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Rising Longhorn Thomas could boost safety class

10/28/2009

The more film I watch of Texas third-year sophomore S Earl Thomas, the more impressed I am with his combination of skills. Outside of Tennessee's Eric Berry, there is not a safety in the country who wears more hats for his defense than Thomas.

The first thing that jumps out is that Thomas lines up all over the field. He can shadow wide receivers in the slot, and Thomas made a nice interception against Missouri after lining up over the slot, turning with the receiver out of his break and adjusting well to the ball. He also shows tremendous range when playing the deep middle in zone coverage, and he shows rare closing burst for a college player both when the ball is in the air and when tracking down ball carriers. He simply makes plays and is always around the ball.

The one knock on Thomas is that he is a bit undersized at 5-foot-11, 198 pounds, but he has time to fill out his frame and get stronger over the next couple of years, be it at Texas or in the NFL. Whether Thomas enters the draft in 2010 or 2011 -- or even 2012 -- he has the look of an early-to-mid first-round pick.

Should Thomas leave school following this season, the overall safety class would become very strong. Berry ranks as the No. 1 overall player on the board, and while USC's Taylor Mays remains in the top half of the first round, Thomas could become legitimate competition for the No. 2 spot in the safety class. With LSU's Chad Jones rising into the early-second-round area and South Florida's Nate Allen showing the physical tools of a second-rounder, we could see five safeties come off the board in the top 50 picks in 2010.

• As we broke down tape of the Oregon State-USC game in preparation for the Trojans' meeting with Oregon, we were pleasantly surprised with Ducks QB Sean Canfield. The 6-4, 214-pound senior has gotten almost no national recognition, but he played his heart out against USC.

Canfield hung tough in the pocket, saw the entire field very well and was consistently able to check down when his primary receiver was covered. Most importantly, he threw accurately and put the ball where it needed to be. Canfield has room to add bulk to his frame, and in a year when there is a major drop-off after the first tier of quarterback talent and with the draft status of juniors Jake Locker and Jimmy Clausen unknown at this point, Canfield has the skills to make up ground and move up the board.

Pittsburgh's Bill Stull also has begun catching the eyes of scouts after taking a lot of heat last season and even early this season. Stull has made huge strides as a decision-maker, and is throwing with improved touch and accuracy. Both he and Canfield could work their way into the late rounds after coming into the season completely off the radar, because NFL teams have shown a willingness in recent years to take chances late in the draft on players whose best football seems to be ahead of them.

• You have to feel badly for any player who suffers a season-ending injury as a senior, but it is especially disheartening when it happens to a player like Minnesota WR <a href="Eric Decker, whom we had pegged as the fastest-rising senior prospect in the nation and recently inserted into our top 32 overall.

Decker is blessed with impressive size (6-3⅛ 207), strength, hands and competitiveness, and is a much better athlete than most people realize. He is fluid in and out of his breaks, and shows good body control when going after the ball. There is some speculation that Decker could be back in time for a possible bowl game, but scouts have plenty of tape on him and his main challenge now becomes rehabbing and getting back to full strength for pre-draft workouts that could reinforce what scouts have seen on film.

Depending on how many underclass wide receivers come out, Decker could use good workouts to remain in the late-first-round area, and he is unlikely to fall out of the second round at this point.

Around the Nation

• The NCAA has suspended Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant (Scouts Inc.-rated No. 9) until September 2010, and you can pretty much book Bryant for the 2010 NFL draft. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are finding many ways to fill Bryant's shoes. "When you don't have a marquee guy out there, you spread the ball more," OSU coach Mike Gundy told The Oklahoman. "The other guys are involved and it gives you more balance."

• Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said Decker could return if the team makes a bowl and the wide receiver doesn't have surgery,and Decker's teammates are behind him. "It's tough right now," quarterback Adam Weber told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune "It's a big blow, but he's a strong person, strong mentally and physically. And we know, if there is anybody who can face adversity like this, it is probably Eric. He has a lot of support, with his family and friends, support to stay positive and keep a strong mind. He's going to be fine."

• According to The Associated Press, Florida expects LB Brandon Spikes (No. 22) to return to action this week against Georgia despite a strained groin. As if the Bulldogs didn't have enough to worry about.

"They are very, very talented," Georgia coach Mark Richt told the St. Petersburg Times about the Gators. "(Defensive coordinator) Charlie (Strong) does a great job coaching them up. They are difficult to deal with. They've got guys at just about every spot that are better than the average bears. They are just going to be a great challenge for us, no doubt."

• As Virginia Tech prepares to host North Carolina on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Hokies are still licking their wounds from a loss to Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Hokies S Kam Chancellor (No. 85) has accused the Yellow Jackets of trying to chop block him. "They're coming from out of my vision then cracking down on me or chopping me from the side or from behind," Chancellor told the Virginian-Pilot. "I'm telling the referee what he's doing and he's not calling nothing. That's when it got frustrating to me."

• Illinois WR Arrelious Benn (No. 20) hasn't been as productive this season as he was last, chiefly because he has nursed a sprained ankle all season. The Chicago Tribune reports that the junior has less than half the production now as at the same point last season, with 25 catches for just 287 yards, and hasn't scored a touchdown in 11 games. His lower numbers don't bother coach Ron Zook, though. "I don't care who gets the touches," Zook said. "I want to win."