

Stars of Tomorrow: Alabama: RB Trent Richardson (FR), C William Vlachos (SO), OG Barrett Jones, Marquise Maze (SO), WILL Nico Johnson; LSU: WR Rueben Randle (FR), QB Russell Shepard (FR), DE Chancey Aghayere (FR)

Photos Courtesy of SEC Sports Media, Alabama Media Relations, Steve Franz/LSU Sports Information