Prospect Watch: Louisville's Mauldin looks to create havoc in backfield
Every college football season seems to feature at least one weekend when it is awfully difficult to find a marquee game. All due respect to USC-UCLA, Arizona-Utah and maybe Minnesota-Nebraska, it appears to be that weekend.
(Case in point: ESPN's College GameDay will be in Cambridge, Mass., for the Yale-Harvard game.)
The usual stars still will be in action, though the lighter slate does allow a few under-the-radar guys to step into the spotlight a bit. A few of those names are highlighted in this week's prospect watch.
1. Lorenzo Mauldin, DE, Louisville (at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m. ET): A recent addition to the Senior Bowl roster, Mauldin (6-foot-4, 254) has a combined 16.0 sacks and 24 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. The production has split over time spent as a 4-3 DE -- as Mauldin was for his first three seasons -- and more of a 3-4 OLB this year. Hybrid fronts have blurred the distinction between the two positions, but Mauldin projects more toward the latter at the next level.
Mauldin nearly helped Louisville to an upset of Florida State just a few weeks back, despite battling a hamstring injury. With the Cardinals clinging to a lead in the fourth quarter, Mauldin stunted inside from his edge position, fought his way through a block and dropped Jameis Winston for a sack.
Regardless of the positional designation he takes, that's what Mauldin will do: create havoc in the backfield, even if he has to pick through some traffic to get there.
2. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan (vs. Maryland, 3:30 p.m. ET): It's been a winding journey for Ryan (6-foot-3, 236). He was a two-year starter as an outside linebacker/DE, leading the Wolverines in tackles for loss and sacks back in 2012. Ryan then missed half of the 2013 season with a torn ACL and finally moved to a middle linebacker spot this year.
Through it all, this much has been clear: Ryan can make plays. The redshirt senior again is leading Michigan with 56 tackles and he stands second with 13.0 tackles for loss. The transition from OLB to MLB wasn't all that smooth to begin with, but Ryan has improved each week.
He might have a future there or as a downhill 3-4 ILB -- he really plays almost like an in-the-box safety at times -- or as a strong-side linebacker. His game is not really well-suited to be an NFL DE and his lapses in pass coverage would make it tough to fit him in as a weak-side 'backer.
3. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET): Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley (yes, even after his knee injury) are probably 1-2, in one order or the other, when it comes to the 2015 running backs. And then what?
Well, there is without question an argument to be made for Johnson. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound back is sitting on 1,653 total yards and 12 touchdowns this season, including a 167-yard, one-touchdown effort vs. Florida State last weekend. His burst through the line is tailor-made for the NFL, and scouts absolutely will take notice of 56 (and counting) career catches when projecting him out.
"He kind of reminds me of Walter Payton where he can stop and go sideways," Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville told SI. "One of those Barry Sanders-type of guys that can accelerate, hit a hole fast and change directions."
That might be setting the bar too high, but Johnson has obvious talent.
4. Jaquiski Tartt, S, Samford (at Auburn, 7 p.m. ET): A native of Mobile, Ala., Tartt will enjoy a homecoming for the Senior Bowl. Before that, Tartt (6-foot-1, 218) has at least one more game left in his college career -- at Jordan-Hare Stadium as Auburn's tune-up for its annual showdown with Alabama. The Bulldogs probably need to pull the huge upset if they want to sneak into the FCS playoffs.
Otherwise, Tartt will turn his attention after this one to the draft. Expect to hear his name quite a bit as that process picks up come January.
Tartt (6-1, 218) finished with 98 tackles last season and has another 58 in 2014. His eagerness to step up against the run makes Saturday's matchup with the potent Auburn ground game a perfect showcase opportunity for him.
5. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, DE, UCLA (vs. USC, 8 p.m. ET): Over/under for when I'll be able to spell this name without double-checking it is the NFL combine in February. Moving on ...
Odighizuwa missed 2013 due to multiple hip surgeries and is sitting on just three sacks this year. So will scouts see the forest for the trees? Even in a deep edge-rushing class, Odighizuwa has demonstrated enough flashes of talent to be a Day 2 or early Day 3 option. He's not afraid to use his hands in close quarters and he brings high energy to the Bruins' defense.