<
>
Insider

December could be big for underclassmen

12/8/2011

The bowl season is about to begin, and although the BCS and other January games get most of the attention, there is plenty to see from a scouting standpoint during December.

We've talked a lot about quarterbacks in recent weeks, and Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Baylor's Robert Griffin III will be on display in the final days of 2011.

Griffin's rise up the draft board has been well-documented, and most believe the junior is headed for the NFL after the Bears play Washington in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. He still has some work to do in terms of consistency, and I'm interested to see whether he measures close to his listed height of 6-foot-2. If he comes in below 6-1, it will be problematic for his stock, but for now he's gotten himself solidly into the first-round discussion.

As for Jones, he's taken a tumble late in the season after entering 2011 as our No. 2 quarterback and with plenty of momentum. However, he didn't show marked improvement over the course of the season and was more erratic than expected, and when No. 1 WR Ryan Broyles went down, Jones seemed to lose all confidence in terms of reads and where to go when the initial play broke down.

Given the solid stock of Griffin and undecided USC junior Matt Barkley, it might not be a bad idea for Jones to return for his senior season to prove his accuracy and mental toughness.

There are plenty of other underclassmen weighing their options, and here's a look at five more hoping to build momentum in scouting circles with strong performances in December bowls.

Temple RB Bernard Pierce (Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Dec. 17)

Pierce is an underrated prospect with very good lateral agility, balance and toughness. He's a workhorse back who had more than 100 yards in eight of 11 games this season, and he scored 25 rushing touchdowns. The buzz is that Pierce is leaning toward making the jump to the next level, and a big game against Wyoming's 115th-ranked rushing defense could give him the final nudge.

North Carolina OLB Kevin Reddick (AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl, Dec. 26)

Reddick has flown under the radar, and while he isn't as athletically gifted as teammate Zach Brown, he's a tough, instinctive player who grades out early in the second round. Reddick plays well in tight spaces, but scouts will be interested to see how he fares against Missouri's spread attack and dual-threat QB James Franklin.

Notre Dame ILB Manti Te'o (Champs Sports Bowl, Dec. 29)

There are mixed opinions on Te'o -- who carries a first-round grade -- in scouting circles. On one hand, he plays hard, has good size (6-2, 255 pounds) and flashes power at the point of attack. On the other, he needs to become more consistent taking on blocks and as a tackler.

It will be interesting to see how he fares against a Florida State offense that has become more pass-heavy and quarterback-centric. Te'o will be challenged to get off blocks and track down Seminoles QB E.J. Manuel, and his abilities in underneath coverage and as a pass-rusher will also be under the microscope.

Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox (Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30)

I've been told that Cox, one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the nation, is seriously considering joining a defensive tackle class that lacks elite talent at the top. He's still developing in terms of hand use and playing with leverage, but he's versatile, has good quickness and can disrupt plays in the backfield.

He'll get some chances to face off against Wake Forest G Joe Looney, who projects as a Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) pick, and a good showing against a disciplined Demon Deacons offensive line would go a long way toward helping Cox's stock, which is on the fringe of the first round.

Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Dec. 31)

Mercilus is not an elite athlete, but a nonstop motor helped him lead the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He shows good speed-to-power moves, has long arms and has improved his hand use, and against a UCLA team that has had issues in protection, Mercilus could have a big game that helps improve a grade that already stands on the fringe of the first round.