Joe Marino’s Talent Watch: Week One

Every Thursday this college football season, BBD's Joe Marino will provide analysis of some of the nation's top prospects—as well as prospect rankings and other fun features—in his weekly Talent Watch column.

Every Thursday this college football season, BBD’s Joe Marino will provide analysis of some of the nation’s top prospects—as well as prospect rankings and other fun features—in his weekly Talent Watch column.

BBD Assistant Editor: Joe Marino

I’ll never forget watching the 2003 NFL Draft. It was my third year of being truly interested in following football in a deeper level and keeping up with college football’s top prospects as they entered the NFL. In 2001, I began evaluating prospects and creating my own rankings and draft boards so by the 2003 draft, I felt like I was on my way to being the next Mel Kiper.

In the fourth round, with the No. 111 overall pick, the Buffalo Bills selected cornerback Terrence McGee out of Northwestern State and I was instantly humbled. Why? I had never heard of McGee. After all of my preparations, I didn’t even know a player who was taken in the fourth round. I took it hard and vowed to make sure this never happened again while taking my studies of players to an even deeper level.

Ten years later, a player here and there gets drafted that wasn’t on my radar but it’s very rare. This passion and drive for evaluating prospects has lead me to this great opportunity to share my work with you on Buffalo Bills Draft and now the debut of this scouting column. As for McGee, he went on to have a stellar 10-year career in the NFL; he holds six Bills franchise records and has been selected as an All-Pro on two occasions.

I have plenty in store for the 2014 season as I introduce a new crop of future NFL players. This column will be a great source to familiarize yourself with the prospects that will be selected next spring. Over the course of the season, I will feature more than 150 prospects for the 2015 draft as I highlight them in their biggest games, provide initial positional rankings, make predictions, and spotlight some of today’s best NFL draft analysts and football minds.

I hope you enjoy the 2014-15 College Football season and stay tuned as I share my thoughts.

Todd Gurley will be one of the top prospects in focus on college football's opening weekend. (Photo: Dale Zanine — USA Today Sports)

Todd Gurley will be one of the top prospects in focus on college football’s opening weekend. (Photo: Dale Zanine — USA Today Sports)

Thursday Night Spotlight

Thursday evening’s showcase game between Texas A&M and South Carolina (6 p.m. ET, SEC Network) includes three high-quality senior offensive line prospects: A.J. Cann, Corey Robinson and Cedric Ogbuehi.

A.J. Cann, LG, South Carolina, Sr.

One of the most NFL-ready prospects I’ve evaluated this summer is South Carolina guard A.J. Cann.

Cann has started 38 of his 39 games at South Carolina and, barring injury, will have more than 50 starts under his belt as he enters the NFL draft. He has been impressive. A powerful drive blocker with good hand placement and body positioning, Cann can overwhelm opponents as seen in the following clip.

Cann is an effective pass blocker with strong anchor and knee bend. While his foot speed can improve, I see Cann as a day one starter at guard in the NFL. A season full of accolades should be on the horizon for this talented blocker.

Corey Robinson, LT, South Carolina, Sr.

Playing next to AJ Cann is fellow senior Corey Robinson, who has found a home as the Gamecocks left tackle. After starting his career as an offensive lineman, Robinson switched to defensive line, only to find himself back with the offensive line after only one season on defense and no game action. Since then, Robinson has started 22 of the last 23 games at left tackle and performed well.

Listed at 6’8” and 344 pounds by South Carolina’s official athletics website, Robinson has impressive movement skills for a man of his size. He sustains blocks well, clears running lanes and was a big reason why South Carolina averaged 198.5 rushing yards per game in 2013.

Robinson is an effective pass blocker at the college level and knows how to use his long arms to steer pass rushers and keep them away from the quarterback. His size, however, limits his ability to play with low pad level, which allows his opponents to gain a leverage advantage. He’s able to overcome this in college because he is bigger and stronger than his opponents, but improving his technique will be vital to his success in the NFL, where everyone is big and strong.

Robinson has the tools to eventually be a starting right tackle in the NFL after a few years as a backup swing tackle.

Cedric Ogbuehi, LT, Texas A&M, Sr.

For many, the premiere prospect in this game is Ogbuehi, who looks to be Texas A&M’s third offensive tackle in as many years to be selected among the top 10 picks in the draft. Ogbuehi, who I profiled this summer, has tremendous athletic upside and a silky smooth skillset. That said, I have major concerns about his power and hand placement. Now playing left tackle as a senior, his third different position along the offensive line, Ogbuehi is looking to show that is his best and most natural position. If Ogbuehi can put it all together as a senior, he has a chance to be selected very high in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Prospects In Focus

Melvin Gordon's athleticism will be put to the test by LSU on Saturday. (Photo: Jesse Johnson — USA Today Sports)

Melvin Gordon’s athleticism will be put to the test by LSU on Saturday. (Photo: Jesse Johnson — USA Today Sports)

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin, Jr. vs. LSU

With an 8.32 yards per carry average over the past two seasons, along with 16 touchdowns, Gordon has proven to be an extremely productive player. A physical runner with top-end speed, there is much to love about Gordon’s play. Gordon has excellent vision and burst through the hole and rarely goes down on first contact. He utilizes his blockers effectively and is a well-balanced runner.

In the open field, Gordon is extremely difficult to bring down one-on-one. He displays excellent cuts and makes defenders miss. I love the way he competes on every run and is consistently tough to tackle. He is a truly dynamic player who is special with the ball in his hands.

The primary concern with Gordon is that he struggles in pass protection, which has kept him from being an every-down back and is the reason he only has three catches for his career. Gordon must improve as a pass protector and show his ability as a receiver to be considered a three-down prospect.

Competing against an LSU defense that has tremendous collective speed will be an exciting test for Gordon to open the season.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia, Jr. vs. Clemson

After two years without a running back selected in the first round, that is likely to change in 2015 if talented junior Gurley declares for the draft. With two impressive seasons under his belt, Gurley has become a superstar talent with an impressive skillset.

Gurley has a rare blend of size, speed and power. With excellent field vision, upfield burst and physicality, Gurley excels at both picking up chunks of yards on big plays and grinding out carries for tough yards. In the following GIF, you can see his blend of speed, size, vision and burst on display.

The physical style that Gurley runs with demands a host of defenders to bring him down, which easily wears down opposing defensive personnel. He runs behind his pads, falls forward and maximizes his carries by getting every yard available, even after contact. Combining these traits with his patience to utilize his blockers, Gurley is difficult to tackle.

Gurley has really developed as a blocker and receiver over his first two seasons at Georgia. He can be relied on to catch passes out of the backfield and is a true every-down back.

The only concern with Gurley is his ability to stay healthy, considering his physical style which makes him susceptible to injuries.
Clemson is returning an experienced defense, which will be put to the test as they try and get Gurley’s junior campaign off to a slow start.

Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson, Sr. vs. Georgia

Beasley, the ACC leader in sacks last season, is a talented pass rusher who has emerged as a top playmaker for the Clemson defense. Last season alone, Beasley racked up 13 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, six pass breakups and four forced fumbles. He has a wide variety of pass-rush moves combined with very good burst and bend off the edge. He has a strong rip move and a great motor.

For as talented of a pass-rusher as Beasley is, he leaves many questions to be answered. First, according to Clemson’s official athletics website, he is listed at 6’3” and 235 pounds and has played exclusively at defensive end. With his limited frame and lack of functional strength to set the edge, it’s highly unlikely that Beasley can be an NFL defensive end in any system. His future is at linebacker and we have never seem him play that role, making his NFL future a complete projection. Hopefully we will get to see Beasley play in space this season.

Derron Smith, S, Fresno State, Sr. vs. USC

With 13 interceptions per the past two seasons, Smith has been a playmaking safety for the Bulldogs. In his junior season alone, Smith had 87 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks along with seven interceptions.

Smith flies all over the football field looking to make plays and is consistently around the ball. He has no issues coming into the box to defend the run and is an excellent tackler. He is aggressive when pursuing the ball and has great instincts as a run defender. He sees the play in front of him and naturally reacts while positioning himself to make plays.

As a pass defender, Smith is best when he is able to roam the field and read the quarterback eyes. He can cover ground, break on the football and has good ball skills. Smith is also an experienced special teams player who has been good on punt and kick coverage for the Bulldogs. He will likely be used in that capacity in the NFL. Athletically, Smith shows good strength and quickness. His burst in pursuit is excellent.

Matching up against a pro-style offense like USC’s, and facing rising stars in quarterback Cody Kessler and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, will be a good opportunity for Smith to display his impressive skillset.

La’El Collins, OT, LSU, Sr. vs. Wisconsin

Collins is entering his third season as a starter on the Tigers offensive line and his second as the teams left tackle. 2014 is a crucial season for Collins as he aims to show more polish and consistency to his overall game and cement himself as part of the first-round conversation.

To this point, Collins has been flashy and it’s clear he has a ton of talent to work with. While he shows he can be physical and create movement in the run game, he also shows lazy technique and gets caught lunging at his opponents.

Collins flashes strong hand placement as a pass blocker and the ability to mirror pass-rushers, but he has a tendency to lose his leverage initially out of his stance and get his feet crossed up.

Collins has the makeup of an NFL starter, but proving he can be consistent with his technique has to be his top priority in the 2014 season. With a strong opening opponent in Wisconsin, the stage is set for him to display the improvements he needed to make.

Sunday Night Special: Tennessee vs. Utah State

With the start of the NFL’s regular season still a week away, college football will again take center stage Sunday night, as Utah State takes on Tennessee (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network). The top storyline will be Utah State senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton and his return from a season ending knee injury last October.

Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State, Sr.

Before it was cut short when he tore his ACL and MCL against BYU, Keeton’s junior season was off to a tremendous start as he accumulated 1,362 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and just one interception through the teams first five games.

Why He Wins

Keeton is at his best is when he is extending plays with his feet, either to pick up yards as a runner or to throw on the run with his impressive mobility. In the following play, Keeton surveys the field, uses a pump fake, extends the play with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield and delivers an accurate ball for a first down.

Here, Keeton carries out the play fake, sets his feet and throws an accurate ball down the field with anticipation for a touchdown.

Even though Keeton has good athletic ability and can scramble, he is a throw-first quarterback. Keeton can alter his throwing platform and make throws from a variety of passing angles. He has very good arm strength and can drive the ball down the field.

Areas of Concern

Combined with his knee injury last year, Keeton’s thin and wiry build raises questions about his skill set translating to the next level. Ideally, Keeton’s frame will fill out without him losing his athletic ability.

Keeton’s accuracy is up and down and his passes have a tendency to sail high of his intended target. Refining his mechanics with more consistency will be needed for him to develop more accuracy.

It’s unclear how much Utah State actually puts on Keeton mentally and what he can absorb. Audibles are coming from the sideline and Keeton isn’t asked to do much pre-snap. Shifting to the NFL without experience in those areas will be a major adjustment.

Bottom Line

Keeton’s career was off to a tremendous start and he will be looking to get things back on track this year. A national audience and an SEC defense await him week one as Keeton aims to prove he is healthy and one of the top senior quarterback prospects in the nation.

While talented, it’s hard to imagine Keeton stepping in early in his career to lead an NFL offense. I value him as a Day 2 selection with plenty of upside.

A.J. Johnson will be a linebacker to watch when Tennessee plays Utah State on Sunday. (Photo: Randy Smith — USA Today Sports)

A.J. Johnson will be a linebacker to watch when Tennessee plays Utah State on Sunday. (Photo: Randy Smith — USA Today Sports)

Linebackers to Keep an Eye On

Tennessee senior inside linebacker A.J. Johnson has been a prolific tackling machine across his first three seasons with the Volunteers, as he has racked up 324 tackles. A downhill and physical player, Johnson is an aggressive run stopper and secure tackler. Shedding and avoiding blockers are areas of concern for Johnson but when he reads and reacts properly, he can close windows and make plays at or near the line of scrimmage.

Against Utah State, two of Johnson’s weaknesses will be exposed: his limited range and coverage ability. Not a great athlete, Johnson struggles to get out on the edges quickly enough to make plays. Utah State’s offense attacks the perimeter with screens and outside runs which will give Johnson the opportunity to show he has improved his movement and ability to get out in space. That said, Utah State loves to set up play action passes which can potentially expose Johnson and his ability to stay connected down the field. This will certainly be a test for Johnson, who will try to prove he is a complete player and not just a two-down thumper.

Utah State junior outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell has quickly emerged as a playmaker for the Aggies defense in his first two seasons with the program. He has 169 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Fackrell is a versatile defender who projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s a good power rusher who displays excellent hand usage and takes intelligent rush angles. His strong hand usage leads to separation between himself and blockers, which allows him to execute counter moves and get around the edge or inside.

Against the run, Fackrell can physically set the edge and shed blockers to make plays. This underclassmen is an exciting prospect to keep an eye on as he takes on a young, inexperienced Tennessee offense. Plenty of big plays could be in store for the underclassman linebacker.

See page 2 for senior quarterback rankings, thoughts from fellow draft analysts and predictions for Week 1′s biggest games.

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Tags: A.J. Cann, A.J. Johnson, Alvin Dupree, Anthony Boone, Bo Wallace, Bryce Petty, Cedric Ogbuehi, Chuckie Keeton, Clemson, Cody Fajardo, Corey Robinson, Derron Smith, Devin Gardner, Fresno State, Gabe Wright, Georgia, Hutson Mason, Jeff Heuerman, Kyler Fackrell, La'el Collins, LSU, Melvin Gordon, Sean Mannion, Shane Carden, South Carolina, Talent Watch, Taylor Kelly, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Todd Gurley, Utah State, Vic Beasley, Wisconsin

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