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Saturday Spotlight: Five Prospects To Watch Week 6

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No receiver in Colorado history has ever caught more than 11 passes in a single game; Paul Richardson has done it three times already. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.
No receiver in Colorado history has ever caught more than 11 passes in a single game; Paul Richardson has done it three times already. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

In the Great Lost Season of 2012, the highlight of the Colorado offense was its passing attack. The Buffaloes averaged 192.5 passing yards per game, good for 96th in the nation.

That's good, you say? Well, compared to a running game ranked 106th, a total offense ranked 116th and a scoring offense ranked 117th, the Buffs' passing game looked positively Peytonian.

It was so bad that Paul Richardson would have ranked 15th in receiving yards among the 16 Colorado players who caught passes -- and he missed the entire season (one player had one catch for minus-1 yard).

Richardson has already surpassed the team's top receiver from 2012. Took him all of four weeks, and he would've gotten there sooner had Colorado's game with Fresno State not been postponed. He opened this season by catching 10 balls for 208 yards against Colorado State (not a bad performance for your first game in 22 months), then followed that up with 11 catches for 209 yards against Central Arkansas.

And those weren't even the best games of his career. Two Septembers ago, he had the best day a Buffs receiver has ever enjoyed -- 11 catches, 284 yards. He's played in two dozen college games and has three of the six 200-yard games in school history. He has 16 touchdowns in those 24 games, half of which went for 50 yards or more.

It's probably about time that we start to recognize something special is going on, and that Marqise Lee is not the only home run threat in the Pac-12. Don't talk to me about Lee's lack of a seasoned quarterback; Richardson's playing with a guy who came into this season with 42 pass attempts on his college resume. This is not Kordell Stewart we're talking about here. 

What Richardson has done to revitalize Colorado's passing game -- currently 25th in the nation -- has been remarkable (even though, we must admit, on his two long TDs against Colorado State, he was left more alone than Macauley Culkin ever was). He has NFL hands, runs his routes with smooth confidence, and he's fast. We'll see just how fast on Saturday, when he likely will spend much of his day trying to get away from Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon's best cornerback who just might be a top-3 cornerback prospect in the draft. 

Richardson will get his chances against Oregon. Teams facing the Ducks tend to have to throw themselves silly just to keep up with the Oregon offense. If Richardson is able to shake free from a corner like Ekpre-Olomu and break a big play against a defense so fast, scouts will notice.

Marcus Whitfield, OLB, Maryland vs. Florida State

These next two weeks are going to be absolutely huge for Whitfield, the ACC's breakout defensive stud of the season. The blossoming pass rush specialist will see two of the conference's top left tackles, first Florida State's Cameron Erving then Virginia's Morgan Moses. If he gets to Halloween and is still among the nation's leaders in sacks, we can begin to talk about Whitfield as a Day Two draft prospect.

There was little question about Whitfield's athleticism. The knock had always been inconsistency. He started five games at defensive end as a sophomore, and started two more last year at outside linebacker, never really distinguishing himself at either spot.

Now, he's starting full-time and, more important, he's finishing. Whitfield opened the season with 1.5 sacks against Florida International. Had another sack against Old Dominion. Three more against UConn. His 5.5 sacks are fourth-most in the country, and he's been the driving force of a top-10 defense that has gotten to the quarterback better than just about anyone anywhere.

Saturday's game at Tallahassee is a litmus test for all the Terps, but especially Whitfield. Scouts will be watching to see if he can get to quarterback Jameis Winston, and how he fares against the "Wild And Free" backfield of James Wilder Jr. (5.8 yards per carry this season) and Devonta Freeman (8.7). And they'll be watching to see how Whitfield (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) approaches the best tackles he'll face this year, starting with Erving (6-6, 320), himself a developing prospect in just his second year starting on the offensive line.

Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State vs. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU

This is the week's best matchup of draft prospects, a heavyweight showdown between two potential first-rounders that few fans will even notice. 

Jackson (6-4,330) vs Johnson (603, 294). A top-3 guard against a top-5 defensive tackle. The SEC's reigning Offensive Lineman of the Week after a five-pancake performance against Troy meets a D-Tackle who looked more like a tight end in his nimble, sure-handed interception of Aaron Murray last week.

Jackson is strong, technically solid and has a great base. Johnson is still a bit raw, with the kind of burst and power that make him a promising three technique prospect. 

You'll see both names in first-round mocks all the way to May. Saturday is your chance to see why.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri vs Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

Gaines has been surprisingly under-the-radar for a guy who makes plays as consistently as he has. In two seasons prior to 2013, he averaged 71.5 tackles, had three interceptions, forced three fumbles, recovered a couple more and defended 27 passes. He leads Missouri in total tackles (26), solo tackles (19) and interceptions (3) this year, has good speed, decent size (5-11, 195), makes plays in coverage and supports the run. Why isn't he a sure-fire third-round prospect?

Saturday is Gaines' chance to answer any questions that remain about his coverage skills when he takes on perhaps the most impressive wideout in the country. Matthews is a handful for anyone, the kind of receiver who looks uncoverable at times. He's 6-3, 206, catches everything, runs routes with discipline and has breakaway speed. 

Don't expect Gaines to shut down Matthews. Put him down for his typical eight-catch, 115-yard, one TD day. And yet that wouldn't be a bad day for Gaines, either. If he can win just a couple of duels againt Matthews, break up a few of the dozen passes he knows will be thrown at him, Gaines will have given scouts something to think about. 

At the very least, they should come away with the impression that Gaines could be a solid cornerback in a zone scheme, with the ability to make plays around the ball and the willingness to support the run.

Ulrick John, T, Georgia State vs. Alabama

There is practically no reason to watch the Georgia State-Alabama game. It's not going to tell us anything we don't know about either squad, except perhaps the boundaries of Nick Saban's mercy. Sure, Alabama fans will watch their Tide roll over anyone. But the rest of us have no reason to subject ourselves to another lopsided travesty -- it's the rare game where the point spread opened in Vegas a half-point higher than the over-under.

Still, if you were to peek in, take a look at Georgia State's left tackle. He'll be lined up primarily against Jeoffrey Pagan, though he may see some snaps against Ed Stinson. He's not going to launch an awareness campaign in this game, but John is 6-8, 290 pounds, and putting a good game on film against Alabama could make the difference between being a seventh-round draft pick or spending Sunday of draft weekend waiting by the phone as an undrafted free agent.

Clearly, John has NFL size, and a basketball background suggests he might have some agility. I guess we'll see on Saturday if there's anything to see.