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NFL draft prospect watch

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As the NFL draft approaches, here's a stock watch from the college all-star circuit.

SENIOR BOWL

Quick injury updates from Mobile, Ala., site of Saturday's Senior Bowl:

Miami linebacker Tavares Gooden was unable to compete this week due to a hip flexor. He was replaced on the South roster by Georgia Tech linebacker Gary Guyton.

North Carolina defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer suffered a minor hamstring injury that forced him to miss Tuesday's practice. He will sit out the rest of the week and be replaced on the North roster by Iowa defensive lineman Bryan Mattison.

Iowa State defensive tackle Athyba Rubin was a late addition to the South roster.

Florida State defensive tackle Andre Fluellen is playing with a tight quad, but he plans to play through the rest of the week.

UNLV linebacker Beau Bell (knee) and LSU wide receiver Early Doucet (left hamstring) both could head back to their training centers to recover from injuries they suffered in practice.

Notre Dame tight end John Carlson (stomach virus), Auburn defensive end/outside linebacker Quentin Groves (shoulder) and Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm (leg) all skipped the game because of injuries.

EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME:

NFL teams spent last week in Houston observing more 100 top prospects as the postseason evaluation process continued. With six weeks left before the all-important NFL Combine and precious few invites still remaining for seniors, the practice sessions were more aggressive than in past years.

Both squads featured a number of players who, according to scouts, helped their draft status, including a few small-school prospects. Here are the observations from the Shrine Game.

East Roster:

Coastal Carolina wide receiver Jerome Simpson is a smooth route runner who caught the ball every time it came his way and also showed an extra burst while the ball was in the air. I liked how he made plays each day but never seemed impressed with his play or that he was making them against top division defenders.

Auburn cornerback Jonathan Wilhite had been overshadowed by teammate Patrick Lee, but he broke out of that shadow by displaying the best cover skills of anyone in attendance. He was aggressive, played the ball and broke up several passes. Scouts walked away saying they would go back and watch more film on him, plus many commented that he appeared to be faster than his previous 40 times.

Georgia running back Thomas Brown might have been the most exciting offensive player in the game, as he displayed excellent ball skills as both a runner and receiver. Has very good vision, does not hesitate to hit the hole and is stronger than his size would indicate. He is not small, just shorter than ideal, but his acceleration in the open field should help bolster his grade.

Arkansas defensive back Michael Grant is a versatile defender who played cornerback at the Shrine game and clearly helped raise his value. He was very fluid in showing the hips to stick with any receiver on the field and expects to run sub-4.4 times in the 40, as well. Likes to hit and should be able to get on the field as a rookie; some scouts mentioned that he could go as high as the second or third round.

Virginia Tech offensive tackle Duane Brown showed the footwork and body type to remain at left tackle in the NFL. He struggled at times to lock out and could increase his strength at the point of attack by adding 10-15 pounds, but once you get past the top-tier tackles, Brown could become an attractive prospect come the third round.

West Roster:

Iowa State defensive tackle Athyba Rubin was rated among my top five defensive tackles last month, and the massive space-eater did nothing to dispute earlier findings as he won most of his one-on-one battles and bull-rushed his way into creating havoc on the interior linemen he faced.

Arizona linebacker Spencer Larsen entered the season as a mid- to late-round choice, but after an MVP performance at the Shrine game he now is expected to go between the second and third round. Great intangibles, he was the instant leader of the West defensive unit.

Iowa State linebacker Alvin Bowen showed very good range and got to the ball quickly all week. He capped his fine performance with an interception returned for a touchdown in the game. Can over-pursue at times, but takes the right angle to the ball and flies in to make tackles, which earned him high praise from the coaching staff.

Utah State wide receiver Kevin Robinson stole the show from Appalachian State wide receiver Dexter Jackson, who earlier in the week was exciting scouts with his speed and open field burst. But in the game, Robinson he returned a punt for a touchdown and added a second score on a pass from Josh Johnson. His return skills could provide him the chance to be selected late.

San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson has proved to be the best of the group of QBs, but his value is rising more as an athletic, down-the-road project than a finished product. He throws the ball well on the move and was accurate with his vertical passes, but he has a slim frame and was not great throwing from the pocket or reading the field. He had two impressive runs in the game, which helped him earn Offensive MVP honors.

On the flip side, players who struggled to make their mark on scouts mainly were held back by injuries, including Missouri wide receiver Willie Franklin (hamstring), Rutgers offensive lineman Pedro Sosa (knee), Maryland offensive lineman Andrew Crummey (left ankle) and Army safety Caleb Campbell (hamstring).

Meanwhile, TCU defensive end Tommy Blake (slight concussion), Oklahoma tight end Joe Jon Finley (hamstring), Oklahoma running back Allen Patrick (mild knee sprain), USC linebacker Thomas Williams (sternum) and TCU safety David Roach (hamstring) all suffered in-game injuries, although none are expected to miss extend time from their pre-combine training schedules.

Kansas fullback Brandon McAnderson was back fulltime at fullback after playing halfback this season. He is not a great lead blocker, but scouts feel he lacks the speed to be an every-down back.

Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller struggled with his accuracy and downfield passing, both of which stemmed from a throwing style that needs some adjusting for him to make it at the next level. He seemed to be pushing the ball more like a shot put rather than having smooth follow-through. Overall, the quarterback play had many commenting how the top-tier of this year's QB class is strong, but afterward a number of prospects are vying to be considered in the mid to late rounds.

AMERICAN HERITAGE BOWL:

A first-year game that has rosters filled with historically black college senior prospects has gone mostly unnoticed since they are contending with the Senior Bowl practice sessions.

However, a few names who have come out of the early practices are Winston Salem State defensive end William Hayes, Arkansas Pine-Bluff wide receiver Jason Jones, Jackson State defensive tackle Corey Clark and Southern U. wide receiver Gerard Landry.

Hayes is 6-foot-3, 270 pounds and has earned a closer look for scouts thanks to his ability to get up-field. He has been the top pass rusher in the CIAA the past two years.

Jones is a tall, lanky receiver with good hands, but to date scouts are not sure of his top-end speed.

Clark is a Mississippi State transfer who could be a nice free-agent find after the draft since he has that wide-body frame to be a situational run stuffer at the next level.

Landry could be a versatile pass-catcher who some have viewed as a possible H-Back or even fullback based on his body type. He reminds some of Delanie Walker of the San Francisco 49ers.

HULA BOWL:

Connecticut cornerback/return man Tyvon Branch could be the highest player drafted out of the game as he is dual threat prospect, earning high grades for his ball skills, speed and potential as a kickoff returner. He is a fluid-looking defender who can run with most receivers and has good upper-body strength, as well. On returns, he is a natural, showing ideal vision and then an extra burst of speed once he finds the seam.

Akron wide receiver Jabari Arthur was the MAC's most productive receiver this past season and continued his drive toward the NFL by scoring a touchdown in the game. He has great natural size but is more athletic than blazing fast on the field. He moves well after the catch and can be a steady pass-catcher in the middle of the field. His Pro Day 40-times will determine his short-term future, as the Montreal native was a first-rounder in last year's CFL Draft.

USC linebacker Thomas Williams is a versatile, athletic defender who was able to get out of the shadows of the Trojans' prospect factory and create a name for himself during the practices. He runs well in the open field, locates the ball quickly and showed the ability to line up at all three spots. Williams expects to run in the high 4.5s, which could vault him into the last few rounds of the draft.

San Diego State offensive tackle William Robinson is somewhat of an unknown to most outside of West Coast scouts as he has come along slowly over the past two years. Now he has risen into a potential late-round draft choice. He is nearly 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, which is about 15 pounds heavier than his previous weight listed on the school's Web site. A raw-skilled left tackle with good feet, he plays with balance but needs to get stronger.

Toledo running back Jalen Parmele was the game's leading rusher (46 yards). He ran with good power and vision, but his true test will come when he runs the 40-yard dash at the Combine. Players such as Parmele are now left to fight for mid- to late-round positioning after so many top junior running backs declared for the draft.

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