Commentary

Tight ends worth watching; Leman leads way for Illinois

The Big 12 is loaded with talented tight ends, including Oklahoma sophomore Jermaine Gresham, who might be the best of the bunch.

Originally Published: November 12, 2007
By Mel Kiper Jr. | ESPN.com

All season, I have been raving about the great tight ends in college football. Names such as Fred Davis (USC), Martellus Bennett (Texas A&M), Travis Beckum (Wisconsin), Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman (Missouri), John Carlson (Notre Dame), Jermichael Finley (Texas), Dustin Keller (Purdue), Brandon Pettigrew (Oklahoma State), Kellen Davis (Michigan State), Darius Hill (Ball State), Cornelius Ingram (Florida) and Gary Barnidge (Louisville), just to name a few.

However, one of the brightest young tight end stars has been 19-year-old Oklahoma sophomore Jermaine Gresham. After catching eight passes as a true freshman last season, Gresham (6-5, 265) has 30 receptions for a 13.5-yard average and 10 touchdowns this season. Other than one dropped pass against Iowa State, he has been consistent and reliable catching the ball, while also making steady progress as a blocker. Uniquely talented for the position, Gresham appears to have 40-yard dash speed in the 4.55-4.60 range, and he provides a pass-catching option that's ideal for the way tight ends are being used in the NFL.

Jermaine Gresham
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTen of Jermaine Gresham's 30 receptions this season have gone for touchdowns.

• In the past three weeks, Texas A&M has faced the top three teams in the Big 12: Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. The Aggies lost all three games, but Bennett has proved why he's the top tight end in the junior class. Against Missouri, Bennett (6-6, 253) finished with four catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns. In the past three games, he has a combined 16 receptions (averaging 13.6 yards per catch) and three scores.

• Thanks to the efforts of defensive tackles Chris Norwell and Dave Lindquist, Illinois middle linebacker J Leman was freed up to make stops and took full advantage of the opportunities that came his way against Ohio State. Leman (6-2, 241) finished with a team-best 12 tackles in the Fighting Illini's 28-21 upset over the then No. 1 Buckeyes. For the season, he has 114 tackles and 9 tackles for loss. Leman isn't the type who is going to wow scouts in individual testing sessions, but you can't help but be impressed by both Leman's great nose for the ball.

• After a breakout 2006 season that saw Paul Hubbard finish second on Wisconsin with 38 receptions -- quite an accomplishment considering he had only one career catch up to that point -- big things were expected of the senior wide receiver entering this season. However, he has missed significant time with a knee injury and came into Saturday's Michigan game with only six catches. But he made his impact felt early and often in the Badgers' 37-21 win, with seven receptions for 134 yards. The Big Ten indoor and outdoor champion in the long jump as a freshman, Hubbard (6-4, 217) displayed good hands and made some nice adjustments. His long-range potential figures to interest more than a few teams on draft day.

J Leman
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireEight of J Leman's team-high 12 tackles against Ohio State were solo.
• One of the many fine efforts turned in by the Badgers on defense came from junior CB Jack Ikegwuonu (6-0, 196). Matched up with Michigan's topflight junior WR Mario Manningham most of the day, Ikegwuonu managed to do more than just hold his own. Manningham did have a 97-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, but that was thanks to the safety's not breaking down properly and making the play over the top. Ikegwuonu showed good cover skills and made some nice plays on the football, finishing with four pass breakups and an interception.

• Although Indiana's Tracy Porter will not be the first senior cornerback to hear his name called on draft day, it would not shock me if, three years from now, he turns out to be the best player at his position from the 2007 class. He certainly possesses the top recovery speed and ball skills (two interceptions against Northwestern; six for the year) to reach such heights.

• Another supremely talented underclassman is Maryland third-year sophomore WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. Big and fast, Heyward-Bey (6-2, 207) runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.38 range and has a 40-inch vertical jump. He was a key performer in Maryland's win over Boston College, which put the Terrapins back in the mix for a bowl game. Heyward-Bey caught five passes for 75 yards, getting the best of BC's highly regarded senior CB DeJuan Tribble on several of those catches. For the season, he has 37 receptions for a 15.1-yard average and one TD. With a little more consistency, Heyward-Bey could rank right up there with the elite players at his position in the near future.

• In a 45-20 win against Auburn, Georgia redshirt freshman RB Knowshon Moreno (5-11, 207) eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fourth straight week. Moreno joined Herschel Walker as the only freshmen to rush for 1,000 yards at Georgia, and he is well on his way to becoming the Bulldogs' next great running back. A true freshman who is coming into his own on defense for Georgia is weakside linebacker Rennie Curran. Although small in stature, Curran (5-11, 220) packs quite a wallop when making a tackle and has the speed to chase down players sideline to sideline and to disrupt things in the backfield.

• Entering 2007, the headliner on Auburn's defense was senior DE Quentin Groves. Still regarded highly by NFL scouts, Groves (6-2½, 254) has been upstaged this season by sophomore Antonio Coleman (6-3, 243). Coleman has performed so well this season that the coaching staff decided to switch Groves to linebacker to be able to keep both players on the field at the same time. Coleman put together another impressive performance in a losing effort against Georgia, registering eight tackles, four of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He plays much stronger than his listed weight and has a knack for making big plays -- he leads Auburn in tackles for loss (17) and sacks (7).

• Mississippi State's huge home win over Alabama gives the Bulldogs six wins, making them bowl eligible; but the game turned with 21 seconds remaining in the first half. On third-and-goal at the Mississippi State two-yard line, Alabama QB John Parker Wilson's pass was intercepted by Bulldogs sophomore CB Anthony Johnson and returned 100 yards for a TD. Instead of the Tide increasing their lead, the Bulldogs went into the locker room up 10-9. On that particular play, Mississippi State's DE Titus Brown caused the turnover with the pressure he put on Wilson from the outside. Brown finished the game with one sack and three QB hurries, and for the season, he has 12 stops behind the line of scrimmage, eight sacks, 14 QB hurries and two forced fumbles.

• Even though Arkansas was beaten soundly at Tennessee, the Razorbacks have players in the trenches on both sides of the ball (OG Robert Felton, DT Marcus Harrison) who should be very intriguing prospects at the next level. Felton (6-4, 312) is able to get the job done at center, guard and even right tackle, plus, he has banged heads with some outstanding defensive linemen over the years in the talent-rich SEC. He's a possible fourth-round pick in April. Harrison (6-2½, 310) is an explosive player who locates the ball well and shows plenty of hustle. Against Tennessee, he finished with three tackles and one stop behind the line of scrimmage, also batting down two passes. Harrison could hear his name called in the second or third round.

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Mel Kiper Jr.

Football analyst

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