Commentary

Gholston having a monster season

Ohio State junior defensive end Vernon Gholston had three sacks against Michigan.

Originally Published: November 19, 2007
By Mel Kiper Jr. | ESPN.com

•In Georgia's come-from-behind 24-13 victory over Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, one of the key performers was Bulldogs senior SS Kelin Johnson. In addition to his four stops, the active and alert Johnson recorded a sack, intercepted a pass and also came through with a critical blocked punt.

Last week I noted in this column that the Bulldogs had a potential budding star in true freshman OLB Rennie Curran. Well, against Kentucky, Curran was all over the field once again, ending up atop the Bulldogs tackle chart with 13 stops, 12 of which were solos.

•Vanderbilt, which hasn't been to a bowl game in 25 years, dating all the way back to 1982, came oh so close to recording its sixth win on Saturday, coming up a missed FG short of pulling out the upset victory against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.

The Commodores have another chance to get to the six-win plateau this coming Saturday when they play host to the 7-4 Demon Deacons of Wake Forest.

All year for the Commodores as well as against Tennessee on Saturday, their outstanding senior left tackle Chris Williams (6-5, 315) has been getting the job done at a very high level.

Williams has excelled in all facets of OT play, not allowing a sack the entire campaign. Nationally, he continues to fly under the radar, but rest assured you will be hearing a great deal about the skills of this young man at the postseason all-star games and also during the combine workout.

•Illinois enjoyed a tremendous turnaround year under Ron Zook, dramatically improving from a 2-10 record in 2006 to 9-3 this season, highlighted by the monumental upset victory on the road in Columbus against then No. 1-ranked Ohio State.

A host of players contributed to the Illini's success, including sophomore QB Juice Williams, junior RB Rashard Mendenhall, true freshman WR Arrelious Benn, senior MLB J Leman and sophomore CB Vontae Davis just to name a few.

One other noteworthy performer not very many observers are talking about is fourth-year junior left tackle Xavier Fulton.

The smart, athletically gifted 6-5, 296-pounder operated as a reserve defensive lineman until this past spring when he made the switch to an OT spot. Fulton not only got the job done in pass protection, but he also moved defenders off the line of scrimmage, assisting a ground game that saw Mendenhall emerge as one of the elite backs in all of college football.

[+] EnlargeVernon Gholston
AP Photo/Amy SancettaVernon Gholston had a monster game against Michigan.
•Ohio State junior DE Vernon Gholston was nothing short of sensational in the Buckeyes' 14-3 win over the Wolverines. Michigan was simply unable to keep him out of the backfield for any extended period of time (he finished with four tackles for loss -- three of which were sacks).

Although most of his damage was done away from LT Jake Long, the senior found out firsthand just how difficult it can be to try to keep No. 50 away from the quarterback, as he was beaten to the outside and surrendered a sack. Gholston brought both outside and inside pressure, displaying very impressive power and closing speed.

Of the top prospects at the position for the 2009 draft, he has clearly proved to be the best of the bunch when it comes to generating heat on the quarterback. Case in point: The trio of Florida's Derrick Harvey (6.5 sacks), Miami (Fla.)'s Calais Campbell (six sacks) and LSU's Tyson Jackson (2.5 sacks) has combined for 15 sacks. Gholston has 13!

•In Arizona's 34-24 win over then No. 2-ranked Oregon on Thursday, there were a number of fine individual performances turned in by the Wildcats.

The headliner on defense was senior CB Antoine Cason (6-0, 187). He had one of his better efforts of the year, scoring two touchdowns (one returning an interception; the other returning a punt) while displaying very good timing when it came to reading the quarterback and breaking on the football. When at the top of his game, Cason certainly possesses the skills necessary to be a solid pro. But lack of top consistency is why his grade has fluctuated so much over the past two seasons.

On the offensive side of the football, the young man who continues to impress is true freshman TE Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 250). Not only is he very easy to find, he's also a good natural pass catcher, very adept at stretching the deep middle and very tough to corral once the catch has been made.

He gives the Wildcats a Jason Witten-type dimension at the position. Versus the Ducks, he had five catches for 73 yards, which included a key third down conversion in the fourth quarter with the team up 31-24. During Arizona's current three-game winning streak, he has 14 grabs for a very impressive 18.0-yard average. Concerning the latter: For the season, he leads the team with a 19.1-yard clip.

•Returning from a two-game suspension, it didn't take Mississippi DE Greg Hardy (6-5, 225) long to regain the form that had him atop the SEC in sacks entering Saturday's game against LSU. He managed to get to QB Matt Flynn twice on the day, raising his season totals to 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.

The sophomore is an explosive athlete who has a chance to become a premier pass-rusher at the next level. In order for this to come to fruition, though, he needs to get stronger and become more of a dominant performer from the beginning to the end of a game.

•I was able to catch a good amount of the Southern Mississippi versus UTEP game, which was won by the Golden Eagles in convincing fashion 56-30. The game featured one of the better sophomore linebackers in the country in Southern Mississippi's Gerald McRath (6-3, 215). He was operating at less than 100 percent because of an ankle injury. In terms of being around the action and possessing very good speed to the football, he reminds me a lot of former Golden Eagles standout and current Atlanta Falcon, Michael Boley.

The player who I was focusing on for the Miners was their senior RT Oniel Cousins (6-5, 300). The young man displayed very good athleticism for the position and was able to neutralize the charge of the Southern Mississippi pass-rushers on a consistent basis, while also showing that he could get out and block in space. You would expect the former to be the case, considering he started at left tackle as a junior. At the very least, he could end up being a nice swing tackle in the NFL. Right now, Cousins is a fast-rising NFL prospect who has the look of a potential early-round draft choice.

•Another offensive tackle who deserves mention is Toledo senior John Greco (6-4, 322). A four-year starter for the Rockets, after beginning his career at right tackle, he's been a fixture on the left side the past three seasons. He can be quite a load as a run-blocker.

The two things I like about Greco's run blocking are the way he finishes blocks and the aggressive attitude he brings to the football field. He displays good technique in pass protection, but it's very much of a wait-and-see proposition as to how he'll hold up in that area versus the best the NFL has to offer.

In this past year's draft, the Mid-American Conference had an offensive tackle by the name of Doug Free (Northern Illinois) selected in the fourth round. I would expect to hear Greco's name called in that same vicinity.

•Overshadowed in the Big 12 by holdovers Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma), Adarius Bowman (Oklahoma State) and Limas Sweed (Texas) coming into the 2007 campaign and by a pair of terrific freshmen in Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin during the season, Kansas wideout Marcus Henry (6-3, 207) has quietly had a very productive year for the No. 2 team in the country.

The senior came into the season with a career total of 50 catches. After 11 games, he has already matched that number. The favorite target of sophomore signal-caller Todd Reesing, Henry is the man the Jayhawks turn to when they're looking for a big play through the air. Along with being tops on the team in receptions, he also has a 19.5-yard average and a team-leading eight touchdown catches.

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Mel Kiper Jr.

Football analyst