College stock watch: Badgers' Wilson comes up big

Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
Russell Wilson threw three TD passes in Wisconsin's win over Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

Each Monday throughout the college football season, draft expert Bucky Brooks will share his notes and evaluations on potential NFL prospects for the 2012 draft and beyond.

Does size really matter?

That's the question evaluators must consider when assessing the pro prospects of Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson.

At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, Wilson falls short of the height requirement in most draft rooms. His diminutive stature raises concerns about his ability to throw effectively from the pocket, with passer rushers typically measuring better than 6-3. With the threat of turnovers coming off tips or deflections at the line, scouts are often reluctant to consider a "short" quarterback as a franchise player.

After watching Wilson shine in the Big Ten title game, however, I think evaluators should reconsider their stringent standards at the position. While Wilson lacks some of the desired physical dimensions coveted by scouts, he is a polished passer with exceptional arm strength. From deep outs thrown from the opposite hash to go-routes tossed across the field off bootleg action, Wilson showcased his ability to make all of the requisite pro throws against Michigan State.

He also displayed exceptional accuracy and ball placement. He routinely delivered the ball on the receiver's body, while leading them away from defenders. His pinpoint placement enabled the Badgers' receivers to pick up yardage after the catch. Moreover, his accuracy resulted in several conversions on critical downs that allowed the Badgers to sustain drives.

In addition to showing superb placement, Wilson showed remarkable pocket poise and athleticism. He was unflappable when the pocket crumbled around him and his ability to buy time with his feet led to big plays on improvisation. In looking at several of the Badgers' biggest offensive plays, it was Wilson's elusiveness within the pocket that allowed him to shine. He repeatedly slipped out of tackles in the backfield to deliver laser-like strikes down the field. His combination of poise, presence and awareness is veteran-like, and scouts will certainly find his cool demeanor under duress encouraging.

Wilson did have some trouble against the Spartans' blitz. He was sacked three times and the harassment led to some errant throws from the pocket. He eventually overcame the steady barrage of rushers to regain his rhythm when the game was on the line, and his ability to defeat the blitz ultimately keyed the Badgers' win.

When scouts take Wilson's championship game performance into account with the consistent performance and production over the course of the season, it might lead some to overlook his substandard measurements when putting together their final assessment of his pro potential.

Cousins not bad, either

Teams looking for an underrated quarterback prospect with huge potential should closely examine Michigan State's Kirk Cousins. The flame-throwing Spartan has all the tools to develop into a solid starting quarterback as a pro.

At 6-2, 205, Cousins possesses the size to stand tall in the pocket against the rush. While he is not a superior athlete, he displays the movement skills and agility to avoid defenders in close proximity and make plays on the perimeter. He was effective executing bootlegs to either direction, and delivered those movement throws with outstanding zip and velocity.

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The pace on his passes places him among the upper echelon of passers in college football, and he certainly has enough arm strength to make all of the requisite throws in a pro offense. He showcased his superior arm strength on a laser-like throw to B.J. Cunningham on a seam route. The velocity and zip on his throws allows him to squeeze balls into tight areas, which is the norm in the pro game.

Cousin complements his outstanding physical traits with a keen awareness of blitz and pressure. He anticipates rushers during the pre-snap process and possesses a quick release that allows him to get rid of the ball prior to rushers getting home. Part of that can be attributed to the Spartans' heavy usage of wide receiver screens, but Cousins also connected on a few slants or sight adjustments against the Badgers' rush. His ability to defeat his opponent with his throws is coveted by scouts and coaches.

In looking at weaknesses that stood out during his spectacular performance (22 of 30 passes for 281 yards with three touchdowns and one interception), I would point to his occasional tendency to lock onto his primary receiver. He fails to consistently move defenders with his eyes and they are able to get early jumps on his throws when he stares down the No.1 option in the route. This resulted in a costly interception on a seam pass in the second quarter. Although it didn't result in points for the Badgers, the turnover slowed down the rhythm of the Spartans' offense during the first half.

To his credit, Cousins bounced back from the disappointing throw by reeling off a series of pinpoint passes that sparked the Spartans to a breakout performance in the third quarter. He picked apart the Badgers' secondary with a variety of short and intermediate throws that stretched the coverage horizontally. With Cousins also taking a few shots down the field, the Spartans' offense displayed the kind of balance that puts defensive coordinators in a quandary.

Given the importance of having a quarterback with the ability to win with his arm, Cousins should draw plenty of interest from teams seeking a viable long-term solution at the right value.

The Heisman goes to…

If I had a Heisman vote, I would give it to LSU's Tyrann Mathieu. The sophomore defensive back is the most dominant player in college football and his exceptional playmaking ability has been the catalyst to the team's unbeaten season.

Mathieu has been a part of 13 turnovers (six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and two interceptions), while also registering 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He has four return touchdowns (two fumble returns and two punt returns) and is arguably the most electrifying returner in the game.

Against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, his 62-yard punt return score changed the momentum of the game. He slipped and dodged multiple tacklers on the way to the end zone, and his spectacular run was part of a sensational effort that saw him amass 119 yards on four returns. Most importantly, it was his second return touchdown in the past two weeks and showcased his remarkable ability to deliver with the game hanging in the balance.

From a defensive standpoint, he is the game-changer who routinely delivers the pivotal play for the Tigers. His uncanny ability to get his hands on the ball is reminiscent of the last defensive player to win the award -- Charles Woodson. If not for a regrettable off-field incident that led to a one-game suspension, Mathieu's play would certainly have thrust him into the discussion among voters for the distinguished honor.

Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson and Case Keenum have made strong cases for winning college football's highest individual honor, but my vote would go to the best football player on college football's top team.

Word on the street

The wide receiver generating the most buzz in scouting circles is Baylor senior Kendall Wright. According to an NFC West personnel executive, he might be the most explosive receiver in the draft and he ranks as the third- or fourth-best prospect at the position when you factor in potential underclassmen. If he tests as well as anticipated in spring workouts, he has a strong chance to jump into the bottom of the first round by draft day.

The small school standout with the biggest chance to shoot up the charts in the run up to the draft could be Amini Silatolu of Midwestern (Tex.) State. In speaking with an NFC East scout, the 6-3, 312-pound guard is a dominant player on the Division II level who compares to 49ers guard Mike Iupati. Although his raw technical skills and level of competition rank as concerns, his combination of size, strength and toughness makes him an intriguing prospect. If he shows well in postseason all-star games, he could surge up draft boards across the league.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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