Scout's Notebook: Defensive Review

Dale ThortonCorrespondent IOctober 13, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 13:  Mike Neal #92 of the Purdue Boilermakers tries to tackle Mike Hart #20 of the Michigan Wolverines on October 13, 2007 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo By Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Observations and analysis from the sixth week of the college football season, including thoughts about some of the nation’s top defensive prospects.

This Boilermaker Packs a Punch Inside

Purdue defensive tackle Mike Neal might be pound for pound the strongest defensive lineman in the nation. At 6-4, 302 pounds, Neal showcases a good initial first step off the snap, but it’s his lower body strength that allows him to overwhelm opposing linemen on contact and drive his way into the backfield. He exhibits an impressive punch and possesses the anchor strength to routinely hold the point of attack vs. the run game.

The biggest knock on Neal at this stage is his inability to consistently shed blocks and use his hands to disengage on contact. He always seems to be in position to make plays on the football but too often fails to stack and shed. However, the skill set is certainly there for him to develop into a starting-caliber defensive tackle or even 3-4 end at the next level, and he looks like a guy who, with some good coaching, could really come into his own during his second or third season in the NFL.

Unsung Gator

Florida DE Jermaine Cunningham often gets overlooked because of teammate and fellow end Carlos Dunlap.

Florida’s defensive front four consistently was able to overwhelm the LSU offensive line Saturday night, thanks in large part to the play of defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. Fellow DE Carlos Dunlap typically grabs all the attention, although Cunningham is proving to be an effective pass rusher in his own right. He was consistently matched up with LSU LT Ciron Black and proved to be too much for him to handle off the edge. 

Cunningham not only displays an explosive initial first step that consistently allows him to threaten the corner, he also does a great job dropping his pad level and using his violent hands to keep blockers from getting into his frame. He’s also very sudden, and his short-area quickness allows him to cleanly change directions and side-step blocks in space. He isn’t the type of physically gifted defensive end that Dunlap is, but I could definitely see Cunningham finding a role as a nickel rusher early in his career and eventually maturing into an every-down player.

Where to play this Tiger?

I’m having a tough time trying to figure out what position Auburn DE Antonio Coleman is going to play at the next level. The 6-1, 258-pound lineman hasn’t impressed me at all with his burst or explosion off the edge and he simply doesn’t possess the type of quick-twitch ability to threaten the corner at the next level.

He’s a coordinated athlete who does display some short-area quickness and body control when engaged, but he lacks the ability to consistently accelerate away from opposing offensive linemen once he gains a step. I don’t think he’s fluid enough to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and am starting to think that because of his thick body type and natural power that he might be ideally suited to play a 3-4 ILB or 4-3 ILB in a defensive scheme that requires the Mike to attack downhill and fill holes at the line of scrimmage, much like the one the Eagles play.

Either way, this isn’t a ringing endorsement for Coleman, who has struggled to be a consistent factor rushing the passer this season.

He's Alive

I took a bit of a shot at Michigan’s lacking pass rush in my Saturday Primer, but the Wolverines’ defense came alive against Iowa, in particular DE Brandon Graham.

Graham, who came into the contest with only one sack on the season, finished the game with two sacks, 3½ tackles for loss and nine total tackles and showed why he’s one of the nation’s best. Graham’s ability to play with consistent leverage and power on contact is what really jumped out at me. He consistently was able to generate quite a push vs. Iowa’s starting offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and he used his short-area quickness to shed blocks and accelerate into the backfield.

What I love most about Graham is that he possesses the power and length to anchor at the point of attack and beat blocks in the run game. He isn’t a guy who is ever going to be a star at the next level, but he looks like a very capable three-down NFL lineman.

Some Small-School Love

Indiana (Pa.) cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah is proving to scouts that he not only has the ability to take over games on the defensive side of the ball but on special teams as well. Owusu-Ansah returned both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns last weekend against Edinboro, giving him eight career touchdowns.

He’s a gifted athlete at 6-1, 205, runs in the low 4.4 range and possesses that rare ability to take over games when needed. He has the skill set to project to either CB or FS at the next level and could end up being the first small-school player taken in the draft.

Two Corners on the Rise

David Pender, Purdue (6-1, 175):

Pender is a tall, lean corner who showcases good bend in his drop and does a nice job using his length to disrupt receivers in the pass game. He needs to continue to add more bulk and strength to his upper body, but he looks like a guy who could be effective when asked to press at the next level.

Walter McFadden, Auburn (5-10, 176):

When watching McFadden last weekend, it was obvious that he not only has the ability to track the ball vertically, he also showcases excellent awareness and ball skills in coverage. He looked very comfortable when asked to play from behind, and made two big plays down the field in man coverage vs. Arkansas.

He struggles to get back up to speed initially out of his transition, and I can’t say that I would trust him on an island in man coverage at the next level. However, his combination of range, ball skills and awareness has be thinking he would be an ideal Cover 2 guy at the next level.

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