Husker Draft Preview; Who to Watch for in April
The NFL scouting combine is set to run from February 20 to 26 in Indianapolis, and among the 333 players invited are three former Huskers hoping to improve upon their last visit to the great state of Indiana.
A good showing at the NFL combine can dramatically improve a player's draft status. In his junior year at Nebraska, cornerback Fabian Washington recorded 41 tackles and three interceptions. That 2004 campaign was a solid year for Washington, who was Second Team All-Big 12, but it was his efforts at the combine that resulted in the Oakland Raiders selecting him with the 23rd pick of the first round.
The following is a list of former Huskers, three who made the combine list and five who didn’t, that Nebraska fans should watch out for on draft day in April.
Rex Burkhead, Running Back
Rex Burkhead was everyone’s favorite everything for the very best part of four years at Nebraska, and for good reason.
Burkhead averaged 5.2 yards per carry for his career. During his junior year, his first as the regular starter, Burkhead carried the ball 284 times for 1,357 yards. Despite missing six games his senior year because of a knee injury, he still managed a very solid 675 yards and five touchdowns.
Burkhead has the durability to be a mainstay NFL running back. He averaged 22 carries a game his junior season, setting the Nebraska record with 37 in the last regular-season game against Iowa. After returning from his injury, his last college game was perhaps his best when, against a Georgia defense full of names we’ll be hearing in April, he rushed for 140 yards on 24 carries.
Damion Stafford, Safety
Nebraska is as trusted of a name brand as there is in college football when it comes to producing NFL talent at defensive back. Thirteen Husker defensive backs have been selected in the last 12 NFL drafts, and each of the last two has seen one start as a rookie for a playoff team (Prince Amukamara with the New York Giants and Alfonso Dennard with the New England Patriots).
Safety Damion Stafford is the best of this year’s crop of Husker defensive backs that allowed just 168 passing yards per game. Stafford finished his senior season second on the team in tackles with 96 in addition to recording a team-high four interceptions and forcing two fumbles.
Stafford was a notoriously hard hitter in his time at Nebraska which might give him the edge he needs to make it at the next level, especially as a special teamer which is where many young defensive backs wait for their opportunity in the starting lineup.
Brett Maher, Kicker
Thanks to a 57-yard field goal for all the marbles against possibly Nebraska’s most hated rival, Nebraska fans will never truly forget about Alex Henry. Brett Maher did his best to get them to.
Maher struggled a bit at the beginning of his senior season, making just seven of his first 12 field goal attempts. After a miss in the Huskers’ fifth game against Wisconsin, Maher would make his next 16 attempts in a row, not missing again until the Capital One Bowl. In total, the former walk-on from Kearney, Neb., finished his career 39-of-50 on field goal attempts and missed just one extra point.
Like his predecessor, Maher was also the Husker’s starting punter, giving him the versatility he is going to need at the next level.
Will Compton, Linebacker
Will Compton has been a mainstay in the Huskers’ second level since he was a redshirt freshman in 2009. The 6'2", 230-pound middle linebacker from Bonne Terre, Mo., recorded 82 tackles his junior season and led the team as a senior with 110 while contributing three sacks. His sexiest highlight in four years at Nebraska was a perfectly read screen pass that he intercepted and returned for a touchdown in the Capital One Bowl against Georgia.
A tenacious run-stopper, Compton has the size to be an enforcer at the next level, though his speed may present him with a challenge in coverage. With the right scheme and good coaching, Compton could be a formidable inside linebacker in the National Football League.
Ben Cotton, Tight End
Speculatively, Ben Cotton was the fortuitous result of head coach Bo Pelini hiring Barney Cotton to be the offensive line coach. Had Cotton not left Iowa State, the Huskers might have missed out on what turned out to be a very special player.
Known throughout his career as a blocking tight end, the 6'6", 255-pound Cotton became much more of a factor in the passing game late in his career at Nebraska. Cotton hauled in 18 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns in 2012 including a 56-yard reception against Georgia and the game-winning touchdown against Northwestern.
While he doesn’t have the ball skills of an NFL-caliber pass-receiving tight end, Cotton certainly has the frame of one. Like Compton, Cotton’s success in the NFL will depend largely on the scheme he is part of and the coaching he receives.
Kyler Reed, Tight End
Kyler Reed was the yin to Ben Cotton’s yang with regards to the skill set of an NFL-caliber tight end.
In his breakout sophomore season in 2010, Reed scored a touchdown eight of the 22 times he caught the ball including a 79-yard touchdown against Kansas State.
With the progression of Taylor Martinez in the passing game, Reed became much more than just a big-play threat in 2012. During his senior season, Reed caught a career-high 24 passes for 357 yards and two scores including the go-ahead touchdown in Nebraska’s come-from-behind win against Wisconsin.
Like Cotton, the 6'3", 230-pound Reed has the size to be an NFL tight end with tremendous speed to go with it. He needs to work as a blocker if he wants to be an every-down tight end, but that can be coached.
Eric Martin, Defensive End
Eric Martin was one of the best athletes on the field for the Huskers in 2012. The perennial special teams demon and part-time member of the Blackshirts’ front seven found a home at defensive end his senior season.
Martin finished fifth on the team in tackles with 59 and decisively led the team in sacks with 8.5. He registered multiple sacks against both Idaho State and Ohio State and was nothing short of an offensive nightmare in the regular season finale against Iowa.
At 6’2”, 250 pounds, Martin has very little trade-off between size and speed. He is the type of player that Alabama has 11 of on defense.
While he may not get drafted, Martin should have no trouble finding a place on special teams while he waits his turn to start.
P.J. Smith, Safety
P.J. Smith played safety opposite Damion Stafford in 2012, and, statistically, had an almost identical season. Smith finished third on the team in tackles as a senior with 86 and chipped in three interceptions.
While his numbers might not have been quite as good as Stafford’s, Bo Pelini was continually impressed by toughness and ability to overcome adversity.
Smith had his best game of the season in Nebraska’s 28-24 win in East Lansing over Michigan State. Seven of Smith’s 12 tackles were solo and several of those, including two on one key second-half defensive stop, came against the Spartans’ 237-pound running back Le’Veon Bell.
Smith is still somewhat unproven after just one year as the regular starter, but at 6'2", 210 pounds certainly has the frame to be an NFL safety.
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