He was overshadowed last year by the likes of Lawrence Timmons (a first-round pick) and Buster Davis (third round). This season, Florida State junior Geno Hayes (6-1, 219) finds himself in a much different situation. Instead of flying under the radar in a supporting role, Hayes now is being asked to be one of the focal points of this year's defense.
Needless to say, he has proved to be up to the challenge and then some, leading the team with 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage through nine games.
What bodes well for Hayes' prospects in the NFL is that, in addition to attacking the line of scrimmage, he also operates very well in reverse. We saw proof of this against Boston College. Late in the fourth quarter with the Seminoles leading 20-17, Hayes used his speed and athleticism to bait QB Matt Ryan into a throw, then intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown to seal the victory.
• Nebraska is suffering through a nightmare of a season, but the Cornhuskers have a very interesting prospect on the offensive line who could garner serious interest in the second or third round. Senior left tackle Carl Nicks, who checks in close to 6-foot-5 and almost 350 pounds, is light on his feet for a huge bookend. And his best football is still ahead of him. Nicks began his career at New Mexico State before landing at Hartnell Junior College, where he threw the discus and put the shot in track and field. Nicks worked primarily in a backup role in 2006, although he started the final two games of the season at right tackle. This year, he's stationed at left tackle, and his performance has been good enough to put him in the early-round mix because his technique is steadily improving and he has done a better job of finishing blocks this season. Ultimately, the postseason all-star games and combine workouts will determine his final rating.
• I try to stay away from the obvious stars, but sometimes it's necessary to mention a prospect who makes you jump out of your chair when you watch him go about his business. I'm referring to exceptional Ohio State junior linebacker James Laurinaitis. At 6-foot-3, 243 pounds and tremendously explosive, he's exactly what NFL defensive coordinators are looking for in a true leader and difference-maker, someone who can set the tone from an intensity and consistency standpoint each and every game. That was the case against Wisconsin, when he racked up 19 tackles and got one of the Buckeyes' 10 sacks. And one of Laurinaitis' key stops was on special teams. With Ohio State leading 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin attempted a fake punt from its own 27-yard line. Punter Ken DeBauche was tackled by Laurinaitis 3 yards shy of the first down.
Shortly thereafter, junior QB Todd Boeckman connected with junior wide receiver Brian Robiskie on a 5-yard touchdown to put Ohio State up 31-17.
Ohio State junior WR Brian Hartline led the Buckeyes with seven catches for 95 yards, also demonstrating the alertness on a punt return to fall on the ball after it had grazed the foot of another Buckeye. I also took note of the Buckeyes' talented sophomore free safety, Anderson Russell. He finished the game with eight tackles (one behind the line of scrimmage) and one pass breakup. One critical stop by Russell occurred on a third-and-goal for Wisconsin, forcing the Badgers to settle for a field goal.
For Wisconsin, junior tight end Travis Beckum continues to wow me with his natural receiving skills. He finished with nine catches for 140 yards, including a spectacular diving catch in the end zone that tied the score at 10 in the third quarter. Along the defensive front, senior defensive tackle Nick Hayden really came to play, recording nine tackles and one sack, plus batting down a pass.
• Staying in the Big Ten, Iowa came from behind to defeat Northwestern, meaning it is positioned to close out the regular season 7-5 and go to a bowl game. (The 5-5 Hawkeyes have home games left against 1-9 Minnesota and 3-6 Western Michigan.) One of the unsung standouts on the Iowa defense has been senior cornerback Charles Godfrey. Tough and aggressive, Godfrey (6-0½, 207) has ideal size for the next level and shows the burst in coverage you look for.
Godfrey proved his tenacity last season in games against Ohio State (12 tackles), Michigan (nine tackles) and Texas (seven tackles). Through 10 games this season, he's the Hawkeyes' fifth-leading tackler with 56 stops, 39 of which are solos. He also has picked off five passes, including one in the fourth quarter against Northwestern. However, Godfrey also was flagged for two penalties and, uncharacteristically, missed a couple tackles. However, with his physical prowess, 4.35 speed and overall ability, Godfrey could end up being a second- or third-round possibility in April's draft. There is no question he should be able to turn some heads at the combine and individual workouts.
• You couldn't help but be impressed with the play of Michigan RB Mike Hart, who was playing at less than 100 percent. Returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him the previous two-and-a-half games, Hart (5-8, 200) managed to rush for 110 yards on 15 carries, as Michigan rallied for a 28-24 victory against Michigan State. His running exploits early on helped the Wolverines get out to a 14-3 lead. Then, in the fourth quarter with his team trailing by 10 points, Hart not only recovered a fumble by freshman QB Ryan Mallett in their own territory but also managed to pick up a first down on the play. The drive ended with Chad Henne connecting with sophomore WR Greg Mathews on a 14-yard touchdown pass. It was just one more illustration of why you want Hart on your roster as a complementary back at the next level.
• All the talk surrounding USC's offensive line usually is reserved for senior left tackle Sam Baker, but another senior, Drew Radovich, is starting to make a nice jump up the draft board. A fifth-year senior, Radovich (6-4, 303) started at guard last season, then shifted to right tackle this season. Radovich is tough, aggressive and smart, with the versatility to operate at guard or right tackle. His versatility figures to be a major plus in the evaluation process, and I view Radovich as a fourth-round possibility right now.
• Coming back from a knee injury suffered against Auburn two weeks earlier, LSU senior DT Glenn Dorsey looked as if he might be lost for the rest of the season after getting the same leg rolled up on in the first quarter of the Tigers' game at Alabama. Fortunately, after leaving the field, he was given the OK by the medical staff to return. Despite not being 100 percent, Dorsey managed to make his presence felt over the next three quarters. Keep in mind, no one would have faulted Dorsey if he had taken the rest of the afternoon off, but that's not the way tremendously competitive Dorsey is wired. His finished with seven tackles, including two for loss. What his stat sheet doesn't tell you is how much it meant to his teammates to see him back on the field after the first-quarter injury. Along with possessing terrific talent and skill, Dorsey also has a great passion for the game. When you factor all this together, it's easy to see why Dorsey is the No. 1 senior prospect in the 2008 NFL draft.
In LSU's win, the play that put the Tigers in position to take the lead late in the fourth quarter came not from a starter but from a very promising backup who should be a major contributor in the coming years, true freshman Chad Jones (6-3, 220). He came on a blitz that led to a sack of Crimson Tide QB John Parker Wilson and a forced fumble. The top-rated safety in the country coming out of Southern Lab High School in Baton Rouge, La., Jones will be a permanent fixture in the lineup as a sophomore. If he makes the necessary progress, this talented young man has a chance to become LSU's next great safety.
One of many fine efforts for Alabama came from senior defensive end Wallace Gilberry (6-3, 265). His play showed a great deal of promise when he was a freshman, then leveled in his sophomore and junior seasons (4½ sacks in two seasons). But with a new coaching staff, things finally have come together for Gilberry. He has developed into the type of difference-maker he was expected to be earlier his career. Against LSU, Gilberry saw action at end and at tackle, registering eight tackles and three sacks. For the season, he leads the team in sacks (7) and tackles for loss (15). As a byproduct of his improved play, Gilberry now is a prospect that NFL scouts have to take a closer look at as a rotation defensive lineman.
• For the fourth time in as many weeks, Pittsburgh freshman RB LeSean McCoy (5-11, 210) went for at least 140 yards, this time on 31 carries in a 20-17 win over Syracuse. Directly responsible for McCoy's success has been the senior offensive tackle tandem of Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn. Otah is 14th on my Top 25 Senior Big Board, and McGlynn has improved his rating as the season has gone along. At right tackle, McGlynn (6-4½, 317) is battle-tested, uses his hands well and loves to slug it out in the trenches.