The 2012 season was the fourth in a row during which I spent most weeks on the road getting live looks at some of the top NFL prospects in the country.
I saw 17 games featuring 22 schools, and because I'm based in Charlotte, the schedule was heavy on ACC and SEC schools within driving distance. No problem, though, because anyone who follows the draft knows just how many quality prospects come out of those two conferences.
Seeing how players react to live game action in real time is helpful, and it's just as helpful to get on the field during warm-ups and apply the eyeball test to players.
Seeing how prospects look on the hoof in terms of body type, judging their demeanor and observing how they interact with teammates are all important parts of their evaluations.
So as the regular season wraps up, here's a look at the games I attended and what stood out during my college road trips this fall. This includes the best prospects I saw in person, those who fell short of expectations, the best individual performances and a handful of 2014 prospects to keep an eye on.
Top five prospects
Alabama OG Chance Warmack (Grade: 96)
A home run and easy evaluation. Warmack possesses the size (6-foot-2, 325 pounds), power and athleticism to develop into an All-Pro-caliber guard at the next level. A road grader in the run game, he is light on his feet with an elite anchor to keep rushers at bay in pass protection. If you take position value out of the equation, he is arguably the top prospect in this year's draft.
Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones (Grade: 96)
Explosive, versatile and instinctive. Jones (6-2, 242) may not have an elite frame, but he makes up for it with quickness, explosive hands and ability to bend the edge as a pass-rusher. His motor never stops running, he has natural playmaking instincts when given the opportunity to cash in, and he has the versatility to play in multiple spots along the front seven.
Florida State DE Bjoern Werner (Grade: 94)
A versatile, instinctive and high-motor edge defender, Werner (6-4, 255) has an explosive initial step and shows natural ability to bend and flatten once he gains the edge as a pass-rusher. He is consistent as a run-defender and plays with good leverage, has excellent hands and does a nice job of finding the ball with his eyes.
North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams (Grade: 94)
When healthy, Williams has the size (6-2, 320), quickness and violent hands to be a disruptive force on the inside. He plays with leverage, and his lateral agility provides him with good range as a run-defender. Williams also can dial it up as an interior pass-rusher with an explosive first step and quick hands. He notched six sacks on the year despite battling a left ankle injury throughout the majority of the season.
Georgia ILB Alec Ogletree (Grade: 92)
Ogletree has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in this class thanks to his raw athleticism, and he has the long frame (6-3, 237) to give him room to add bulk. He has excellent range both as a run-defender and dropping into coverage, along with big-time playmaking ability. Ogletree has the physical tools to become a better pro than Jones, but he does come with concerns in terms of instincts, tackling and point-of-attack skills.
Other notables: West Virginia QB Geno Smith; Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson; Florida State DE Cornellius Carradine, Alabama CB Dee Milliner, North Carolina OG Jonathan Cooper; Tennessee OG/OT Dallas Thomas; Georgia DT Johnathan Jenkins; West Virginia WR Tavon Austin; Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson; Rutgers OLB Khaseem Greene; Georgia S Shawn Williams; Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Patterson; Tennessee WR Justin Hunter; Alabama LB C.J. Mosley; Auburn DE Corey Lemonier
Top three disappointments
NC State CB David Amerson (Grade: 84)
There is a lot to like about Amerson's size (6-2, 193), ball skills and toughness in run support, but his monotone movement skills and lack of burst and top-end speed out of breaks are glaring. It appears he will be best suited to play in a Cover 2-heavy scheme or move to safety at the next level.
Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas (No grade)
A lack of consistency in terms of footwork, mechanics and particularly accuracy were evident all three times I saw Thomas in person. He didn't get much help from his supporting cast, but Thomas had been taken off the Scouts Inc. board and would still be wise to hone his skills for another year in Blacksburg.
He has an elite combination of size (6-6, 260), athleticism and arm strength that is very enticing, and given that he's in just his third season playing quarterback I'm not ready to close the book on Thomas just yet.
South Carolina DE Devin Taylor (Grade: 50)
At 6-6 and 265 pounds, Taylor is impressive on the hoof. However, he is a pedestrian athlete who fails to play with consistent pad level and lacks aggression on the field.
Top individual performances
West Virginia WR Tavon Austin
(Grade: 87) vs. Oklahoma
Austin piling up 572 total yards against the Sooners was the most impressive, most complete single-game performance I have ever seen in person. His versatility was on display with 344 yards rushing (2 touchdowns), 82 yards receiving and 146 return yards. There are rumblings in scouting circles that Austin (5-8, 173) could sneak into the late first round with his speed, agility and open-field prowess, and if he does, look no further than this game tape for the signature moment that put him over the top.
North Carolina RB Giovani Bernard
(Grade: 82) vs. Virginia Tech
Bernard gained 291 total yards (262 rushing, 2 TDs) in a big win over the Hokies. His natural instincts as a runner were particularly impressive, and Bernard (5-10, 205) also flashed very good balance and lateral agility throughout the day.
Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Patterson
(No grade) vs. NC State
The juco transfer had his coming-out party against the Wolfpack. Patterson (6-3, 205) caught a 41-yard touchdown pass in the first half and ripped of a 67-yard touchdown on a reverse that showed his ability to cut against the grain and impressive second gear. Patterson, who doesn't yet have a full draft evaluation, quietly broke the Tennessee record for all-purpose yards in a single season (1,858) and outplayed his teammate Hunter over the course of the season.
Three under-the-radar prospects
Georgia CB/S Sanders Commings (Grade: 57)
Commings plays in the shadow of other big names in Athens, but he is very much underrated. He possesses excellent size (6-0, 218) and balance, and flashes playmaking instincts in coverage. Throw in the versatility to line up at both safety and cornerback and Commings has a chance to bring great value in the midround range.
Tennessee ILB Herman Lathers (Grade: 56)
Lathers showed up all four times I saw the Vols play. The qualities that stood out the most were quick diagnostic skills, quality angles in pursuit and excellent leverage as a tackler. Lathers (5-11^, 225) has a chance to be a Day 3 sleeper who could contribute immediately on special teams and potentially develop into a starter down the road.
Virginia Tech WR Corey Fuller (Grade: 60)
Fuller was the most consistent receiver for the Hokies this fall. He has a nice combination of size (6-2, 187) and ball skills, and flashes the savvy and toughness to work the middle of the field from the slot. Fuller appears to be an early-to-mid Day 3 selection who could potentially develop into a third or fourth receiver in the NFL.
The Steady-Eddie Team (guys who show up every week)
Virginia OT Oday Aboushi (Grade: 84)
Aboushi is the poster boy for this category. There is nothing flashy about his frame (6-5[, 315) or athleticism, but he takes quality angles, plays with leverage and has the aggressive mentality to consistently get the job done. Aboushi has the tools and mental makeup to be a starting right tackle or guard for long time at the next level.
Rutgers OLB Khaseem Greene (Grade: 75)
This inclusion reflects Greene's production week in and week out. His instincts, range and closing burst allow him to be around the ball more often than not. Greene (6-0.5, 239) is also an underrated pass-rusher, and he brings passion and physical presence that are second-to-none on the field.
Virginia Tech DE/OLB James Gayle (Grade: 67)
Gayle's demeanor during warm-ups and his ability to transition that focus to the field are evident. He consistently sets the edge as a run-defender and flashes quick hands and ability to bend the edge as a pass-rusher. At 6-3 and 256 pounds, he has the frame and athleticism to become a great fit as a 3-4 OLB at the next level.
2014 Prospect Watch
Here are a handful of prospects who will be eligible for the 2014 draft and have already started catching the eye of NFL scouts.
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Tennessee OT Antonio Richardson
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
Florida State WR Rashad Greene
Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman
Georgia WR Malcolm Mitchell