A few things have jumped out in our preparation for Week 1, and none more than the dramatic change in the way tight ends are used and evaluated. There is no better example of that than BYU versus Oklahoma, a game that will showcase two of the top tight ends in the nation in OU's Jermaine Gresham and BYU's Dennis Pitta, and there are three things to watch for in that matchup.
First, does Pitta have the speed to be a factor down the middle of the field against the Sooners' speedy linebackers? He is able to exploit some slower linebackers in the Mountain West Conference, but this will be a true challenge for him, and a litmus test for NFL scouts trying to determine whether he's a legitimate vertical threat or simply a solid short-to-intermediate receiver.
Second, can Gresham consistently exploit the slower Cougars linebackers? Gresham has speed and athleticism, but we want to see more consistency and savvy from him in his fourth season. And finally, how will he perform as an inline blocker? During film study over the summer we were shocked at how soft Gresham appeared, and he not only displayed poor technique but more often than not looked disinterested in that area of the game. He must improve as a blocker if he hopes to cement his status as a true top-10 prospect.
On a side note, we are also interested in seeing Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford now that he has reportedly added 10-15 pounds of muscle. He needed to put on that weight to absorb hits and stay healthy, but it remains to be seen whether it will affect any other areas of his game.
For a deeper look at other intriguing Week 1 matchups, including more NFL prospects looking to boost their draft stock, you must be an ESPN Insider.
• One of the most intriguing individual matchups of Week 1 will be Alabama sophomore WR Julio Jones versus Virginia Tech senior CB Stephan Virgil. The last time we saw a wide receiver as physical and crafty as the 6-foot-4, 211-pound Jones was during his freshman season, it was Larry Fitzgerald in his first year at Pittsburgh. The most impressive thing about Jones is his uncanny ability to get open and find voids against both man and zone coverage.
As for Virgil, he is an emerging playmaker who had six interceptions last season and is very much on the radar of NFL scouts. He is 5-11 and 190 pounds, and there's nothing he could do this season that would improve his stock more than performing well against a beast like Jones.
• Sticking with the wide receiver theme, LSU senior Brandon LaFell faces off against an overmatched Washington secondary this week and should get over the 100-yard mark. LaFell has a chance to be the best wideout the Tigers have produced in the past decade, including 2007 first-round pick Dwayne Bowe. While LaFell is not as big or physical as Bowe, he is a more fluid athlete and is not afraid to make tough catches over the middle.
What impresses us most about LaFell, though, is the work he put in between his sophomore and junior seasons. He dropped a lot of passes early in his career but became much more consistent in that area in 2008, and we only expect him to get better this season. With a little help from QB Jordan Jefferson, who should be more consistent now that he has some experience under his belt, LaFell could be in line for a monster senior season.
• One game flying under the radar this week is South Carolina's visit to N.C. State. Everyone is looking for South Carolina sophomore QB Stephen Garcia to make a huge leap in terms of production, and while we think he will certainly improve this year, he could be in for tough times in Week 1. The Wolfpack has a handful of pro prospects on the defensive side of the ball, but DE Willie Young has the most promise.
Watch for him to use his speed off the edge and create problems for a Gamecocks offensive line that really struggled in pass protection a year ago. Young has a second-round grade at this point but could very well play his way into the first round before all is said and done.
• Finally, Illinois QB Juice Williams needs a fast start against a rebuilding Missouri team. Williams has the size, arm strength and mobility to come off the board in the first three rounds, but his inconsistency drives both coaches and scouts crazy. He has a potential first-round target in junior WR Arrelious Benn and will get good balance from an underrated running game, and Williams should light up a Tigers defense that has some individual talent but is definitely in rebuilding mode. A fast start this week could be just the thing Williams needs to springboard him to a strong senior season.
Around the nation
• In 2008, Florida State CB Patrick Robinson (Scouts Inc. No. 11) missed five games because of suspension and injury and had only one INT. Teammates told The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press that Robinson seems to have regained his form from 2007, when he picked off six and was named All-ACC.
• USC's Taylor Mays (No. 8) wants to make big plays. Eschewing the 2009 draft to return for his senior season, the ferocious hitter has worked hard on his ball-hawking abilities: "I need to catch the ball. That's what the great ones do," Mays told the L.A. Times.
• The Daily Texan reports that Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle (No. 20) will not face criminal charges for crashing his car into an apartment while allegedly texting while driving. UT athletics spokesman John Bianco wouldn't disclose the punishment handed down by the team, but said Kindle's status with the team is unchanged.
• ESPN.com's Brian Bennett reports that South Florida coach Jim Leavitt has named two true freshmen, including cornerback Kayvon Webster, starters for the Bulls' opener against Wofford. Cornerback Jerome Murphy (No. 55) will start at nickelback and also play some safety.
• Arkansas OG Mitch Petrus (No. 100) will return to the Razorbacks after missing the entire 2008 season because the NCAA ruled him academically ineligible despite the fact he was on the school honor roll, reports AL.com. "It turned out to be a blessing in disguise," Petrus said, because he was able to absorb coach Bobby Petrino's offensive scheme.