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NFL Draft report: USC's Leonard Williams validates top status

The hyperbole is already heavy. The Trojans junior may be the best defensive tackle prospect since Ndamukong Suh.

Ezra Shaw

College football is underway, so each week we'll begin looking ahead to the 2015 NFL Draft to find out who's helping and hurting their NFL status.

Early on in this NFL draft process, there seems to be about a handful of players who could be in contention for the No. 1 pick. Of course that includes quarterbacks like Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston of Florida State, and even Texas A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.

If there is a defensive player in that group, it's Southern California defensive lineman Leonard Williams. The Trojans junior is already garnering Ndamukong Suh comparisons. Physically, athletically and size-wise it's an easy comparison. Like Suh at Nebraska, Williams is accumulating impressive stats for a defensive lineman. Through two games, Williams leads the Trojans in tackles with 18 and is tied for the team lead in passes defended.

It's the effort, though, that really hammers the comparison home. Suh is a relentless player, bordering at times at playing dirty. While Williams isn't a dirty player, he possesses a similar aggressive streak. On Saturday against Stanford, Williams showed that demeanor and a toughness to play through an ankle injury.

Prior to the game, it was questionable that Williams would even play. In fact, he pulled himself out of pregame workouts, so the feeling was he'd play few snaps. Instead, Williams went out and had 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack. On one play at the end of the first quarter, Williams chased down Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery on a botched wildcat play. That allowed his teammates to close in on Montgomery and take him down for a big loss.

"In the end, Leonard, I've said this before, at 70, 80, 85 percent is a lot better than a lot of people," USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said after the game. "His presence I think, too, helps. It's motivating."

Montgomery, a legit NFL prospect himself, is not slow. This is also a reminder that Williams is 6'5 and 300 pounds. And he had that ankle injury. Whether he's projected as a 3-4 end or a 4-3 tackle, NFL teams love Williams and like Suh, he could be a top-two pick in the draft.

More from Stanford/USC

Over the last five or so years, the Stanford/USC game has been one of the best of the year to check out NFL talent. That was the case this year too.

Williams was at times put against Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat. The junior has top-10 talent, but Williams exposed his ability to block the inside move, even as Peat flashed the skills to beat edge rushers to the outside.

While Williams is the Trojans' best player on defense, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard is their leader. Some like Miami's Denzel Perryman, Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney or UCLA's Eric Kendricks as the top player in the middle. An argument can be made for Pullard being just as good. He's a speedy linebacker who tackles well. Pullard had a good game despite being ejected in the third quarter for a questionable targeting penalty.

Despite being chased down by Williams, Montgomery had a good game with nine receptions for 83 yards and 113 return yards. Montgomery is a versatile athlete who can play receiver, running back and handle return duties. He's a bulky 6'2 and 220 pounds and could rise up draft boards as the season progresses.

Random draft notes

While you have to view it through the lens of being against Florida Atlantic, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper had another marvelous game. Many of Cooper's 13 catches and 189 yards came in the first half. Cooper still gets a lot of production off of screen passes, but he can only run the routes the play asks him to.

Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had the interception of the weekend against Michigan State. Expect to see this a lot between now and the first day of the draft.

In that Michigan State/Oregon game, Ducks defensive lineman Arik Armstead really stood out. Armstead was routinely in the backfield thanks to a good first step and the strength to shed blocks. Like Baylor's Shawn Oakman, Armstead is a massive defensive lineman at 6'8 and 280 pounds. On the flip side, Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond had a game to forget. He was beaten in coverage a couple of times, once because of a communication miscue.

The last thing on the Oregon/Michigan State game: Where was Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun? Almost no impact.

Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel flashed several times against Akron. Yes, I know, it's Akron, but the converted defensive end showed off a good burst and snap anticipation. More impressively, he displayed an array of moves to get off blocks, including an effective spin move. At 275 pounds, Zettel may not be quite big enough for interior work in the NFL, but there is some intriguing skill.