Some can’t-miss NFL prospects simply miss. Every so often, a “who’s he?” becomes a who’s who.
Pro scouts aren’t always on the mark, but they are paid to use their keen judgment to project which college football players will succeed at the next level, and those opinions carry weight. There will be plenty of NFL scouts in attendance Saturday when UCLA plays host to USC at the Rose Bowl.
This week, at the request of The Times, three NFL scouts opened their notebooks and anonymously shared their thoughts on the professional futures of some of the top Bruins and Trojans. The scouts steered clear of talking at length about underclassmen, players they haven’t thoroughly evaluated yet, but did offer some thoughts on some, such as UCLA freshman Brett Hundley, a quarterback they couldn’t help but notice, and USC sophomore receiver Marqise Lee.
•QUARTERBACK: USC’s Matt Barkley is solid, and is widely expected to go in the first round, but it’s Hundley who has the scouts buzzing.
Scout 1 on Barkley: “He’s got a very good understanding of the game, and he’s a great leader. Physically, he’s very average. When he’s throwing it across the field on a deep out, the ball sort of hangs in the air. He doesn’t have that ability to just drive it. In the NFL, with the corners, they break so much quicker. They see it quicker, they close. A lot of those balls are going the other direction at the next level.”
Scout 2 on Barkley: “He’s got to be a decision-making, timing passer. That’s kind of his game. When he’s in rhythm, and he’s making good decisions, which a lot of times he’s good to very good, he can have success. If a play breaks down, or there’s pressure, he’s not going to be the kind of quarterback to improvise or make an athletic play.”
Scout 1 on Hundley: “He’s a big-time guy. I would expect two or three years down the road, he’s going to be a high pick. He’s got that potential, if he keeps developing. He’s been the difference in that offense this year. They’re moving the ball, drives aren’t stalling. The guy can do it with his feet, he can do it with his arm. He makes those NFL throws. He’s got the physical tools that Barkley doesn’t have.”
Scout 3 on Hundley: “The one thing I’ll say is he’s the first guy that’s actually stayed healthy there in a long time. I’ll give him a feather in his cap for that.”
•RECEIVER: USC has a couple of standouts in junior Robert Woods and sophomore Lee. UCLA has senior Jerry Johnson, who one of the scouts projected to go in a late round or free agency.
Scout 3 on Woods: “People had put him in a category where he doesn’t belong, as an elite-type guy. He’s a premier dirty-work, possession-type guy. He’s a guy that you go to on third down. He’s clutch, he’s tough, but he’s not the big-play, dynamic guy.”
Scout 1 on Lee: “He’d be probably the first receiver taken in the draft this year if he were eligible to come out. He’s a difference-maker on the field. He’s big, fast, a playmaker. He’d be a top NFL receiver, a No. 1 receiver for an NFL team. He’s that good.”
•TIGHT END: It’s hard to ignore UCLA’s Joseph Fauria, the 6-foot-7 senior who has nine touchdown catches — one more than all other Bruins receivers combined.
Scout 1 on Fauria: “He’s a very good red-zone receiver. He’s got nice hands and great size. He’s not a real physical blocker, and his top-end speed is below average. He might be a late-rounder. The problem is, if you can’t separate versus man [coverage], you’re really going to struggle in the NFL.”
Scout 2 on Fauria: “Probably not a guy that’s ever going to out-leverage you as a route runner or use true athletic ability to get open. But he’s very good at using his mass and his ability to high-point locate the ball. Red zone, short yardage, he’s really making his mark there.”
•RUNNING BACK: Both schools have undersized senior running backs who could find their way onto NFL rosters: UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin and USC’s Curtis McNeal.
Scout 1 on Franklin: “He’s got great vision, patient runner, good feet. He can accelerate quickly. He lacks size and great top-end speed, but he does so many things well as a runner, and he’s got really nice hands out of the backfield. I would expect him to be on an NFL roster as a third-down back, a receiving back, change of pace, shifty. I’d say he’s a mid-rounder.”
Scout 1 on McNeal: “He’s a short, muscular back. To me, he’s a free agent. He’s got good vision, lower-body strength. He runs hard. With the emergence of [junior] Silas Redd, he’s kind of been put on the back burner.”
•OFFENSIVE LINE: Both schools have blockers who could eventually wind up in the NFL. The one who most interests these scouts is USC center Khaled Holmes.
Scout 2 on Holmes: “He’s got good size and good mobility, especially for a center.”
Scout 3 on Holmes: “When he wasn’t in there is when you could really tell how valuable he was to that team.”
•DEFENSIVE LINE: Most intriguing of this group, the scouts said, is UCLA senior Datone Jones, although they pointed to USC defensive lineman Wes Horton as a potential late-round pick.
Scout 1 on Jones: “He’s very good at making things happen inside, getting pressure on the quarterback. He’s probably more of an average athlete who’s quicker than he is fast. He’s a little bit of a tweener. Is he more of a base end in the NFL, like a 4-3 left end, or do you play him as a 5-tech [a defensive end in a 3-4 who plays more in the inside, over a tackle]? The good thing is he’s got versatility.”
•LINEBACKER: Each of the scouts raved about UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, a converted fullback who has made a big impact on defense.
Scout 1 on Barr: “He’s one of the premier pass rushers in the country. He’s so athletic, and he has the length and that burst off the edge that NFL teams look for in an edge rusher. If he decides to come back to UCLA for one more year, and he should, he’s going to be one of the top picks in the draft. NFL teams just now are taking notes on him because he’s the guy who jumps out on the field for UCLA. He’s the one guy you look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s what an NFL player looks like.’ He’s got all the tools, but he needs time to develop.”
Scout 2 on Barr: “I still think he’s got a lot of developing to do, both physically and learning the position. Is there a good foundation of talent? Sure, there is. But he hasn’t really played there that long. I think he’s found a home, but he needs to continue to develop not only his strength but his position savvy.”
Scout 3 on Barr: “He’s going to be interesting to basically everyone in the league, because he’s got the athleticism to drop as a potential 3-4 outside ‘backer, he’s got the size to do that, and he could be a defensive end who can rush the passer. He’s going to be one of those guys that people start throwing tape on at the end, if he declares, and it’s going to be like, ‘Whoa! Hold on a second! This guy is awesome!’”
•SAFETY: These scouts like the potential of USC’s T.J. McDonald, and say he’s a more natural football player than former Trojans safety Taylor Mays, who had more size and speed than coveted instincts.
Scout 1 on McDonald: “He’s not a true safety, and he’s not a true linebacker. He’s kind of an in-between guy right now. I think you’ve got to play him at strong safety. Big hitter, strong. His coverage skills are average. He’s a very smart, heady, tough, physical player. He’ll go in the second or third round, probably.”
•PUNTER: Both schools have punters who could be booming footballs on Sundays next season: UCLA’s Jeff Locke and USC’s Kyle Negrete. These scouts like Negrete but prefer Locke.
Scout 1 on Locke: “You could look at him in a late round. He’s got a shot; he’s definitely talented enough. Plus, he’s left-footed. That means his ball spins in the opposite direction, which makes it a little trickier to catch.”