I was able to make it to South Carolina last weekend to see the Gamecocks take on Southern Miss and to Atlanta for the LSU-North Carolina matchup. This week Scouts Inc. goes even further south to take in the Penn State-Alabama game.
My colleague Todd McShay looked at Nittany Lions RB Evan Royster and Crimson Tide WR Julio Jones on a blog entry earlier this week, and highly rated Alabama prospects RB Mark Ingram (knee) and DT Marcell Dareus (suspension) will be out, but there is still plenty of future NFL talent to break down in this matchup.
Here are the other players I'll have an eye on when these heavyweight programs take the field.
Alabama S Mark Barron
A student of the game and the unquestioned leader of the secondary, Barron is disciplined in his own positioning and gets his teammates lined up correctly. His overall instincts are impressive as well. Barron reads the eyes of opposing quarterbacks and shows impressive range, and his upper-echelon ball skills allowed him to lead with seven interceptions last season. All this could be a big factor against Penn State true freshman QB Robert Bolden, who will be making the first road start of his career.
Barron could improve his angles to the ball and open-field tackling in run support, though. Royster is not the most elusive runner in space but he is tough and has a low center of gravity, giving him the ability to slip tackles when defenders don't break down properly in the open field. Barron will have to be disciplined in that area if the Crimson Tide is going to keep Royster bottled up all night. Overall, Barron gets a mid-second-round grade but could improve his stock with impressive performances in his team's biggest games, beginning this week.
Alabama LB Don't'a Hightower
A downhill thumper with excellent size (6-foot-34, 256 pounds), Hightower is excellent at the point of attack against the run. He takes on blocks with the proper shoulder and maintains gap control, and he shows good body control when meeting and wrapping up ball carriers. Hightower does not have the same elite range as former teammate and current Oakland Raider Rolando McClain and his angles are not as crisp, but his other skills make up for that somewhat as a run defender.
However, if and when Hightower matches up against Royster in the backfield the Nittany Lions will have an advantage. Royster is a savvy receiver who runs polished routes and Hightower is a bit stiff in the hips, so he could get frozen by Royster and beaten on some routes. Hightower will have to give him a good cushion and try to stay in front of him to avoid giving up big plays in that area. As it stands now Hightower grades out in the middle rounds.
Penn State C Stefen Wisniewski
He lacks elite size but Wisniewski is fundamentally sound and shows good overall awareness. He appears to have shorter arms and heavy legs and lacks an elite anchor, but Wisniewski makes up for that with good technique. He tends to lean on bigger defenders, though, which can cause him to be off-balance and make him susceptible to good push-pull moves. We'll be looking for him to sit back a little more in his pass sets to avoid that, and as a run blocker Wisniewski has to move his feet to prevent stalemates and him falling off blocks.
Wisniewski's awareness will also be tested by Alabama's multiple fronts and it will be a challenge for him to recognize the front and make the proper calls, and he must also clean up his angles to the second level. He came into the season with a mid-round grade and can boost his stock if he can make a mark in a game like this.
Crawford is a high-motor guy with a better anchor than expected for a 255-pounder, and he stays low and stout when setting the edge against the run. His first step is not elite, though, and Carpenter is a positional blocker who takes good angles and should be able to beat Crawford to the point. However, Carpenter plays high and Crawford should be able to use leverage and his long arms to hold the edge. Carpenter must stay low and move his feet to have any kind of success in this area.
It will be different in the passing game, though, because Carpenter is light on his feet and should be able to shuffle-and-mirror against Crawford, who is also a bit mechanical with his pass rush moves. In addition, Crawford's relative lack of power should make it easier for Carpenter to sink his hips and hold up against bull-rush attempts. Carpenter will lean and lunge at times and could be susceptible to Crawford's effective club move, and Carpenter will have to give consistent effort because Crawford uses his motor to mask some of his shortcomings.
We feel Carpenter is a better fit at guard in the NFL and give him a mid-round grade, while Crawford's lack of size also puts him squarely in the middle rounds at this point.
Auburn-Mississippi State notes
• Auburn RB Mario Fannin didn't light up the stat sheet in Thursday's 17-14 win over Mississippi State, but he ran good routes and showed the ability to pick up the blitz. On a third-and-goal play in the second quarter Fannin did a great job scanning to his right, coming back left and stepping up to pick up a defender with great technique. That allowed QB Cameron Newton time to complete a touchdown pass that put the Tigers up 14-7. Pass blocking is often the biggest obstacle to rookie running backs getting on the field in the NFL, and if Fannin continues to excel in this area he can go a long way toward raising his mid-round stock.
• Bulldogs DE Pernell McPhee showed power, played with good leverage and played with a high motor. He made a big stop on third down late in the game, allowing fakes to develop before locating the ball and getting upfield to stop Newton in his tracks. Auburn settled for a field goal attempt that was missed and MSU ended up with a chance to tie or win the game in the closing minutes. McPhee does not have the overall talent level of 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham, but his toughness, strength and consistency are similar and McPhee could be moving up draft boards as the season progresses.