Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews are great fun to watch, but
pay attention to Matthews on Saturday night.
The linebacker trio out of USC will show you why the Trojans were so dominant on defense this year as you watch them perform during the Senior Bowl game. Cushing is arguably the most athletic linebacker of the three, displaying a nice blend of speed and aggressiveness. Physically, Maualuga's upper body is thick rather than muscular, but his instincts, intensity and field intelligence are what makes him special at the middle linebacker position.
But keep your eye on Matthews during the Senior Bowl game. At 6-foot-3, 246 pounds, he still has plenty of upside, and he has the added appeal of being able to make an immediate impact on special teams at the pro level. A punishing tackler who also blocked three kicks during his career, Matthews has been the Trojans' Co-Special Teams Player of the Year three times.
His rise has been nothing short of spectacular, and I'm convinced it hasn't reached its peak yet. USC head coach Pete Carroll once affectionately referred to the formerly undersized walk-on player as "a skinny kid who wanted to play football." But Matthews set up shop in the weight room, exhibiting a work ethic that was admired by his coaches and teammates.
While Matthews doesn't get the accolades that Cushing and Maualuga have earned during their college careers, over time, he could end up having the best pro career of the three. He has the versatility and experience to be a speed-rusher at defensive end for a team that prefers quickness over size at defensive end. But he also is an accomplished linebacker who can make a tackle in open space and is a playmaker who can shift the momentum of a game.
With just one full season under his belt as a starter, Matthews has the potential to make huge leaps in his development with the right coaching at the next level. His star is rising in Mobile, creating some speculation that he could be a late-first-round selection rather than a second-rounder.
The two defensive backs from Wake Forest showed some real talent this
Safety Chip Vaughn and cornerback Alphonso Smith are worth watching during the game, but for different reasons. You'll be impressed by Vaughn's unusual speed and coverage skills for a 6-foot-1, 218-pound safety. He has the versatility to play either free safety or strong safety.
Smith, who measured in just an eighth of an inch shy of 5-foot-9 and who weighs just 193 pounds, is a playmaker. He picked off three passes during the week, showing great anticipation skills, leaping ability and good hands.
Oklahoma OT Phil Loadholt
AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
Even at 343 pounds, Oklahoma offensive tackle Phil Loadholt could afford
to add some weight as an NFL player.
Taller than any other Senior Bowl player at 6-foot-8, Loadholt actually looks lean at 343 pounds. An imposing figure who easily steamrolls opponents in the running game, Loadholt could add 20 pounds to his frame and still look solid, not sloppy.
Loadholt is still a bit raw with his pass-protection skills, but he showed moments when he was able to square-up on a speed rusher from the edge and then adjusted well as the attacker tried to shift inside. Although he wasn't consistently able to keep pass rushers away from the quarterback, Loadholt is an attentive and highly-coachable player who is going to be a steal if he's not off the board by the end of the second round. He could challenge for a starter's role at right tackle during his rookie season.
Don't be surprised if Liberty running back Rashad Jennings has a big game on
Jennings, a former University of Pittsburgh runnner, transferred to Liberty after his freshman year to be closer to his father who was having health problems. At 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, he's a strong, physical runner who can shed tacklers or hit a gap quickly to pick up tough yards inside. But he also has all the right moves to quickly find open space when the offensive line has failed to open up a hole in his intended path.
A capable pass receiver out of the backfield who can do some real damage in open space, Jennings displayed a chiseled, well-proportioned frame at Monday's weigh-in session. He's an articulate and thoughtful young man who is clearly focused on the task at hand, displaying a maturity and calm demeanor that will surely pay off in interviews with NFL teams.
Another reason that you can anticipate that Jennings will be successful as a pro is that his agent, Adisa Bakari, has an eye for highly-talented runners who are often initially underestimated. His other recent running back clients include Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Chicago's Matt Forte—who was the MVP of last year's Senior Bowl. Many people questioned Jones-Drew because of his physical stature coming out of UCLA. Others questioned Forte's credentials last year because he had rolled up his more than 2,000 yards in his senior season in Conference USA while playing for Tulane.
Jennings, who some are questioning due to the level of competition he played against at Liberty, is likely to make a statement during the pre-draft period, just like Jones-Drew and Forte did, raising his stock substantially at each step along the way.
Cal Poly WR Ramses Barden
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
Cal-Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden will benefit from Larry Fitzgerald's
At 6-foot-6, 227 pounds Barden is a receiver who is hard to miss. To put his size into perspective, consider the fact that by comparison, Terrell Owens is 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds while Larry Fitzgerald is 6-foot-3 and weighs-in at 220 pounds.
Barden displayed an impressive physical frame at Monday's weigh-in that created some buzz among scouts. With the current craze caused by Fitzgerald's ability to leap high above defensive backs, snatching the ball out of the air with his arms extended, Barden will definitely be a beneficiary as teams have seen him do the same thing during his college career. While some may question his statistics since they came against FCS opponents rather than FBS-level competition, he'll still be off the board during the first day of the draft.
Expect to see plenty of inconsistency from the quarterbacks.
The quarterbacks were probably the most disappointing position group during Senior Bowl practices. They were frequently throwing into tight coverage or floating balls up for grabs or too far for their intended targets.
West Virginia quarterback Pat White should provide some excitement during the game due to his mobility. He also made some very accurate throws to his tight ends across the middle and to his running backs out of the backfield, but wasn't as impressive with the wide receivers.
But overall, don't expect a potent aerial assault from either squad unless one of these players just happens to find his groove on Saturday night.
I know that some teams like to see some players at other positions during
Senior Bowl week, but in the case of a player like Oklahoma's Nic Harris, they
should allow them to split their time so everyone sees their talent at their
natural position as well.
Harris, who was a standout safety at Oklahoma, was moved up to linebacker this week as some teams wanted to see how the 6-foot-2, 233-pound safety could handle himself at the position. While Harris adjusted capably, it's still more likely that you'll seen him line up as a safety at the next level.
"I think the majority of the teams still want me to play safety," Harris told Scout.com during an exclusive interview. "I think moving to linebacker this week was just an experimental process just to see if I could do it in case I had any inquiries about the position."
While Harris took a crash course in how to play linebacker at the NFL level, other safeties were being lauded in the media for their work in the secondary this week. Fortunately, NFL scouts have already seen the presence and skill that Harris brings to the safety position on the football field during games. But he should have been given the opportunity to get his deserved share of the limelight at safety this week.
Harris, who confirmed that he tweaked his hamstring on Friday, won't be playing in Saturday night's game as a precautionary measure. He expects to be fine in a few days and will resume his workout regimen as he prepares for the NFL Scouting Combine.
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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.