A look at NFL prospects who helped and may have hurt themselves this past weekend:
Who helped themselves?
LG A.J. Cann, rSR, South Carolina (6-3 | 318 | 5.18): The headline from Thursday’s SEC season opener was Kenny Hill and Manziel-less, yet explosive Texas A&M offense. But Cann was one of the footnotes, and one of the few positives for South Carolina. He showed why he might be the best interior lineman in college football. Boasting several highly recruited defensive linemen, the Aggies struggled against the Gamecocks' left guard as he displayed a lethal mix of athleticism and power.
Cann has a flexible lower body, generating power through his hips, midsection and hands to latch-and-grip with excellent technique. He bursts out of his stance and quickly gets into position, showing instinctive eyes to know what’s happening around him while extending his reach to keep space between himself and his target. Cann is a people mover and strong finisher, but he can better improve his momentum on the move to properly win angles and break down in motion. South Carolina's offensive line has been overrated as one of the "best in the country," according to some, but Cann deserves the positive attention he'll receive between now and next spring.
RB Paul James, rJR, Rutgers (6-0 | 210 | 4.62): He reminds me of a not-as-cut version of Chargers back Ryan Mathews, and James gave his team what it needed to escape Pullman with a win over Washington State. He finished with 173 yards on 29 carries with three touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry, showing why he has a future at the next level.
James did an outstanding job lowering and squaring his pads, running with purpose and finishing each run. He stayed balanced through contact and although he's not overly shifty or explosive, Ryan showed the start/stop quickness to cut back, using vision to find secondary lanes. He clearly loves running north-south with forward lean and keeps his legs churning through contact, making him a chore to tackle. James led Rutgers with 881 yards a year ago and is well on his way to breaking the 1,000-plus barrier this season. And NFL scouts have taken notice.
WR Kevin White, SR, West Virginia (6-3 | 209 | 4.49): White wasn't the top-rated wide receiver in Saturday's West Virginia-Alabama game -- that was the Tide's Amari Cooper. But White made a strong case as the No. 2-rated receiver from the contest, finishing with a game-best 143 receiving yards on nine grabs and the lone receiving score in the game.
White looked the part with a tall, muscular frame and enough speed to gain clean release off the line of scrimmage and create separation in routes. He did an excellent job elevating to pluck with attitude and power, displaying natural body control and a physical demeanor to come down with the reception. White routinely attacks with his hands and while he will have some focus drops, he is usually sure-handed away from his body. He is more than just a possession target with quick feet to do something after the catch. With a consistent season from quarterback Clint Trickett in 2014, White, along with Baylor's Antwan Goodley, will be among the Big 12's top senior receiver.
RB Todd Gurley, JR, Georgia (6-1 | 232 | 4.54): There hasn't been a running back taken in the first round of the NFL Draft the past two years, a first. But if Gurley stays healthy throughout the 2014 season, that streak won’t extend to a third straight year. The Georgia running back put on a show in Athens on Saturday, rushing for a career-best 198 yards on only 15 carries (13.2 ypc) and three TDs. If that wasn't enough, Gurley added a 100-yard kickoff return for a score and put his name at the top of every Heisman Trophy watch list.
He is built for the NFL with a muscle-bound, physical frame and although he is taller than ideal, Gurley naturally lowers his pads and squares his shoulders to attack the line of scrimmage and bounce off defenders. He runs with natural balance, power and momentum that makes him tough to slow down, rarely conceding with the first tackler. Against Clemson, Gurley read the first line of attack very well and sensed daylight to hit holes with authority and quickness to stick-and-go, accelerating extremely well in his cuts. He showed he knows how to shift his weight extremely well for a 232-pounder and strings together moves with devastating jump cuts and long strides to eat up yards. Gurley was banged up last season and needs to show he can take a consistent beating each week before scouts give him a first-round grade. But if he shows durability, there is little question about Gurley landing among the first 20 picks.
Who hurt themselves?
DE Mario Edwards, JR, Florida State (6-3 | 294 | 4.88): Although he was the only Florida State defender who recorded a sack Saturday night, Edwards was underwhelming against Oklahoma State. He appeared heavy with limited range and didn't show much explosiveness as he routinely was the last lineman off the snap.
Edwards, who lined up mostly in a two-point stance on the edges, showed only one pass rush move -- upper-body power. He didn't dispaly any creativity with hand use and struggled to sequence effective rush moves together. Edwards' added weight this off-season was probably by design, but his competitive drive is something he can control better and did not show consistent hunger on a snap-by-snap basis in the opener. A former high-profile high school recruit, the light bulb seemed to come on for him at the end of last season, but there was more bad than good from Edwards to begin this campaign.
QB Chuckie Keeton, SR, Utah State (6-1 | 200 | 4.74): It was going to be tough for Utah State to go win at Tennessee, but many expected the Aggies to be more competitive than indicated by a 38-7 loss at Knoxville. Part of the optimism was the return of Keeton, who missed the second half of last season because of an ACL tear, but his return didn’t go as planned, wearing a brace on his left knee and rust on his right arm.
Keeton completed 18 of 35 (51.4 percent) for 144 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, adding only 12 yards rushing on eight carries (1.5 average). His arm was lively with a snap release and enough zip to deliver the ball to all levels of the field, but his ball placement was erratic and the speed of Tennessee's defense appeared too much at times. Keeton will almost surely improve down the stretch with more reps as he returns to form on the field, but no doubt he missed a chance to impress scouts against a SEC defense in a hostile environment.
Chuckie Keaton has a rough go against Tennessee's swarming defense. (USATSI)
Week 1 notes:
- Several big-name running back prospects from the power programs had productive 2014 debuts, but so did a few "small school" backs against FBS competition. South Dakota State RB Zach Zenner (5-11 | 220 | 4.62) averaged 6.1 ypc against the Missouri defense, finishing with 103 yards against the Tigers, his 22nd career game surpassing the century mark. ... North Dakota State RB John Crockett (5-11 | 218 | 4.61 was a big part of the Bison upset at Iowa State, rushing for 139 yards on 17 carries (8.2 ypc) and three touchdowns. ... Northern Iowa RB David Johnson (6-1 | 215 | 4.57) didn't have a 100-yard rushing game against Iowa, managing only 34 yards on the ground for a 2.6 average, but he did finish with an astounding 203 yards receiving on only five receptions, recording catches of 53, 60 and 70 yards. ... Zenner, Crockett and Johnson are arguably the top three "small school" senior RB prospects, and helped their cases vs. FBS talent last weekend.
- The Mountain West has several impressive prospects, but two suffered substantial injuries in week one. Colorado State senior LT Ty Sambrailo (6-5 | 315 | 5.27) suffered an MCL sprain vs. Colorado. But surgery isn't required and he should be able to return in less than a month. ... The news wasn't as positive for Utah State junior LB Kyler Fackrell (6-5 | 245 | 4.74), who is out for the season because of a torn right ACL. The versatile linebacker entered the season as a possible early round pick next spring, but this setback puts those projections on hold.
- Mississippi will be an intriguing team in the SEC and a big reason is a group of impressive underclassmen. As true sophomores, DT Robert Nkemdiche, WR Laquon Treadwell and LT Laremy Tunsil won't be eligible for the 2015 draft, but bear watching. Nkemdiche's first-step burst, brute strength and coordinated athleticism draw some Ndamukong Suh comparisons from NFL scouts. At 230 pounds with 4.5 speed, Treadwell is has the physical skill set to dominate cornerbacks and already has established himself as college football's top wideout in some quarters. Tunsil was a Freshman All-American last season and shows the upside to develop into an above average blocker at the next level. All three will be very high draft picks with continued development.
- Despite a loss at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, Oklahoma State unleashed its secret weapon on offense and special teams: JUCO-transfer RB/WR Tyreek Hill (5-10 | 185 | 4.41). He finished with 278 all-purpose yards in his FBS debut with 44 yards rushing, 62 yards receiving and 172 yards on returns. Hill has "adios" speed with instant acceleration and elite balance, collecting himself on the move with above average body control and burst. He simply appeared to be moving at a different speed and should only get better as he adjusts to the jump in competition and improves his decisiveness processing action. His debut was reminiscent of two years ago when Tennessee unveiled a highly-touted JUCO transfer on offense and special teams -- Cordarelle Patterson, who became a first-round pick. Although Hill and Patterson have different styles, sizes and skill-sets, their natural athletic qualities cannot be taught.
- Although impressed with his ability catching the ball out of the backfield, Florida State RB Karlos Williams (6-1 | 219 | 4.42) wasn't overly impressive leading the Noles' ground attack against Oklahoma State. He appeared comfortable on the outside where he could be an athlete and create, but didn't show the same game-breaking ability between the hashes. Williams allowed holes to close because of his hesitancy and choppy footwork at the line of scrimmage, displaying questionable instincts. Above all, he needs to do a better job running behind his pads to maximize balance. He runs too upright and struggles to break tackles necessary as an effective inside runner. Williams is an impressive athlete, but averaged only 2.9 ypc on 23 carries and looks like a much better "athlete" than polished running back.
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