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Saturday Spotlight: Five Prospects to Watch Week 1

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Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas can make a statement about his reclaimed potential in the season-opening showdown against Alabama and its defense loaded with NFL prospects. Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images.
Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas can make a statement about his reclaimed potential in the season-opening showdown against Alabama and its defense loaded with NFL prospects. Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images.

Those Saturday staples that fuel the fervor of the college football fan are lost on the fans of Sunday football. Pageantry? Traditional rivalries? BCS standings? Ask Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow what kind of cache a Heisman Trophy carries in an NFL huddle.

To the NFL fan, college football is their sport’s minor league, a proving ground for prospects they turn their attention to as the countdown clock clicks closer to draft day.

Every week this season, we will give the NFL fan a reason to watch Saturday football. Or five reasons. We’ll introduce them to prospects with unique opportunities to open the eyes of NFL scouts – five Saturday Spotlights shining on college players with something to prove.

Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo vs. Ohio State

Mack has made a living in other teams’ backfields, with 18 career sacks and 56 tackles for loss (the most among all active college players). He opens his senior season with the opportunity to add to those numbers against the Buckeyes and quarterback Braxton Miller. Speculation out of Columbus is that Miller has improved as a passer (he already had the arm; he just hadn’t learned to use it effectively), and that he perhaps will spend a bit more time in the pocket than he has in years past. If that’s the case, Mack will get his shot at one of the game’s most elusive backs (that includes running backs and quarterbacks). And, of course, he’ll have to content with a Buckeyes offensive line that features four seniors, including left tackle Jack Mewhort – who, like Mack, looks like a solid second-day draft prospect.

Andrew Jackson, ILB, Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky

When you play in the Sun Belt, you need to take advantage of every showcase you get against an opponent from a BCS conference. A year ago, Jackson had eight tackles in the Hilltoppers’ win over Kentucky (their first BCS victim ever). He also had seven tackles against No. 1 Alabama and its NFL prospect-padded O-Line. Jackson opens 2013 with two more games against SEC competition: Kentucky on Saturday, followed by Tennessee in Week 2. There are scouts who remain unconvinced that Jackson is one of the top two or three inside linebacker prospects, but another strong showing against a Kentucky offense that will be looking to find its identity would go a long way to quieting the questions. Pay attention to Jackson’s impressive tackling technique and his occasionally ferocious hits. He’s a physical force, and he’ll get to make that point against SEC competition.

Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech vs. Alabama

Thomas came back to Blacksburg for one reason – to demonstrate he’s closer to the quarterback we saw in 2011 than the one who regressed in 2012. He’s back to show off his NFL arm and to prove he’s improved his decision-making (he completed barely 51 percent of his passes as a junior). And he gets to do it against the formidable Alabama defense, which features a couple of likely first-round draft picks (ILB C.J. Mosley and S Ha Ha Clinton Dix) and a few more who could play their way into the first two rounds (OLBs Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest and defensive end Ed Stinson). Thomas will be hamstrung by a young offensive line, an indeterminable rotation of running backs and a lack of virtually any experience among the receivers. Thomas doesn’t have to light up the Tide (he’s not going to; no one does), but he does need to show signs that 2012 was an anomaly and give scouts a reason to watch his progress this season.

Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA vs. Nevada

The more the Pistol finds its way into NFL offenses, the more NFL defenses are going to need to learn how to stop it. This will be a great opportunity for Barr to show how he plays against the Pistol (and the team that originated it) and a textbook dual threat quarterback. Nevada’s Cody Fajardo will test UCLA with his arm and his legs, and it will be interesting to see how his mobility affects Barr’s pass rush; he was second in the nation last year with 13.5 sacks. Saturday’s season opener also gives Barr a chance to show how far his overall game has developed. He was shocking successful in his first season on defense last year; it’ll be interesting to see how another year’s worth of preparation has grown his game.

Zack Mettenberger, QB, LSU vs. TCU

Mettenberger is one of the true curiosities of the 2013 season. Few people question his arm – he can make every NFL throw. It’s just that he hasn’t necessarily made every college play. He’s been inconsistent throughout his career with his accuracy (often a footwork problem as much as anything). Enter Cam Cameron, noted quarterback mentor/mechanic and first-year offensive coordinator at LSU. He’s been working with Mettenberger’s set up and delivery while teaching him a more pro-style offense. Saturday will be the first opportunity to see how Mettenberger has progressed, and he’ll be doing it against a TCU defense that is traditionally tough to throw against and features perhaps the top cornerback prospect in the country in senior All-American Jason Verrett. He’ll be running an NFL offense and trying to complete balls against a future NFL offense; that’s why I’m anxious to watch this first installment of Extreme Makeover: Mettenberger.