Saturday Spotlight: Tennessee at S. Carolina

It's crunch time in college football. Only four or five weeks remain in the regular season and conference championships and bowl bids are up for grabs across the country. Seahawks.NET's Scott Eklund takes a look at an SEC battle between Tennessee and South Carolina in our weekly NFL prospect watch.

It only took one year for South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier to take the Gamecocks from pushover against Tennessee to a team the Vols have to worry about. Last year on Tennessee's home field, the Gamecocks won 16-15 and Spurrier again has set himself up as a thorn in the side of Phil Fulmer, a coach who he has a 7-2 record against form his days as the coach of the Florida Gators.

Tennessee has one loss on the season, a heart-breaker to the Gators, but they've played well in their other wins and are ranked 8th in the polls this deep in to the season. Fulmer's roster is loaded with speed and talent and NFL scouts will be on-hand this week to see what they have to offer.

Spurrier is building up the talent on South Carolina's squad, but he still has some big-time players on his team. The Gamecocks are playing good defense, only allowing 14 points per game, but they struggle at times on offense, lacking the players along the offensive line that could help ease the pressure on converted WR Syvelle Newton who is playing quarterback this season.

It should be a good one. The Gamecock faithful pack William-Brice stadium even when their team isn't very good. This year's team is. It'll be fun when the teams take the field at 7:45 p.m. (EST).

Tennessee

QB Erik Ainge – He's only a junior, but Ainge has really come-on during his first full season of starting. He's shown tremendous poise in the pocket, he's tough and he's got a good arm. He still picking up Tennessee's offense – offensive coordinator David Cutlcliffe returned to his old position after being gone for a few years – but he's really taken to the new offensive coaching staff. So far on the season, Ainge has completed 67.3% of his passes for 1,959 yards 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He's the top passer in the conference and he's raised some eyebrows across the country with his play. Expect him to return for his senior season, but there are some who think he could declare himself eligible for the draft if he gets some positive feedback from the NFL scouts.

WR Robert Meachem – He's got blazing speed (4.35) and good size and he's one of the best receivers in the country this year as a true junior. He's also got great size (6-3, 210) and he's put up huge numbers against top competition – 40 receptions for 762 yards and six touchdowns. He's a player that can take a five-yard hitch pass and make defenders miss or break a tackle or two on his way to the endzone. He needs to work a bit on his maturity and he struggles reading defenses at times, getting by on his incredible athleticism rather than his technique. The beauty of that is, once he learns better technique and studies film a little better, the sky is the limit. Right now he's already a first-round talent and I would be surprised if he came back for his senior season.

OG Arron Sears – He isn't the most athletic guy you've ever seen, but Sears is an absolute beast in the running game. He drives his man off the ball well and he can also pull and get to a man in space when asked. His problems come when he's one-on-one in pass-blocking situations. His feet are as good as they could be with better technique, but he's got the size (6-4, 315), the strength (reported 480-pound bench press) and the versatility (he's played every position but center) teams look for when they are looking for a solid interior offensive lineman. Projected as a Second or third round selection right now.

DT Justin Harrell – Harrell has been injured (torn triceps muscle in the second game), but he gutted out the injury to play an inspired game against Florida the next week before undergoing surgery. When healthy, Harrell is an absolute terror along the defensive line. He clogs the middle well against the run and he gets excellent penetration when he can attack the gaps in the offense. Harrell could return for a fifth season, but it's likely he's headed to the NFL in 2007 and he will make some team very happy.

Other Tennessee players to watch:

FB Cory Anderson (6-2, 270)
WR Jayson Swain (6-1, 210)
WR Bret Smith (6-3, 195)
C David Ligon (6-5, 290)
CB Jonathan Wade (6-0, 185)
SS Antwan Stewart (6-0, 190)
PK James Wilhoit (5-10, 190)


South Carolina

WR Sidney Rice – He's a lanky (6-4, 190) playmaker that draws double and triple coverage as teams roll coverages to his side. Rice has a knack for making plays and is excellent with the ball in the air. Even though he's only a junior, conventional wisdom is that he's headed to the NFL following the season. In seven games Rice has put up excellent numbers (33 receptions for 508 yards and six touchdowns) considering the conditions he's dealing with – focal point of defensive schemes and poor quarterback play. Definitely a first-round selection with the chance to move up into the top half of the round with good workouts.

CB Fred Bennett – Bennett is widely considered the best corner in the SEC and he proves it daily with his play. He shuts down one side of the field with his physical play and instincts. Bennett is big for a cornerback (6-2, 195) and he has great speed as well (4.45). He leads the Gamebocks with seven pass-breakups and two interceptions. He fills hard against the run and is likely a better zone corner than straight up man-to-man. When he turns to run, he isn't very smooth and that is deadly in the NFL. If he gets drafted by a cover-two team, he could be a Pro Bowler. If he's asked to be in man too much, he will be very average. First day talent, who could move up into the end of the first round with a good showing at the combine.

LB Jasper Brinkley – The hope from the South Carolina faithful has to be that Brinkley will return for his senior season. They haven't had a playmaker like him at linebacker in years and he's one of the best in the country. Through seven games he's posted 51 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and four pass-breakups. He's huge (6-2, 258) and he's a very good tackler. He flows well to the ball and is also pretty good in coverage for a man his size. At times he can get lost in traffic and he won't be a player who teams want matched up against a back out in space, but he's a hard-nosed football player who is still developing his skills in the middle. The guess is he returns for the 2007 campaign, hoping to be a sure first-round selection. He has the talent, he just needs to develop it a bit more.

Other South Carolina players to watch:

QB/WR Syvelle Newton (6-0, 215)
TE Andy Boyd (6-5, 260)
C Chris White (6-3, 315)





Other games to watch: Georgia at Florida (9); Oklahoma (19) at Missouri (23); Miami at Georgia Tech (21); Texas (5) at Texas Tech; Washington State at UCLA; USC (3) at Oregon State.

Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at sctthawk@yahoo.com.


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