Pro scouts will have a keen eye on the happenings in South Bend on Saturday when several early-round NFL draft prospects take the field as USC and Notre Dame square off. Nine players in the game project to come off the board in the first three rounds, including three possible first-rounders.
Here's a look at Scouts Inc.'s breakdowns of those nine players:
USC S Taylor Mays (6-foot-3, 236 pounds); Scouts Inc. grade: 94: Mays has the physical tools to start at free safety or strong safety in any NFL scheme. He has great size as well as speed that shows up on film, and he can line up in the box or play over the top in coverage. Mays can be overaggressive at times, but he can make big hits as a run-defender and in coverage. Among his drawbacks, he could take better angles in run pursuit and while covering when the ball is in the air, and he has some minor durability concerns. Still, Mays is a solid mid-first-round pick.
To see why Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen has moved into the first round, where USC's impressive skill players fit into the NFL draft picture and notes from around the country, become an ESPN Insider.
Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen (6-2¾, 217); Grade: 90: Clausen has all the natural skills to become a franchise quarterback. His arm is strong enough to make all the NFL throws, and his accuracy and touch are above-average. Although Clausen is not a great scrambler, he moves well enough in the pocket to evade the rush and buy time. He also is developing into a leader by showing poise and confidence late in games, and his toughness has been on display as he plays through a turf toe injury. Clausen can be inconsistent with his footwork, and that could be an issue against a USC pass rush that could make him uncomfortable in the pocket at times. Overall, though, he is solidly into the late first round.
USC DE Everson Griffen (6-3, 280); Grade: 90: Griffen has the potential to make an immediate impact as a situational rusher in the NFL. He has impressive range and instincts to locate the ball and has done well slanting inside and avoiding trash when pursuing the ball. Griffen also uses his hands well to keep blockers off his frame and can be disruptive upfield as a run-defender. However, he needs to be more stout at the point of attack and could have problems against bigger NFL tackles when teams run right at him. Still, we like his game enough to give him a late-first-round grade.
USC WR Damian Williams (6-0⅝, 191); Grade: 89: We have concerns about Williams' lack of ideal size, which could lead him to get pushed around and muscled out of routes against bigger NFL corners. He is fast enough to stretch the field on occasion, though, and the real strength of his game is in the short-to-intermediate area. Williams runs above-average routes and shows good sideline awareness, and he is excellent after the catch. He is also a very good punt returner who displays vision, patience and elusiveness in that phase. Williams projects as a second-rounder at this point and could make an immediate impact on special teams.
USC RB Joe McKnight (6-0, 190); Grade: 86: McKnight does not have the size to be a 25-carry back in the NFL and won't push the pile in short-yardage situations, but he has the vision, lateral agility and burst through the hole to be effective between the tackles at times. McKnight is at his best getting outside and shows a second gear getting around the corner and into space, and he is hard to bring down in the open field thanks to good strength and balance. Although his ball security could be better at times, he still earns a mid-second-round grade.
USC TE Anthony McCoy (6-4⅝, 245); Grade: 85: McCoy is a good route-runner for his size, shows the soft hands to snatch the ball out of the air and is fluid turning upfield to get what's available after the catch. He won't make many people miss but gets everything he can with the ball in his hands. And although he is not overwhelming as a blocker, he is willing to work in that area and shows the toughness to kick out defensive ends. McCoy also works well in tandem with OT Charles Brown in USC's zone blocking scheme. All that makes McCoy a solid second-round prospect.
USC OT Charles Brown (6-5¼, 285); Grade: 85: Brown has the potential to develop into a good left tackle at the NFL level. He has long arms, good athletic ability and the quickness and agility to match up well with most edge rushers. There is concern, however, about his lack of power and aggressiveness, and that could lead to problems against power moves and bull rushes. Still, although he does not get a lot of movement as a run-blocker, he can stay in position and create seams and thus would be a good fit for a team that employs primarily a zone blocking scheme. He currently projects to come off the board in the second round.
Notre Dame WR Golden Tate (5-11, 195); Grade: 80: Tate is stronger and tougher than his frame suggests, but like Williams, he could get pushed around when lined up outside. That's why Tate projects best as a slot receiver. He has the burst to get open quickly underneath, is not afraid to go over the middle and is very dangerous after the catch. Tate also shows some ability to make plays down the seam after catching slant routes, and he is elusive and shows good vision in the return game. His lack of size limits his ceiling, though, and Tate is a late-second or early-third-round prospect at this point.
Notre Dame OT Sam Young (6-7.5, 314); Grade: 79: Young has all kinds of experience and has developed a mean streak, but we just do not see enough domination from a player with his size and strength. He gets into position and walls defenders off as a run-blocker, but because of his height, he has problems staying low and sinking his hips under defenders. And although Young has long arms and can ride pass-rushers past the pocket, he is not athletic enough to hold up on the left side. He is strictly a right tackle prospect at this point. Young is smart and picks up blitzes and stunts fairly well, but he needs to work on his technique and projects as a late-second or early-third-round pick.
Below are the prospects from each team who get late-round or rookie free-agent grades:
CB Kevin Thomas (6-1, 183); Grade: 46
RB Stafon Johnson (5-10¾, 213); Grade: 45
CB Josh Pinkard (6-1⅛, 219); Grade: 39
G Jeff Byers (6-3⅛, 294); Grade: 30
G Alex Parsons (6-3⅝, 300); Grade: 30
OLB Luther Brown (6-1¾, 234); Grade: 30
OT Nicholas Howell (6-5¼, 290); Grade: 30
PK Jordan Congdon (5-9, 170); Grade: 30
G Eric Olsen (6-3⅝, 300); Grade: 31
CB Michael Anello (5-8.5, 175); Grade: 30
S Kyle McCarthy (5-11⅝, 211); Grade: 30
S Sergio Brown (6-1, 206); Grade: 30
S Raeshon McNeil (5-11⅜, 188); Grade: 30
OT Paul Duncan (6-6⅜, 323); Grade: 30
P Eric Maust (6-1⅜, 179); Grade: 30
RB James Aldridge (5-10⅞, 221); Grade: 30
OLB John Ryan (6-4.5, 259); Grade: 20
Around the nation
• Could QB Tony Pike (Scouts Inc.-rated No. 41) and Cincinnati's offense be too efficient? The Bearcats' defense has spent a lot of time on the field because the offense scores quickly. That could change Thursday night against South Florida. Former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who spent two years with the Bearcats, will be on the sideline for the Bulls. "We went against him last year in practice," Pike told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "I'm sure he's not going to give us the same look he gave us last year. The biggest thing in going against Coach Tresey is taking what he gives us and reading what we've got to do. Don't try to get ahead of ourselves and don't try to think we know what's going to happen."
• The Trojans hope their arrival in South Bend is less eventful than it was two years ago, when their plane encountered a lightning storm. S Taylor Mays (No. 8) remembers it well. "A whole bunch of football players were screaming," Mays told the Los Angeles Times. "I was screaming, and I had my eyes closed. It was like a couple little drops and then like a roller-coaster drop. But it wasn't a roller coaster."
• Could something Virginia Tech S Kam Chancellor (No. 85) said a couple of months ago come back to haunt him Saturday against Georgia Tech? The Macon Telegraph reports the following: "If you watch film on Georgia Tech, you can see a couple of things that give [its offense] away," Chancellor said at the ACC Football Kickoff. "It's just the blocking schemes; that's the main thing. Check the blocking schemes out, and you'll see a couple of things."
Georgia Tech RB Jonathan Dwyer (No. 28) responded to that. "I can't even figure it out, so he's got to teach me that one," Dwyer said at the same event. "If he thinks that, then we'll just see when we play."
• In the Red River Rivalry, neither Texas nor Oklahoma wants to give any indication that it's intimidated by the other team. But when Oklahoma OT Trent Williams (No. 9) rolled tape on Texas' defense, he came away impressed. "I hate to say it, but they're a lot better than last year," Williams told the Tulsa World. "Up front, they're faster and stronger. It seems like they've got the defense more down pat. They're going to be the best front seven we've faced all year."
Since 2008, a group calling itself the Blue Royster Cult, after the 1970s rock band, has supported the junior tailback. The "cult" carries a large banner that bears its name to Penn State's home games. You can buy the fan club's t-shirts online through its Facebook page, which lists more than 300 members.
"I didn't really know what it was until somebody on the team told me what it meant, about the band or whatever," Royster said. "And after that I kind of laughed. I've actually had a chance to meet some of the people in it. It's pretty creative."