Saturday Spotlight: Five Prospects To Watch Week 5
By David Seigerman
It's hard to know how to answer when someone asks, "What do you think about Chris Smith?"
That depends. Are they talking about Chris Smith, the point guard trying to make the Knicks roster, or Chris Smith, the pitcher who went 8-4 for the Class AA Wichita Wingnuts this summer? Chris Smith the keyboardist for the latest incarnation of Jefferson Starship or Chris Smith the congressman from New Jersey? Chris Smith the actor? The voice actor? The soap actor? The secret identity of the comic book super hero? We even have a Chris Smith of our own here at Football.com.
Then there's Chris Smith, the senior defensive end at Arkansas. The prospect with the forgettable name but a game that warrants a closer look.
Smith is one of two players in the SEC who are back on the field this season after registering at least nine sacks in 2012 (the other guy is that defensive end from South Carolina with the one-of-a-kind name). And it's not Jadeveon Clowney who is currently leading the nation with 5.5 sacks or leading the SEC with 6.5 tackles-for-loss. That would be Smith, who will have the chance to make a name for himself once and for all on Saturday when he gets a shot at Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews -- perhaps the top tackle prospect in the nation.
Smith won't line up against Matthews the entire game. He typically starts at left defensive end, which means he'll draw Cedric Ogbuehi first, but Smith gets his share of snaps at right end, too. And those are the snaps NFL scouts will be watching.
For all of his pressure and production, it's tough for scouts to know what to make of Smith's potential.
Two weeks ago, Smith had three sacks against Southern Miss. Those are headliner numbers, and -- let's be clear -- there's nothing negative that can be said about a three-sack day. But upon further review, those sacks might say less about Smith than about the guy he had blocking him -- a first-year starter at right tackle, whose only collegiate playing experience prior to this season came two years ago at Scottsdale Community College ("Go Fighting Artichokes." Seriously).
On his first sack of the day, Smith took advantage of the two-yard cushion he was given at the line. He was three strides into his rush before his blocker laid a finger on him, and Smith is too good an athlete to allow to get that kind of head start. He blew past the overmatched ex-Choke for sack No. 1. Then he used a smooth spin move against him for No. 2. And No. 3 was more of the same -- an unimpeded pure speed rush.
Again, three sacks is three sacks. But they may have revealed Smith to be more of an opportunist than sack artist.
Look at his sack against Louisiana-Lafayette in Week 1. The left tackle left Smith alone. He was briefly stood up by the back, then continued on to the quarterback, who pulled down the ball rather than throw it away, which he'd had time to do.
And his first sack last year against LSU. It's pretty clear he came across the line early, just enough ahead of the snap to gain an advantage on the tackle and a clear path to Zach Mettenberger. Again, not an indictment of his production, but when you start to find mitigating factors behind the numbers, you have reason to wonder whether his skills translate to being an effective pass rusher at the next level.
Smith is athletic, but he doesn't appear to have the kind of first step that would gain separation from NFL tackles. He has a variety of pass rush moves, but he often plays like a defensive tackle in a defensive end's body. He may turn out to be a better Sam backer, where he can be a physical presence in the run game and have the runway he needs to bring pressure as a pass rusher.
It'll be interesting to see how he approaches Matthews and whether he can be productive against the kind of tackle he'll be facing on Sundays.
Deandre Coleman, DT, Cal vs. Oregon
The season-ending injury to Florida's Dominique Easley means nothing to Coleman's draft stock. No team who sees Easley as a fit for its defensive line will be looking at Coleman, and vice versa. Easley (6-2, 280) is the irresistible force type of defensive tackle; Coleman (6-5, 315) is more the immovable object type of nose tackle. So, timing doesn't make this an important matchup for Coleman; the opponent does. Cal has been dreadful against the run this year, allowing 262 yards per game, good for 121st in the 123-team FBS. Now here comes Oregon and its 355 rushing yards per game (2nd in the nation), and this projects as a long day for the Bears.
Still, Coleman can show scouts how he matches up against such speed as he'll see from the Ducks. The more NFL offenses speed things up and spread defenses out, the more NFL defenses are going to need guys who can handle that style of play. Will there always be a place for the kind of mammoth, run-stuffing, double team-demanding nose tackle that Coleman projects to be? Yes. He needs to occupy two blockers and keep them from getting to the linebackers, who need to run free to chase down the De"Anthony Thomases of the world.
If Coleman can be a factor against this caliber of offense, if he can pressure Marcus Mariota one of the few times he's actually in the pocket, scouts will take notice.
Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
I mean no disrespect to James White. But I want to see Ryan Shazier take him down in the open field.
Same with Melvin Gordon. I want to see Shazier knife his way through traffic, wrap up Gordon and take him down, exploding through the tackle.
I want to see this not because I harbor any ill will toward the Badgers backs. Nor do I have any vested interest in the outcome of Saturday's B1G battle between Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Rather, I want to see Shazier demonstrate the kind of tackling technique he will need to succeed as a Will backer in the NFL. Because I've not seen it consistently enough.
There is no question about his athleticism and the smooth, instictive way he flows around the football field. But there is a legitimate question about whether he can play linebacker at his size (they call him 6-2, 230 on the Buckeyes depth chart, but that seems kind). On the 17 NFL teams who play primarily a 4-3 defense (which would fit Shazier best), only two starting weakside linebackers share comparable measurables: Lavonte David of the Bucs (6-1, 233) and Geno Hayes of the Jaguars (6-1, 226).
Right now, Shazier's no match for an NFL offensive lineman, and his college career has been a highlight reel of big hits that might be mere speed bumps for ballcarriers at the next level. Shazier seems to prefer colliding into backs than wrapping them up. And he strikes them high -- not in a dangerous, "targeting" manner but high in their torso rather than down around the legs, where he stands a better chance at bringing down backs who are his size or bigger.
On Saturday, he'll have ample opportunity to wrap up running backs. The Badgers backfield features the nation's leading rusher this season (Gordon) and its leading active rusher in terms of career yards (White). And they average 350 yards on the ground every game. So Shazier -- already Ohio State's leading tackler -- should have a field day.
Simply put, Shazier needs to show himself to be a pro-caliber tackler. Otherwise, one of college football's best outside linebackers may be spending his rookie season learning to play strong safety.
Craig Loston, S, LSU vs. Georgia
In today's NFL, the delineation of duties between the strong and free safeties is increasingly blurred. Teams needs safeties who can play the deep middle (or deep half) of the field, who can cover tight ends or backs, who can step into the box and support the run, and who can blitz. The more versatile the safety, the more he stays on the field. Especially when teams break out their Big Nickel packages (a third safety rather than a third cornerback).
Loston will have the chance Saturday to prove his versatility against one of the most balanced offenses he's likely to see this year. He gets to defend Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, perhaps the best pure dropback quarterback prospect in the nation. He gets to step up to stop one of the country's most talented running back tandems in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. He'll get to take on tight end Arthur Lynch.
Scouts aren't likely to see Loston rush the passer too often; he has yet to register a sack in his 39 college games, and has only four TFL in his career. Instead, he makes his plays in the middle of the field, where he's becoming known as a hard-hitter and reliable tackler.
It's not like the NFL isn't already aware of Loston. Baton Rouge has become the league's most proven pipeline of premier secondary talent. LSU DBs have gone in the first round of the last three drafts (Patrick Peterson, 2011; Morris Claiborne, 2012; Eric Reid, 2013). Loston is next in line, and Saturday is a chance to cement his draft status.
Damien Williams, RB, Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame
You would think that Williams needs a big game to show scouts that he's still the big-play back he showed in 2012, when he was the only back in the FBS with four touchdown runs of 65 yards or longer. But he has someone else he needs to prove himself to first -- Bob Stoops.
Through three games, the Sooners are averaging 271 rushing yards per game, 15th-best in the country. And they're doing it pretty much without Williams, who had two sub-100-yard showings and missed the Week 3 win over Tulsa while being suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules. There are three Sooners averaging at least 5.8 yards per carry this season; Williams isn't one of them. There are four guys with runs at least 20 yards; again, not Williams.
Brennan Clay has started all three games this season. He's a senior with 1,000 rushing yards in his career. So is Roy Finch. And Williams, who is in jeopardy of becoming an afterthought in his own backfield. If he's shut down by Louis Nix III and Notre Dame's front seven (as most backs are), he's likely to start falling off everyone's radar entirely.