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Draft Watch, Week 4: Early-season pass rush studs


Pass rushers are always at a premium, and one has announced his presence with authority, in the parlance of Nuke LaLoosh, the last two weeks: Mississippi State's Preston Smith.

The Bulldogs' 34-29 upset of LSU in Baton Rouge arched plenty of eyebrows, and Smith had a part, notching his third sack in the last two weeks. Working over the center, the 277-pound Smith used a quick hand move to get past him for a nine-yard sack on third down that piled more woe upon LSU, which already trailed 10-0.

Smith has three sacks, two interceptions and five tackles for losses this year, showing his range and versatility. He has a lengthy wingspan, as you'd expect from a 6-foot-6 inch defensive lineman. He is versatile enough to be used all over the line depending on the down and distance.

His two interceptions show his ball skills; he's athletic enough to drop into coverage. One of his thefts was a one-handed grab that he turned into a touchdown. When he works in the pass rush, he has an increased array of hand moves, but he also reads the development of plays well. Even if he doesn't win his one-on-one matchup, he can be disruptive in obstructing the quarterback's downfield view. He's also blocked two field-goal attempts in the last four games.

His performance against LSU was not enough to earn him this week's SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award. It was time to give it to someone else, anyway. Smith earned the honor in the first three weeks of the season, marking the first time anyone had taken it three weeks in succession.

In previous years, Smith was inconsistent. He had the measurables and athleticism, but his motor wasn't always high. That has changed this year, and with more performances like this month's, his stock should rise.

Washington has the nation's top two sackers so far this season: defensive tackle Danny Shelton (seven) and edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha (six), both of whom are potential Day 2 picks who might sneak into Day 1 next spring.

Their performance Saturday will bear scrutiny, as Stanford and quarterback Kevin Hogan provide the toughest test the Huskies have faced. Washington has enjoyed a marshmallow slate, but struggled to wins over Hawai'i and Eastern Washington, and trailed Georgia State at halftime last Saturday.

Shelton, a 6-foot-1, 327-pound defensive tackle, will be coveted; potential NFL nose tackles with his pass-rush ability -- and potential against the run; he has 9.5 tackles for losses this season -- are rare. There is little chance he can maintain his sack pace; four of his seven came in one game, against Eastern Washington, and he recorded just 2.5 sacks in the previous two years. But continued effectiveness at generating pressure, even if it does not result in sacks, will cement his prospects.

There are no such consistency questions with Kikaha, since he had 13 sacks last year, when he worked from a 4-3 defensive end spot. As an outside linebacker in the Huskies' base 3-4, he's capitalized on the increased freedom offered him.

The queries around his pre-draft status will revolve around his size and health. He's listed at 246 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame, but has played as high as 260 pounds. Where he ends up could determine whether he's a 4-3 end, a 3-4 linebacker, or ends up as a hybrid whose position depends on down, distance and personnel grouping.

The bigger issue is Kikaha's left knee. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in 2011 and again a year later. He looks all the way back, but that could give some NFL teams pause.


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