Conference titles and BCS invitations are on the line as college football closes out the regular season. Positioning for next April's draft is also in play as NFL prospects hope to impress future employers, including a number of small school players whose college careers have already ended. Here is the final installation of NFL Draft Risers and Sliders for the 2012 season.
Jonathan Franklin/RB/UCLA: Franklin capped off a career year with a dominant performance during the Bruins heartbreaking loss in the PAC 12 title game. The versatile ball carrier posted 194 yards rushing on 19 carries against a tough Stanford defense, averaging 10.1 yards per carry. His totals for the year include 1769 yards rushing with 13 rushing touchdowns as well as 32 receptions. Franklin entered the season with mid-round grades yet his play this season will likely push him into the third round. He lacks the great mesurables (5-feet, 10-inches, 205-pounds) teams desire in a feature runner yet his multi-dimensional game makes Franklin an attractive skill player.
Anthony Barr*/LB/UCLA: Barr, like his teammate, has played lights out this season. The former fullback transitioned to linebacker in 2012 and developed into one of the most feared defenders in the PAC 12. Barr finished the season with 20.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks as well as 74 tackles. He's an athletic linebacker with an NFL body and a large degree of upside to his game. Barr presently grades as a third round choice yet if the junior decides to return to Westwood for his senior season and completes his game, a first round grade in 2014 is a distinct possibility.
Jalen Saunders*/WR/Oklahoma: Saunders got a late start to the season as the Fresno State transfer sat out the initial four games of 2012 due to NCAA regulations. He looked ready for prime time once he stepped on the field in mid-October and shook off the rust. Saunders combined for 24 receptions, 393 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns during the season's final three games, leading the Sooners down the stretch. He's a terrific slot receiver prospect for the next level and offers potential as a return specialist. It would be a mild surprise if he exits for the 2013 NFL Draft but Saunders will be highly rated moving towards his senior campaign.
Quanterus Smith/DE-OLB/Western Kentucky: Scouts ranked Smith as a late round prospect entering the 2012 campaign yet the pass rushing specialist exceeded expectations as a senior. Smith finished the year with 18.5 tackles for loss as well as 12.5 sacks. He's a bit one-dimensional and best making plays up the field but teams are always looking for a disruptive pass rusher which could help push Smith into the middle rounds.
Ivory Wade/C/Baylor: Wade did not receive much attention entering the season yet his play this year has scouts talking. He was a two year starter at right tackle before moving to center this season and Wade has displayed a complete game on the pivot. He blocks with sound fundamentals and shows smarts in his entire game. Wade is effective on the line of scrimmage or blocking in motion. He'll be solid value in the late rounds for a zone blocking offense.
Robert Alford/CB-RS/Southeastern Louisiana: Scouts have come out of Hammond, Louisiana raving about Alford and a few stamped the FBS prospect as a top 45 pick. Alford offers NFL size and next level ball skills. The ability to shut down receivers forces opposing quarterback to throw away from Alford. He's also a game-changing punt returner that's a threat to take it the distance whenever the ball is in his hands. Alford will be closely monitored leading up to the draft and is a player people will quickly come to know.
Luke Marquardt/T/Azusa Pacific: The NAIA prospect struggled with a misdiagnosed foot injury this season yet is still highly considered in scouting circles. His college position coach, former All-Pro lineman Jackie Slater, has likened Marquardt to Nate Solder, starting left tackle for the New England Patriots. Ironically others have compared him to the Patriots starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Marquardt will play in a post season All Star game if healthy and is expected to receive an invitation to the combine. He could end up as a second day pick in next April's draft.
J.C. Tretter/OL/Cornell: Tretter has built a buzz around himself after his play this season and is another small school lineman moving up draft boards. He entered the season with a free agent grade, but Tretter presently grades as a mid-to-late round draft pick. He is also expected to receive an invitation to one of the major post season All Star games, where he'll face off against top competition in front of scouts. He manned the left tackle spot for Cornell but is better suited to play guard at the next level.
Eddie Lacy*/RB/Alabama: Lacey put on aclinic during the SEC title game against Georgia and turned in achampionship performance. His 181 rushingyards on 20 carries included a pair of scores and three runs of 20 yards or longer. Lacey is a powerful runner and rarely brought down by just one defender. He runs through tackles, picking up a lot of yardage off initial contact but also shows vision as well as ball carrying instincts. He's a terrific prospect for a power running offense or ground and pound attack and moves towards the BCS Title game against Notre Dame with a second round grade.
Travis Kelce/TE/Cincinnati: Kelce ended his season as the Bearcats top pass catcher and heads towards the draft with his stock on the rise. He's known as a reliable blocker but Kelce tripled almost all his receiving numbers as a senior. He's not a flashy prospect nor a top athlete yet a tight end reliable in all aspects of the position. Kelce projects as a late round pick and couldbe the third man on an NFL depth chart for years to come.
Marcus Cromartie/CB/Wisconsin: Cromartie received little love from scouts entering the season despite the fact he possesses NFL measurables and playedwell in 2011. His play as a senior was impressive with 51 tackles and 10 pass break ups as the Badgers entered intothe Big Ten title game. During the contest Cromartie registered his first interception of the season, a pass he returned 29-yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Cromartie offers the physical skills to play in the NFL and has shown a developing game. He'll be a steal in thelate rounds.
D.J. Harper/RB/BoiseState: Harper pulled together a terrific season in 2012 after a number of injury riddled campaigns, showing NFL scouts both versatility and durability. He posted career numbers in all the ball carrying departments as well as receiving yards. Harper has the style and substance to be a third down back at the next level and good workouts prior to the draft should secure him a place in the late rounds.
Tim Wright/WR/Rutgers: Wright entered the season ranked as a potential late round choice yet has struggled to meet expectations. His production this season has been pedestrian and Wright's untimely drops during Rutgers loss to Louisville resulted in missed scoring opportunities. The senior is unlikely to hear his name called as the seventh round closes out in April.
Cameron Meredith/DE/Nebraska: Meredith was also ranked as a potential late round choice when the season began but showed little improvement as a senior. He's a 261-pound defensive end who shows limitations as a pass rusher which is a combination that does not interest NFL teams.
* Denotes Underclassman
• With the regular season complete the attention in scouting circles now focuses on the pending decisions of NFL prospects fromthe ranks of the underclassmen. TyrannMathieu, the much maligned cornerback from LSU who sat on the sidelines this season, has already declared for the draft. So to has Sheldon Richardson, the Missouridefensive lineman who scouts listed as a senior prior to the season. Sources expect Akeem Spence, the talented defensive tackle from Illinois who struggled through a poor season, to announce he will enter the draft in thecoming weeks.
• Often times there will be surprise decisions from underclassmen deciding to forego the NFL for another season on the college field. Andrew Luck did as much two years ago and word is a number of Cardinal prospects will follow suit and stay in Palo Alto for 2013. Sources say both of Stanford's talented junior tight ends, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, are leaning towards staying in school. The word is linebacker Shayne Skov also hopes to return to Stanford next season if he's granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA. Skov entered the year with a top 75 grade despite missing all but three games in 2011 with a serious knee injury. He took a while to round into form this season and though effective on the field, insiders said Skov looked like he was playing with a "dead leg" at times this year, referencing the quickness he lost due to the knee injury.
• Besides being an entertaining game likely to go down as oneof the best SEC title contests of all time, the match-up between Alabama and Georgia was a scouts dream. The titanic battles on the line of scrimmage were as good as advertised and all the top prospects showed well at various points. I dislike determining a players draft grade based on a single performance but it's tough to deny that Crimson Tide center Barrett Jones may have played himself into the first round off this game. He threw several key blocks which sprung running back Eddie Lacey free for long runs and Jones got the better of Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins, a first round pick who outsized him by some 60-pounds.