2014 Fiesta Bowl Prospect Preview: Baylor vs. UCF

The spotlight will be on UCF junior quarterback Blake Bortles when he takes the field for the Fiesta Bowl. (Photo: Jim Cowsert — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Joe Marino

Wednesday’s Fiesta Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) features two conference champions in Baylor (Big 12) and Central Florida (American Athletic Conference), both of whom finished the season with 11-1 record. This game will be an opportunity for Central Florida junior quarterback Blake Bortles, a potential first-round selection if he declares for the 2014 NFL draft, to attempt to keep pace with the nation’s No. 1 scoring and yardage offense in 2013. This will be a huge stage for Bortles to solidify his draft stock.

The game will also feature a clash of two NFL-caliber junior running backs, UCF’s Storm Johnson and Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk, as they grind it out in what looks like a potential high scoring affair. Also expected back is Baylor senior wide receiver Tevin Reese, who has explosive down field speed but missed the Bears’ final five games with a wrist injury.

Blake Bortles, QB, UCF, Jr. (6’4’’, 230 lbs)

With Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Baylor’s Bryce Petty already opting to stay in school, the situation appears ripe for Bortles to declare for the NFL draft and be in the conversation as a first-round selection.

Bortles led the Knights to a 10-win season and bowl game victory in 2012. While Bortles’ yards, touchdowns and interceptions totals remained similar from 2012 to 2013, he improved in two areas that caught my attention. His completion percentage rose from 62.9 to 68.1, while yards per attempt increased from 7.7 to 9.3. Those are significant increases in important categories that show his growth, and perhaps readiness, for the NFL as a passer.

Bortles makes solid, quick decisions and has terrific command of the Knights offense. He knows how to attack defenses, goes through his reads and has an overall sound concept of the passing game.

Bortles takes chances with the football and likes to give his receivers opportunities to be successful. He gets everyone involved on the offense and has six different players with over 20 receptions.

Bortles, a playmaker with his feet, can also pick up first downs with his legs. Bortles is an excellent thrower on the run who can turn bad plays into good plays. He is equally adept at rolling right or left. His mobility in the pocket is also good, enabling him to elude pressure by both rolling out or stepping up in the pocket.

Bortles’ biggest concerns are his arm strength and accuracy, which suffer due to inconsistencies in his footwork. He is sound in his drops, but he doesn’t consistently shift his weight, drive off his front foot and create the torque needed to get the velocity on the ball to drive it to his target. This shows up particularly when he throws in- and out-breaking deep routes.

In a way, Bortles is reminiscent of Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, not so much in terms of playing style but in that they are/were both successful college quarterbacks with playmaking potential but have flaws. Despite the areas of concern, they have the makeup and skill sets of potential franchise quarterbacks. Like Manuel, I do not expect Bortles to be a consensus first-rounder across NFL teams’ boards, but I think a team that does believe in him will select him as their guy in the first round. In my opinion, his appropriate value is in the late first to early second round.

Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor, Sr. (6’5’’, 340 lbs)

Richardson has been a starter since his sophomore year and an all-Big 12 selection for the Bears in each of the past two seasons. He is one of the main reasons the Baylor offense leads the nations in yards (623.8/game) and points (53.3/game).

Richardson is a mauler who can generate significant movement as a run blocker. He initially wins with his heavy punch, then gets his arms extended and runs his feet to give his opponent no chance with his power and length. He sustains blocks well and creates plenty of space for his running backs.

Richardson does a great job of setting the depth of the pocket when pass blocking and allows very little penetration. That said, Richardson doesn’t have good lateral movement or agility, so he can be defeated with quick-twitch pass-rushers and well-executed stunts that require him to change directions. This also shows up when blocking in space at the second level, as he has a tendency to lunge and whiff on blocks.

Richardson has to play with more consistent pad level at the next level, since he won’t be able to dominate simply with his strength and size advantage over his opponents at the next level.

Richardson looks like a starting guard in the NFL worth a Day 2 draft selection.

Lache Seastrunk is a player to watch on Baylor’s offense. (Photo: Jerome Miron — USA Today Sports)

Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor, Jr. (5’10’’, 210 lbs)

Seastrunk, a transfer from Oregon, has been one of the catalysts behind Baylor’s prolific offense. Over that past two seasons as Baylor’s primary tailback, Seastrunk has totaled 2,072 yards and 18 touchdowns while averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

Seastrunk’s game is predicated on his ability to see the field and react. While he isn’t a bad between-the-tackles runner, Seastrunk is dynamic in the open field. He makes excellent cuts in space and doesn’t lose speed when changing directions. He has terrific balance and can make people miss with his creativity. He has good burst and acceleration when getting upfield.

Seastrunk is not afraid of contact and maximizes his carries. Baylor’s offensive line is terrific and Seastrunk consistently follows his blockers to daylight.

Surprisingly, Seastrunk hasn’t caught a single pass in 2013 and only had nine receptions in 2012. Given the spread attack of the Bears, one would expect him to have at least some production as a receiver, so his ability to catch the football is something that he will need to prove heading into the NFL. Seastrunk is also inconsistent as a pass protector and is not called on to block much.

Baylor’s scheme has proven to be difficult to defend, and Seastrunk has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the attack. He has not shown to be a complete back yet, but he could be part of a solid running back tandem at the next level.

See page 2 for more prospects to watch in the Fiesta Bowl.

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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Ahmad Dixon, Baylor, Blake Bortles, Bowl Games, Bowl Previews, Cyril Richardson, Fiesta Bowl, Game Previews, Lache Seastrunk, Prospect Previews, Storm Johnson, Tevin Reese, UCF

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