Week eleven in the college football season saw a number of blowouts and more than a few strange games, which made for entertaining viewing. It was also a weekend where a number of run stopping linebackers made their mark on the scouting community.
Each week I highlight a small school prospect that’s creating a buzz in the scouting world. Northern Iowa running back David Johnson has been purposely left out as he’s a big named player from a small school who entered the season well known. That doesn’t means he’s not creating a buzz. I’m told Johnson, who helped the Panthers snap North Dakota State’s consecutive win streak at 33 this weekend with a 23-3 victory (138-yards rushing on 28 carries), has been receiving grades which range between the second-to-fourth round. Teams love his size, speed and strength and feel Johnson could develop into a feature runner for the next level.
How will Marcus Peters draft stock hold up after his dismissal from the Washington program? It depends. Sources tell me they’ll obviously do a lot of digging into his background and the answer could come from former Husky coach Steve Sarkisian, now at USC. If Peters issues are isolated to this season teams believe it won’t hurt him all that much. But if information is received his emotional antics have been a long term issue which were never spoken about by the former coaching staff, Peters will drop.
LSU offensive line prospect La’el Collins is all over draft boards. Some teams stamp Collins as a first round tackle while others believe he grades as a second round guard. I’m agree with the latter and have Collins as the top guard on my board.
Eric Kendricks/LB/UCLA: The younger brother to Mychal Kendricks, a second round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012, Eric has steadily risen up draft boards and performed brilliantly against Washington on Saturday. Posting a team leading 13 tackles, giving him 114 total in ten games this season, Kendricks has been a one man wrecking crew. He stacks well against the run playing bigger than his 225-pound frame while easily running down ball handlers in pursuit. Kendricks also makes plays in space and could be the next member of his family to land in the second round.
Bryce Hager/LB/Baylor: The Baylor offense garners most of the headlines as they are averaging more than 50-points each game this season. But the team’s defense, which gives up 21 points per game in the high scoring Big 12 Conference, are the unsung hero’s and Hager is their leader. He sits atop the team with 71.5 tackles in nine games this season including 8.5 tackles during the blowout victory over Oklahoma. Hager also registered his first interception of the season against the Sooners. He’s a tough, run defending linebacker who plays assignment football and grades as a late round pick who’ll do well on the inside of a 3-4 alignment.
Ben Heeney/LB/Kansas: Its been a miserable season for the Kansas Jayhawks, who broke a five game losing streak against Iowa State this weekend. Yet through it all Heeney has played productive football. The team’s leading tackler, Heeney has posted 101 tackles in nine games this season while also accumulating 10 tackles for loss. Entering the season with a middle round grade from scouts, he’s a good football player who lacks top measurables but has next level potential as a back-up linebacker/special teams player.
Martin Ifedi/DE/Memphis: Ifedi gave serious consideration to entering the 2014 draft but opted to return for his senior season. The decision initially looked questionable after he was sidelined four games at season’s start with a knee injury. Since then Ifedi has been a monster on the field upon returning to health. The senior posted 22 tackles and 4 tackles for loss the past month, slowly rising up draft boards. An athletic 6-feet/3-inches, Ifedi offers the versatility to line-up in a number of defensive fronts on Sunday and will be a steal in the later rounds.
Jordan Taylor/WR/Rice: Taylor is another who sat on the sidelines with injury during the early part of the year. With his foot in a boot, he missed the seasons initial three games but has been impossible to stop in recent weeks. The past three games has seen Taylor post a combined 19 receptions for 344 yards and two scores. The tall possession receiver is averaging just under 23-yards per reception during the six games he’s played and has improved the reliability of his hands. Fast forty times as well as a clean bill of health on his foot could push Taylor into the middle rounds next April.
Devante Davis/WR/UNLV: Davis started hot, posting 100-yard receiving performances in two of the season’s initial three games, before a wrist injury forced him to the sidelines the next five games. He was back with a vengeance against Air Force registering 6 receptions for 114-yards with one score in his first action in more than a month. The big-bodied wide-out offers a reliable game and has been stamped anywhere from a mid-to-late round prospect by scouts.
Sleeper of the Week- Josh Campion/OL/Minnesota: In the midst of a terrific campaign, the Gophers have played team football every week, winning the lines of scrimmage. Campion, a three year starter at offensive tackle, is the leader of a line which dominates opponents. Moving to the left side this season after holding down the right tackle spot the prior two years, he’s a smart, well sized blocker who plays with athleticism and fundamentals to shut down defenders. Only a junior, Campion already has scouts talking about his next level potential.
Small School Prospects- Vernon Johnson/WR & Ricky Collins/WR Texas A&M Commerce: Two weeks ago it was a pair of cornerbacks from CSU-Pubelo receiving mention and this time we move further south and concentrate on two receivers. Johnson is a speedster who entered the season with middle round grades from scouts while Collins is a reliably handed wide out that receives little mention. Johnson, whose caught 66 passes for 998 yards and 10 scores this season, has been compared to former Pittsburg State wide out Jon Brown, the successful third round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. Collins is just as explosive, averaging 17.4 yards on 59 receptions this year. He too has 10 touchdown catches to his credit this year. I would expect Johnson to receive an invitation to the combine then land in the later rounds while Collins could become a free agent find. I expect both will be playing on Sunday’s in 2015.
Darrian Miller/OL/Kentucky: Off the 2013 film I thought highly of Miller, believing he had middle round potential. He’s had a rough season at times in 2014 and the fact he’s playing out of position at left tackle (he’s better off inside at guard) has not helped the situation. Jordan Jenkins of Georgia had his way with Miller on Saturday as the Kentucky lineman looked intimidated at times. Miller still has potential as a zone blocking guard at the next level but his draft stock has taken a hit in recent weeks.
Christian Lombard/OL/Notre Dame: Lombard is another struggling out of position. Starting at right tackle, he had difficulty handling the pass rush as well as finishing his run blocks against Arizona State. At one point early in the game Lombard was badly beaten by Marcus Hardison, a sleeper defensive line prospect who may slide into the late rounds.
After an impressive Week 8 showing by first-year wide receivers, two more made a big impact for their teams during Week 9. One was a first-round pick who had been waiting for a breakout game up until this point, while the other wasn’t drafted at all and had to fight his way onto an NFL roster during training camp and preseason. There were a few other impact rookies around the league as well, including a second-round running back and third-round linebacker taking advantage of injuries to turn in productive games. Chris Tripodi will tell you who showed out to him in this week’s Rookie Report.
Jeremy Hill (RB-Cin)
With a banged-up Giovani Bernard sitting out the Bengals’ Week 9 game against the Jaguars, the second running back drafted this past May was thrust into a starting role. Coming into the game with just one outing of 40 yards or more this season, Cincinnati’s second-round pick exploded for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries to help the Bengals win in the absence of their 2013 second-round pick. With Bernard looking doubtful to play on Thursday Night Football this week as well, Hill should get another shot to show off his skills.
The skills that Hill put on tape against Jacksonville were highly impressive, especially his change of direction ability as a 238-pound running back. The LSU product showed the ability to quickly alter his path against backfield penetration and cut against the grain, even completely reversing field on one run to pick up 11 yards. A toss play to the right side was going nowhere and Hill stopped moving, recognized the defense’s overpursuit on the backside and ran back parallel to the line of scrimmage and around the corner for the first down. Hill accelerated better than a back his size would be expected to, which allows him to trust his quick feet.
Patience was another skill Hill displayed in spades Sunday. On a 15-yard run in the second half, Hill busted through an open hole and broke an arm tackle before running into defenders in the secondary. Rather than bulldoze ahead for a few extra yards before going out of bounds, Hill had the vision to see an opening towards the middle of the field. The Bengals runner stopped in his tracks and quickly cut back inside to pick up an extra 10 yards. On the first play of the following drive, Hill took a toss to the right and waited for his pulling guard and center to make their blocks before accelerating towards the line of scrimmage. The play resulted in just five yards, but a less patient back wouldn’t have allowed his blocks to develop before moving forward and gained just a couple of yards.
Hill’s big run came late in the game after he had worn down the Jacksonville defense. Hill took a handoff right and cut quickly inside a kickout block from his tight end, who was lined up in the backfield with him. He showed good straight-line speed to get into the secondary without being chased down from behind, but safety Josh Evans had an angle on him heading towards the sideline. Instead of trying to outrun Evans’ pursuit, Hill used a series of stop-and-start moves to threaten a cutback to the middle of the field and force the safety to hesitate. Hill then made a beeline for the endzone and broke Evans’ diving tackle attempt, which was made necessary by Hill’s patient running to set up the hesitation and change his angle of attack.
The Bengals used Hill often on toss and stretch plays, allowing him to take advantage of his vision, patience and agile footwork. After carrying the ball just seven times in the first half for 27 yards, Cincinnati relied on Hill more as the game went along, as he ran for 127 yards on 17 second-half carries. That’s a great recipe for using a big back successfully, and Hill proved, at least for one week, that he has the talent to be a legitimate feature back in the NFL. Bernard will be back sooner than later, but both backs will see their share of action in what is shaping up to be one of the NFL’s best backfield combinations.
Mike Evans (WR-TB)
As the seventh overall pick of the 2014 draft, expectations were high for Evans, who was the second wide receiver off the board in a loaded class. Just once had the 6-5 rookie from Texas A&M caught more than four passes in a game or surpassed 65 yards receiving before Sunday, however, but he set season-highs across the board with seven receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns against Jacksonville. Even though the trade rumors surrounding No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson never came to fruition, it looks like Evans is becoming a bigger part of the Tampa Bay offense even with the veteran still on the roster. With the other receivers drafted in the first round making noise recently, it was finally Evans’ time to shine in Week 9.
Although Evans posted gaudy numbers, he was probably wishing he had Johnny Manziel throwing him passes again rather than Mike Glennon. Glennon struggled all game, and Evans had to work hard to make his targets count. The rookie’s ability to smoothly adjust to inaccurate passes was a big part of his success against the Browns, and was key to both of his touchdown catches. His first touchdown went for 24 yards, as Evans got behind his man despite the defender playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. The pass was underthrown by Glennon but Evans, recognizing the flight of the ball, slowed his route and cut off the defensive back on his way back to the ball, using his frame to keep the defender away from the pass.
Evans’ second touchdown also came from 24 yards out, as the former Aggies star ran a fade down the right sideline. The ball was placed over Evans’ outside shoulder where only he could make the catch, and the rookie did a nice job tracking the ball and extending to make the grab. Evans also covered up the ball to secure the touchdown and prevent the cornerback from making a play once it was caught. While this ball wasn’t as poorly thrown as the pass on his first touchdown, Evans showed off his natural fluidity and instincts as a receiver to make a difficult play look easy.
Glennon did throw two interceptions on passes to Evans, but one was severely underthrown and the other was airmailed high and behind the receiver. While his quarterback continued to struggle with inconsistent ball placement, Evans bailed him out by catching balls thrown behind him, extending to snag passes led too far in front of him, and making back-shoulder adjustments when necessary as well. The rookie made an early 27-yard grab where he made one such adjustment, as Glennon lofted a pass down the sideline that couldn’t quite keep pace with Evans in stride. He added a 31-yarder later in the game as well, beating the corner down the sideline and making a nice grab away from his frame before protecting the ball from the closing safety.
The skills that made Evans such a high pick were obvious after his breakout game, as he consistently caught the ball with strong hands and showed top-notch focus, concentration and body control. The rookie also showed awareness and ball security beyond his years, turning his body to protect the ball from defenders after a few of his catches Sunday. Some scouts questioned Evans’ ability to separate from NFL defenders due to average speed, but his height and ability to make adjustment to balls in the air should make him very effective in contested situations even if he doesn’t produce consistent separation. With the Bucs turning back to Josh McCown for Week 10, it will be interesting to see if he has the same trust in Evans that Glennon did, or if he relies more on the veteran Jackson.
Allen Hurns (WR-Jac)
Hurns was one of the biggest surprises of Week 1, as the undrafted free agent caught four passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. While Hurns had an outstanding training camp and preseason, most expected that to be his best game of the season. The former Miami star topped 50 yards just twice in his next seven games to give credence to that thought, but enjoyed a seven-catch, 112-yard, two-touchdown explosion in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. Like Evans above, Hurns had to work for his numbers and bailed out rookie quarterback Blake Bortles on numerous occasions.
Hurns had just two receptions for 11 yards before scoring his first touchdown of the game midway through the third quarter on a 40-yard catch. Hurns burned the cornerback lined up over him on a corner route from the slot, but Bortles threw the ball way short while rolling out to the right. The rookie receiver quickly changed his path to the ball, stopping to let the corner run by him and getting in position to make the catch before falling into the end zone for the score, showing a nice combination of speed and awareness to put points on the board.
Three drives later, Hurns’ next catch went for an 18-yard touchdown on the same route out of the same alignment. This time Hurns’ route took him into double coverage, but Bortles threw the pass anyway. With a safety over the top and a cornerback underneath, the former Hurricanes star made a great adjustment to the ball. Rather than continuing with his route towards the sideline, ensuring an interception, Hurns showed good change-of-direction ability to stop his route again and cut in front of the underneath corner to the ball, making a contested grab to turn what should’ve been an interception into another touchdown.
Hurns impressed with his field awareness and route-running too, making sharp breaks out of his stem. In particular, Hurns did a nice job on a late third-and-four play to run his route to the marker, but had to adjust to make a catch on a ball thrown behind him. Knowing this adjustment cost him a yard, Hurns had the awareness to reach the ball forward as he was dragged down to ensure the third-down conversion. The rookie receiver bailed out Bortles again on a late 28-yard reception, as the quarterback threw a pass behind Hurns, who smartly left his feet to slow down, make the grab and shield the defender from making a play.
While consistency has been an issue for Hurns, much of that has to do with the offense around him. When an undrafted rookie puts together multiple big games in a season, it’s absolutely time to take notice, especially when they weren’t open as a result of scheme or blown coverages. Hurns has shown sufficient speed to get behind the secondary and the ball skills to make plays to help out his quarterback. Running ahead of second-round pick Marqise Lee already, Hurns may have an opportunity to start opposite Allen Robinson, another second-round rookie, next season if Cecil Shorts leaves in free agency. He seems more likely to settle in as a slot receiver in the long run, but that’s more than most expected from him coming out of college.
Chris Borland (LB-SF)
With the 49ers missing both of their starting middle linebackers after Patrick Willis joined NaVorro Bowman on the sideline a few weeks ago, Borland has filled in admirably and has outplayed Michael Wilhoite, who had been starting all season. A third-round pick out of Wisconsin, Borland came into Week 9 with 15 total tackles on the season, but racked up a whopping 18 on Sunday, including 15 solo stops and three for a loss. The 23-year-old was a beast against the run, showing the natural feel and football instincts scouts loved about him despite a lack of size and speed.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 may have been overlooked on draft day, but his intensity is impossible to miss on the field. As Tony Pauline’s scouting report states, Borland plays “all out” on the field and flies to the football. He also plays with great discipline and gap integrity, staying within his responsibilities to make positive plays. Borland consistently flashed into the hole to force Rams running back Tre Mason to pick another, but more often than not Borland was able to scrape and chase Mason down once he committed to a running lane.
Borland is very explosive playing downhill and quickly reaches the ball carrier once he reads the play. His first tackle for loss came early in the game, as Borland wasn’t fooled by counter-action from the Rams and fired into the hole to hit Mason right after he took the handoff for a two-yard loss. The rookie linebacker showed the ability to use his hands to keep himself clean and avoid getting engulfed by bigger offensive lineman, as well as good footwork and quick moves to keep blockers from getting a clean shot at him. The hustle aspect of his playing style was on display early, when he chased down Benny Cunningham from behind on a screen pass 17 yards down the field after getting caught upfield on a blitz.
His instincts in coverage are excellent as well, and Borland showed a knack for breaking towards running backs and tight ends right as the ball left the quarterback’s hand. While he didn’t get a hand on any passes in Week 9, he did time his hits perfectly to meet pass catchers right as they caught the ball. Borland also stayed home against the play-action passing game and refused to overpursue plays run away from him, instead waiting to shoot creases between blockers when the Rams running backs decided to cut plays back to the weak side.
Willis was close to playing last week and seems likely to return for Week 10, but his return Borland shouldn’t send Borland back to the bench. Bowman shouldn’t be out much longer himself but until he returns, the third-round rookie has earned his chance to start until the 49ers are healthy in the middle of their defense. He’s unlikely to match his tackle total from last week with Willis back on the field, but Borland showed veteran-level instincts and was creative with his feet and hands to avoid blockers. If he can sustain his intensity and playing style at the NFL level, Borland should be able to carve out a long career in the league.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.
A week in which college football first heard from the committee responded with a Saturday which could change the rankings. It was also a weekend which the top player in the draft separated himself from the pack. Here are the Risers-Sliders for week ten.
Believe it or not the Senior Bowl kicks-off in two-plus months. It seems just yesterday I was sitting in the stands in Mobile, Alabama assisting PhiladelphiaEagles.com and GreenBayPackers.com with their coverage of the 2014 event.
That being the case, its never to early for Senior Bowl talk.
Sources tell me right now the quarterbacks expected to receive invitations include Garrett Grayson of Colorado State, Sean Mannion of Oregon State, Shane Carden of East Carolina and Bryan Bennett of Southeastern Louisiana. I was informed two invitations will be held back for Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA, if they declare for the draft. While the signal callers are juniors as far as their eligibility is concerned, both are on pace to graduate in four years. Senior Bowl director Phil Savage recently started the tradition of inviting early draft entrees who are on pace to receive degrees to the Senior Bowl, something he should be commended for.
Earlier this season I listed Carl Davis of Iowa as a slider as he was putting up pedestrian production. More than anything else I was disappointed in his play after giving him rave reviews during my Big Ten preview in August. I’m told scouts are not disappointed in Davis at all, in fact the defensive line prospect is soaring up draft boards. Various sources tell me they’ve stamped Davis as a top 45 prospect.
Week four riser Kris Frost has been on a tear this season. The Auburn linebacker lists third on the team with 46 tackles while also being credited with 6 quarterback hurries and 3 forced fumbles. On film Frost looks athletic, flying around the ball from every direction and showing the ability to make plays up the field as well as off the line in coverage.
Marcus Mariota/QB/Oregon: Usually I don’t list players such as Mariota as risers. I mean how much higher can a player presently at the top climb? That being the case I was literally in awe watching the junior quarterback perform against Stanford, whose defense ranked best in the PAC 12 in every category. Numbers aside, (19 of 30 passing for 258 yards and 2 TD’s with 85 yards rushing on 9 carries and 2 more scores), Mariota’s performance was NFL caliber in every way. He made NFL-type passes, NFL-type decisions and was in complete control of the offense. When he took off and ran with the ball Mariota resembled a sprinter on the football field. It was my belief Mariota would have been the first player drafted had he entered the 2014 draft and without pause he sits atop my list for 2015.
DeVante Parker/WR/Louisville: Parker missed the first seven games of the season after undergoing foot surgery but hasn’t missed a beat upon return. After a tune-up game in which he caught 9 receptions for 132 yards against North Carolina State, Parker took his game to another level against Florida State and manhandled the defending national champions who start a pair of NFL prospects at cornerback. The numbers, 8 catches for 214 yards, tell just a part of the story as Parker had Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams of the Seminoles playing back on their heels and twisting in the wind trying to slow him down. And despite losing the contest Parker was the star of the game. His forty time in pre-draft workouts will determine how early in the top forty Parker is selected.
Deandre Smelter/WR/Georgia Tech: Entering the season scouts graded Smelter as a fringe late round pick and his teammate Darren Waller as a middle round choice. Yet the game film from the first two months of 2014 tells a different story. Smelter has answered the call in every way for the Yellow Jackets; a dependable underneath receiver that breaks the long one while producing on reverses. Saturday’s victory over Virginia offered more proof why Smelter’s stock is on the rise. He totaled 4 receptions for 107 yards (26.8-yard average) with one score. The 6-foot, 2-inch wide out who tips the scales at more than 220-pounds is averaging 23.1-yards on 20 receptions this season and has found the end zone five times. He’s solidified himself as a late round pick and the faster Smelter runs in pre-daft workouts the earlier he’ll be selected next April.
Jamison Crowder/WR/Duke: Pittsburgh ranked as the top pass defense in the ACC prior to the Duke game, allowing under 166-passing yards per game. Crowder fell 1 yard shy of the mark during his teams victory, posting 9 receptions for 165-yards with 2 scores. Crowder is a small yet slippery wide out that lends a helping hand returning punts. He’ll be a nice addition as a fifth receiver/return specialist at the next level.
Senquez Golson/CB/Mississippi: Golson, a four year starter who spent time on the Mississippi baseball squad, is in the midst of a career campaign. Entering the season with late round grades Golson has since picked off 9 passes while breaking up another 5 this season. He touches the tape right around 5-feet, 9-inches but offers terrific ball skills and the instincts to match. Golson could surprise on draft day, moving into the middle rounds then seeing extensive action in nickel packages as a rookie in the NFL.
Rakeem Nunez-Roches/DT/Southern Mississippi: USM is in the midst of a two game losing streak yet Nunez-Roches has significantly raised his level of play. During Saturday’s loss to UTEP he led the team with 11 tackles including 3 for loss as well as 2 sacks and 1 blocked field goal. The prior week his numbers read 5 tackles with 2.5 for loss. Nunez-Roches looked like a promising prospect as a sophomore in 2012 before being sidelined with a knee injury last season. His play has steadily improved over the course of the year and he grades as a disruptive front line player to monitor.
Sleeper of the Week- Michael Caputo/S/Wisconsin: The hard hitting safety has made his presence felt throughout the season and presently leads the Badgers in tackles (57) and pass defenses (tied with four others at 4 PBUs). He’s a fierce, competitive defender who plays with both aggression and instincts. Caputo is not a traditional centerfielder rather best in a zone type system and offers a style similar to former Badger and ten year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard.
Small School Prospect- Dezmin Lewis/WR/Central Arkansas: Lewis received middle round consideration from scouts entering the season and has not disappointed. The big bodied wide out has caught 49 passes for 726 yards in ten games with 6 receptions resulting in scores. He’s a natural pass catcher that wins out in battles and displays run after the catch skill. Word is Lewis will receive an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl next January.
Norkeithus Otis/OLB/North Carolina: I stamped Otis as a potential sixth round prospect entering the season while most scouts had him going a frame later. To date we’ve both been disappointed. Otis lines up as a bandit back in the Tar Heel formation to take advantage of his athleticism and pass rushing skill but has posted 26 tackles and 3 sacks this season. While he struggled with injuries during the season’s opening weeks, Otis has not been much of a consistent factor in 2014.
Michael McFarland/TE/South Florida: McFarland was stamped as a middle round pick by a number of scouts entering the season but has played free agent football. He’s caught just 18 passes in ten games, a disappointing number for a 6-feet/6-inch tight end not known for his blocking.