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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NFL Scouting Combine Preview - Ohio State Pounds Illinois - Bubble Watch



NFL Scouting Combine

The next phase of scouting for the 2011 NFL Draft begins in earnest this week as franchises send scouting departments, coaching staffs and medical personnel to Indianapolis to inspect the 325 prospects on hand for the combine.
It will be a full week of medical exams, psychological testing and workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium by players hoping to impress future employers. Before the event starts with players arriving Thursday, here are a half-dozen intriguing storylines to keep an eye on:
Who will grade out as the top athletes?
Top athletic workouts at the combine do not automatically improve a player's draft positioning, yet it does help. This is especially true when a lower-rated prospect turns heads with fast times or better than expected results. Three players expected to excel:

• Patrick Peterson/CB/LSU: Peterson could solidify himself as the draft's No. 2 pick at the combine. All signs point to the LSU junior being one of the fastest, if not the fastest, player in Indy. In recent workouts Peterson has been in the 4.3 range in the 40.

• Markus White/DE-OLB/Florida State: Scouts graded the Florida State pass rusher as a free agent before the year, and the senior received a last-minute invite to the combine. He tipped the scales at 265 pounds recently, posting 40 times in the low 4.6s and completing in excess of 25 reps on the bench.

• Virgil Green/TE/Nevada: One of the better pass-catching tight ends at the combine, Green could register the position's best workout since Vernon Davis in 2006. Green has recently run as fast as 4.5 at 252 pounds and touched close to 40 inches in the vertical jump.

Can Jake Locker rebound from his Senior Bowl performance?
Locker's poor showing at the Senior Bowl was well documented and many of his supporters admitted his inaccurate passing was evident all week in Mobile, Ala. Scouts still hope the strong-armed athlete can pull it together before the draft, especially since he spent the past month working exclusively with former Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien, an All-Pro known for his precise accuracy. Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel worked under O'Brien and rave about his teaching skills. Locker may yet do the same. For now, O'Brien has characterized Locker's recent workouts as "lights out."

How fast is Prince Amukamara?
The past two combines have seen highly rated cornerbacks slip down draft boards after slower-than-expected 40 times. In 2009, Malcolm Jenkins ran in the mid 4.5s; Joe Haden was even slower last year. Haden rebounded at his Pro Day, but Jenkins never recovered.

Amukamara is the most polished and NFL-ready cornerback in April's draft. He's also looked upon as a high-character prospect who exudes class off the field. Still, questions linger about his ability to run down the field with game-breaking receivers. Scouts will closely monitor this in Indianapolis.

Will the junior quarterbacks throw on Sunday?
At this point, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Auburn's Cam Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, all juniors, rank as the top quarterbacks in the draft. Unlike their upperclassmen counterparts, the trio did not have an opportunity to perform in front of scouts at the Senior Bowl. All three played in spread offenses, allowing them to take most of their snaps from the shotgun formation. None were required to make NFL passes on a consistent basis, something that is critical. Often, top quarterbacks roll the dice and bypass the combine in favor of the friendly confines of an individual workout. It worked for Sam Bradford last year, but backfired for Jimmy Clausen.
As of Tuesday, Mallett is expected to throw for NFL decision-makers this weekend. No definitive decision has come from the Gabbert camp -- headed by super agent Tom Condon, who'll likely advise his client not to throw. Bradford and Matt Ryan, a pair of recent Condon quarterbacks, opted for private throwing workouts.
Cam Newton announced on Monday that he'll complete a full workout. Believe it when you see it.

Which injured players will work out?
The top prospects at defensive end, offensive tackle and tight end are all coming off surgery, and their amount of work at the combine remains in question. Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph is recovering well from the hamstring surgery that cut short his 2010 campaign. Rudolph is not expected to take part in the combine workout, but will likely get at least one full performance in for scouts before the draft.

USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith had knee surgery to repair a meniscus after the season. He expects to partake in some of the workout stations, yet is unlikely to run, preferring to complete the 40 and shuttles during the Trojans Pro Day at the end of March. Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers is coming off minor knee surgery and will be a game-time decision for the combine's running workouts.

How will the Division II receivers fare?
Seven wideouts from Division II schools received combine invitations -- a huge number and an indication of the poor depth at the receiver position. The list includes: Cecil Shorts III of Mount Union, Stephen Burton of West Texas A&M, O.J. Murdock from Fort Hays State, Edmond Gates of Abilene Christian, Joseph Morgan of Walsh, Ricardo Lockette from Fort Valley State and Hillsdale's Andre Holmes.

Many of the names are foreign to scouts as only Shorts and Murdock played in the Shrine Game, while Gates sat on the sidelines with an injury during the Senior Bowl. The last small-school receiver to make a big impression on scouts at the combine was Johnny Knox of Abilene Christian (5th round in 2009 draft). Keep a close eye on Morgan, one of the real downfield threats at the position.










Buckeyes Bounce Back and Pound Illinois

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For a half, David Lighty was almost invisible.
Then he it was as if he was invincible, refusing to let Ohio State (No. 3 ESPN/USA Today, No. 2 AP) falter again.
Lighty scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half and William Buford had all 17 of his in the first to lead the Buckeyes to a big bounce-back win after two recent losses, beating Illinois 89-70 on Tuesday night.
"I've said since the beginning: I love him," Illini coach Bruce Weber said of Lighty, only the third-leading scorer for the Buckeyes. "I think he's the MVP. He probably won't get it because people aren't smart enough. But he's their heart and soul."
During one remarkable 3-minute span, Lighty scored all 13 of Ohio State's points (to just two for the Illini) and had three steals.
"They should put a statue in front of the Schottenstein Center of David Lighty, just what he's meant to this program, not only on the court," coach Thad Matta said, referring to Ohio State's home arena. "His performance there in the second half was high level. I looked out there [and] it was like he was everywhere."
The Illini scored 11 of the first 13 points of the second half to pull within 49-43 before Lighty took over.
He scored Ohio State's next 13 points to build the lead back to 62-45.
Just that quick, the Illini responded with an 8-0 run to narrow the gap to 62-53.
Lighty then fed substitute forward Deshaun Thomas, caught in a recent shooting slump, for a 3-pointer. Seconds later, Lighty missed a jumper and Thomas fought off a defender for the rebound and converted it into a three-point play for a 68-53 lead.
Between them, Lighty and Thomas accounted for all 19 Ohio State points over a span of 7½ minutes.
The lead never dipped below double figures again.
"I've been through the ups and downs of college basketball," said Lighty, a fifth-year senior who was just 2 for 9 from the field in Sunday's loss at Purdue. "People go through slumps. I just needed to work my way out of it. To keep shooting. My teammates have confidence in me and they get mad at me when I don't shoot the ball when I'm open. They trust in me and I trust in them."
Jon Diebler had 13 points, Aaron Craft 12 and Jared Sullinger 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Buckeyes (26-2, 13-2 Big Ten), who had lost two of three after winning their first 25 games.
Ohio State shot 53 percent from the field to end Illinois' string of 37 consecutive games holding an opponent under 50 percent. The last team to reach 50 percent was also Ohio State, which shot 53.1 against the Illini on Feb. 14, 2010.
The Buckeyes had just three turnovers -- they forced 16 turnovers, including getting nine steals.
"We knew we had to take care of the ball. That was pretty much the key to the last game," Buford said of the game at Purdue, where the Buckeyes had 18 turnovers.
Mike Davis scored 18 points, Mike Tisdale 14 and Jereme Richmond 11 for Illinois (17-11, 7-8), in dire need of more wins to make the NCAA tournament field. Demetri McCamey, the 12th-leading scorer in the Big Ten at 14.5 points a game, did not start for the Illini but finished with 15 points and six assists.
Asked what his team was missing this season, Weber said, "Lighty. If you have a Lighty, a heart and soul who comes every day and does what you need. We just don't have that toughness, that leadership -- that difference-maker."
The Buckeyes had lost at Wisconsin on Feb. 12, beat Michigan State at home last week and then dropped the game to the Boilermakers. With four games left and a one-game lead in the Big Ten, they knew they couldn't afford another slip.
"Yes, we've lost two. And as Coach told us, it's not the end of the world," Diebler said. "The one thing we've realized is we still have a one-game lead in the Big Ten. That's our first goal right now. We're trying to win a championship right now, that's how we approached this game."
Ohio State had only a token practice on Monday. The players were aware of what was at stake.
"Obviously, as a team we don't like to lose," Sullinger said. "Basically we wanted to just bounce back and start another win streak."


• Ohio State used a 14-2 run to end the first half and never looked back as the Buckeyes won their fifth straight -- and 10th of last 12 -- against Illinois.

• Five players scored in double figures for the Buckeyes, including a game-high 21 points from David Lighty and 12 points from Jared Sullinger.

• Sullinger is just three points shy of passing Greg Oden for the third-most points scored by a freshmen in Ohio State history.

• Illinois has lost eight of its last 12 games.





Bubble Teams
BIG 10
Locks: Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, Michigan, Penn State
Illinois (17-11 | 7-8) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 20 | - Illinois continues to tread water. With a trip to Purdue still on the calendar, it’ll be critical for the Illini to win remaining home games against Iowa and Indiana. Finishing 9-9 in the Big 10 might be enough without a bad loss in the Big 10 tournament, but the Illini won’t be comfortable on Selection Sunday. Adding a win over Purdue would make it a lot easier down the stretch. Good wins include N. Carolina, at Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. The losses at Indiana and UIC are sore points.
Michigan State (15-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 40 | SOS: 5 | The Spartans have won 3 of 4 and seem to be regaining a bit of momentum. Beating Illinois Saturday avoided a season-sweep by the Illini. MSU is still trying to capture its identity after the dismissal of Korie Lucious. Michigan State is 5-8 vs. Top 50 teams, but just 11-11 vs. the Top 200 – a stat lines that often suggests NIT. Can MSU get to 10 league wins? That might be what it takes to feel safe.
Michigan (16-11 | 7-8) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 24 | While there’s not a lot to love about the Wolverine’s profile (2-8 vs. Top 50 teams), they have won 6 of 8 to be on the fringe of consideration. Other than a win at Michigan State, the Wolverines best in-league hope is a sweep of Penn State. Up next is Wisconsin at home. Hold serve and the Wolverines stay. A loss probably eliminates them. After that, it’s a trip to Minnesota followed by Michigan State at home.
Minnesota (17-10 | 6-9) | RPI: 39 | SOS: 30 | The Gophers’ have lost 6 of 7 since the injury to Al Nolan and this isn’t the same team that posted early wins over UNC and West Virginia. The Selection Committee has to evaluate the current squad, and the results aren’t favorable. Thus, they are among the First Five Out this week. If there’s good news, it’s that two of the Gophers’ final three games are at home. These battles will decide who stays in the at-large picture and who doesn’t.
Penn State (14-12 | 7-8) | RPI: 60 | SOS: 6 | Penn State has a lot of work ahead to stay alive, but we’ll leave the Nittany Lions here for now. A strong SOS is helping, along with home wins over Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota. The flip side is that PSU was swept by Michigan and is just 1-8 in road games (the lone win at Indiana). Two of Penn State’s final three are away from home, so things don’t look promising. Up next a trip to Northwestern.

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