It's nice to have a draft order set and the Senior Bowl behind us (other all-star games, too, I suppose). The combine is the other big event of the offseason, so we really are halfway to the draft. Sort of.
Heading into the 2012 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April for the 2013 NFL Draft.
Barrett Jones, Alabama
Even though Jones will be at a new position as Alabama's starting center, the odds are that he will continue to be a standout lineman who is a dominant blocker. Jones had a tremendous junior season at left tackle in 2011 for the Crimson Tide's National Championship team. He was a fabulous run blocker for Trent Richardson while also serving as a reliable pass-protector. Jones was a First-Team All-American in 2011.
After that superb season, the junior turned down being a likely first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to return for his senior year. It was somewhat surprising the Alabama coaches would move Jones to center after he played so well at left tackle, but his versatility allows them to get their best five offensive linemen on the field together.
Jones started 14 games at guard in 2009 as a redshirt freshman and Mark Ingram ran his way to a Heisman with Alabama winning a National Championship. Jones stayed at right guard and started 11 games there in 2010. He was named as a First-Team All-SEC selection that season and again in 2011.
The 6-foot-5, 311-pounder is strong and athletic. If Jones can play well at left tackle, he should be dominant once again as an interior linemen. Jones has tons of experience and is extremely intelligent. He is strong, quick, agile and athletic. Defensive linemen could easily find that Jones is the most overwhelming center in the nation next season.
Khaled Holmes, USC
With a Heisman favorite taking snaps from him, Holmes figures to maybe the most watched center by voters next season. Quarterback Matt Barkley will be one of the most high profile players in the nation this season, so everybody will get a good look at Holmes.
Holmes had an impressive 2011 season and was a Second-Team Pac-12 selection. He was a fabulous pass protector for Barkley. Holmes also did a good job of opening up holes in the ground game for Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler. Holmes is a good athlete who is quick off the snap. He was a starter at guard as a sophomore in 2010.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Holmes could use some more power for the NFL. However, he definitely has the frame to get bigger. Holmes mobility and pass-protection skills are exactly what the NFL is looking for. It would really help his stock if he plays well against Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and UCLA tackle Cassius Marsh. Holmes has the talent to impress in 2012.
Grant Garner, Oklahoma State
There are other center prospects that I like more, but Garner was the Third-Team All-American center in 2011, so it stands to reason that voters will feel comfortable voting for him in a crowded field for the final center All-American next season. Helping Garner to get the honor last year was playing for a National Title contender. He showed excellent pass blocking for quarterback Brandon Weeden.
The Cowboys will be breaking in a new quarterback this year, but running back Joseph Randle is returning to Oklahoma State. He ran for 24 touchdowns behind Garner last season, and Randle should take on an even bigger role in 2012. That will give Garner the opportunity to show his tenacity as a run blocker.
The 6-foot-3, 292-pounder should add some more bulk for the NFL. Right now, Garner projects best to a zone-blocking scheme, but if he adds weight, he could play in other offenses. Garner has a lot of experience and should have another strong season in 2012.
Honorable Mentions: Clemson center Dalton Freeman, Illinois center Graham Pocic, Iowa center James Ferentz, Oklahoma center/guard Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma center Ben Habern, Louisville center Mario Benavides and Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein.