<LI>His brilliant performance in the Orange Bowl probably erased any doubts that scouts had about the deep-ball arm strength of Southern California quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, but that still hasn't made him the consensus top prospect yet at his position. Assuming, that is, he opts to forego his senior season and enter the 2005 draft. We surveyed seven college scouts this week and three named Leinart as the top guy, while three chose Alex Smith of Utah. As noted in this space last week, Smith's combination of size, athleticism and throwing skills have certainly made him a player on the rise for now. The underclass quarterback who is clearly dropping, at this very early stage of the draft evaluations, is Aaron Rodgers of the University of California. There are real concerns about his lack of height and some questions about his arm strength. And scouts debate if he will be the latest "one-year wonder" turned out by Cal coach Jeff Tedford. In the past, Tedford's tutoring enhanced the college performances of Akili Smith and Kyle Boller, among others, but that didn't translate into NFL excellence. Of all the college underclass players to declare this week for the draft, and there were plenty of them, the most intriguing guy on defense might be Maryland linebacker/end Shawne Merriman. Part of the appeal of Merriman, who is only 20 years old and checks in at 6-feet-4 and 262 pounds, is that he is the kind of hybrid "edge" player so many teams are seeking these days. Merriman played principally at linebacker but also lined up at defensive end in "nickel" situations. One scout said that he felt Merriman could play either of the outside linebacker spots or end in the NFL, and acknowledged that the Maryland standout is a "very rare" player. "He's a pup who should become a big dog," said the scout, who works for an AFC club, but who is precluded by league rules from discussing underclass players for attribution, until they are officially accepted into the draft pool. Another personnel man suggested Merriman might be able to start for his team at weak-side linebacker right now. Merriman last spring recorded a 41½-inch vertical jump, according to the Maryland media guide, and that is a school record for a defensive front seven player. He is said to have run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Asked if there was a current NFL player whose style he attempted to most emulate, Merriman cited Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, with whom he has struck a friendship. Merriman played high school basketball with Arrington's brother, and counsels often, he said, with the Redskins star. "Really, I think my style is my own," Merriman said. "I just like to get after people, whether it's playing linebacker or up in the line, with my hand on the ground. I'll play the run, the pass, whatever you need me to do. And I'm going to come after you and hit you as hard as I can. That's where my 'Lights Out' (nickname) came from." In three college seasons, only one as a full-time starter, Merriman posted 179 tackles, including 32½ tackles for a loss, and 22 sacks. Merriman will be represented by Gary Wichard of Pro Tect Management, whose clients include standout NFL pass rushers such as Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis, Jason Taylor of Miami, Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and Darren Howard of New Orleans.