We at Scouts Inc. have wrapped our preseason tape study and initial evaluations for the 2014 draft class, and my main focus was on the PAC-12 and Big 12 conferences, with a few independents and non-AQ schools sprinkled in.
The preseason process is one of my favorite times of the year, allowing us to dive into coach-copy tape and get in-depth views of prospects for the first time. A handful of players always stand out and appear poised for breakout seasons, and this year's class is no different.
Below is a look at five prospects who impressed me, including a big-name quarterback, a freakishly athletic tight end and a trio of standout defenders. All appear ready to take the next step and see their draft stock rise during the 2013 season. As always, draft-eligible non-seniors are noted with an asterisk.
UCLA QB Brett Hundley*
Hundley is a redshirt sophomore entering his second season as the Bruins' starter, having led the Bruins to the PAC-12 South title last season while completing better than 66 percent of his throws for 3,740 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Hundley's size (6-foot-3, 227 pounds) and sturdy build jump out immediately. He has added significant bulk since coming to UCLA and shows above-average strength in the pocket, and he also has above-average mobility and athleticism. He consistently escapes pressure, extends plays and moves the chains with his feet, and he had nine rushing touchdowns in 2012.
Hundley sees the entire field and gets deep into his progressions, and has the big-time arm and effortless throwing motion to stretch the field. He is naturally accurate and shows touch at all three levels, and he has the rare ability to change release points and remain accurate downfield even when throwing off-balance.
Hundley is not a finished product, though, and must improve in two key areas. First, his mechanics and footwork need polish. He often throws with his feet not set to his target, and while he flashes the ability to deliver strikes in those instances, he will also miss the mark when not throwing with balance.
Secondly, Hundley has to speed up his internal clock. He holds the ball too long at times against pressure and must be better at beating the blitz with his arm rather than his feet, and also eliminate unnecesssary sacks.
Overall, though, I'm excited to see how much Hundley improves in his second season as the full-time starter. His unique skill set gives him perhaps the highest ceiling of any quarterback in the country, and some people close to the program have raved to me about his work ethic and leadership.
If Hundley can put together another strong season in 2013, he could potentially become one of the top quarterbacks in the 2014 class.
Oregon State DE Scott Crichton*
Crichton is a productive tone-setter and one of my favorite 2014 prospects so far. The redshirt junior had 44 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2012 and plays with a physical demeanor and non-stop motor. Crichton (6-3, 260) is heavy-handed, flashes a powerful upper body and plays with excellent leverage setting the edge against the run.
He doesn't have ideal bend when rushing off the edge, but Crichton can win multiple ways as a pass rusher, including when reduced inside in passing situations. He has quick hands, a clear understanding of leverage points in hand-to-hand combat with blockers and can put blockers on their heels with speed-to-power moves.
Crichton's work ethic and desire to improve are among his strengths, and his 2012 UCLA tape alone is enough to warrant a Day 2 grade. Another productive season in 2013 could put him among the top 40 overall prospects should he declare for the 2014 draft.
Alabama S Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix*
One of two SEC players I've evaluated so far, Clinton-Dix is poised to be the next defensive back to emerge from an Alabama pipeline that has produced Dee Milliner, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Kareem Jackson in recent years.
Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208) is a flexible athlete with above-average range and the movement skills to match up man-to-man with tight ends, and he appears to have the frame to hold up both at the high point and near the box. His technique is excellent, but it's his instincts and anticipation skills that stand out.
Clinton-Dix shows excellent eyes and constantly maintains proper leverage in coverage. He must get stronger overall, but he does get off blocks well and is reliable in run support. The junior also flashes playmaking instincts, notching an interception in each of the final three games of 2012, including the SEC and BCS title games.
Clinton-Dix carries momentum into 2013 and should be mentioned with ILB CJ Mosley and DE/OLB Adrian Hubbard as the leaders on Alabama's defense.
Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert
Gilbert has an ideal frame (6-foot, 200) and above-average length, and his size and fluidity give him the range to project as a press cornerback at the next level. He shows strong instincts and is physical in run support, and he brings special-teams value as a kickoff returner (five career TDs).
After posting five interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2011, Gilbert fell off to just nine pass breakups and zero interceptions in 2012. He became complacent and his tape is inconsistent, with most of his issues stemming from a lack of eye discipline and focus that had him caught out of position at times.
However, Gilbert has reportedly rededicated himself during the offseason and has the physical potential to become a Day 2 pick with a strong 2013 season.
Oregon TE Colt Lyerla*
Some close to the Ducks think the 6-5, 246-pound Lyerla is the best pure athlete in the Oregon program, which is saying something given the overall talent in Eugene.
He has the top-end speed to stretch the deep seams and makes an effortless transition out of his stem to create separation. The junior also shows natural hands, a wide catching radius and explosive leaping ability to win contested throws.
Lyerla's competitiveness, both as a blocker and after the catch, stand out most. He is a nightmare to tackle in the open field, with the elusiveness to make defenders miss and the power and determination to drag tacklers for extra yards.
Lyerla (25 catches, 392 yards, 6 TD last season) is still raw and needs to add polish as a route runner -- particularly locating and getting into soft spots against zone coverage -- but his athleticism and big-play ability put him squarely in the Day 2 mix at this point.