LSU sophomore cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was making a case for Southeastern Conference player of the year until he was suspended for the Oct. 22 game against Auburn.
Mathieu has compiled 42 tackles, five tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and two touchdowns for the top-ranked Tigers. He has been nicknamed the "Honey Badger" because he takes whatever he wants, and one NFL scouting director believes Mathieu will excel in the pros despite being generously listed at 5-foot-9.
"He's an undersized guy, but he's a football player," the scout said. "He's a little bit like and probably a little better version of what Javier Arenas was like for Alabama a couple of years ago. He can do things in the return game. He's always picking up balls and scoring."
The scout does not consider Matheiu among his top five pro prospects in Saturday night's game between LSU and No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It's a difficult cut to make, considering Crimson Tide safety Mark Barron and linebacker teammates Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw were left out as well.
LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson and Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who was lost for the season in the Oct. 22 game against Tennessee, are true freshmen who could be on this list next year but not now. That said, here is one scout's ranking of the top five pro prospects Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium:
1. TRENT RICHARDSON
Alabama's 5-11, 224-pound junior tailback is averaging 123.6 yards per game and was dominant in early season tests against Penn State, Arkansas and Florida. Richardson played most of his first two seasons as Mark Ingram's backup, but the scout projects Richardson to get snagged quicker in the draft than Ingram, who went 28th overall in April to the New Orleans Saints.
"No question," the scout said. "He's a more dynamic back. He's faster. He's probably even stronger. Ingram is a good back -- don't get me wrong -- but Trent has more of a dynamic, play-making ability.
"He can make long runs. He is excellent in pass protection. He's a better back than Ingram and will get drafted higher than Ingram."
2. DRE KIRKPATRICK
Kirkpatrick doesn't have eye-popping numbers for the Crimson Tide, amassing 19 tackles, eight pass deflections and two forced fumbles, but the junior cornerback has other numbers -- specifically height and arm length -- that can't be disputed.
"Dre Kirkpatrick is a first-round draft choice," the scout said. "He's long. He's fast. He's got great instincts. He's got ball skills. He will come up and tackle.
"When you've got a guy with length, like Kirkpatrick, who's almost a 6-foot-3 corner who can run and has long arms, you've really got something."
3. MORRIS CLAIBORNE
Claiborne, a 6-foot, 177-pound junior, has better numbers than Kirkpatrick, having compiled 30 tackles, seven pass deflections and three interceptions. One of his interceptions was followed by an 89-yard return against Tennessee.
"He's also got the height, weight and speed and is a very athletic player," the scout said. "Claiborne is a good athlete and has good size, but I would say Kirkpatrick is more talented. Now, Kirkpatrick doesn't play as hard as Claiborne does, so there is a little bit of that factor going around."
4. BARKEVIOUS MINGO
Mingo is a 6-5, 237-pound redshirt sophomore, so he is eligible for the 2012 draft along with the four juniors also on this list. He has 19 tackles this season, seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
"He's a sophomore, so he's only a pup," the scout said, "but pass-rushers are a premium, and you look at him and say, 'This is a talented guy.' What you're going to see next year out of Mingo is an absolute force in the SEC.
"You look at him and think of the kid at Missouri last year, Aldon Smith, and he was the No. 7 pick in the draft."
5. RUEBEN RANDLE
Randle has been a steadying figure on the LSU offense no matter who is at quarterback. The 6-4, 207-pound junior has 33 catches for 638 yards and seven touchdowns, and he is averaging 19.3 yards per reception.
"Just watching him play this year, he looks like he has taken his game to the next level," the scout said. "He's really got good size, and his speed looks like it's there. Coming out of high school as a quarterback, it took him a little bit of time, but now he is really rounding into shape as a receiver and could get into that first round."