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Top college talents Luck, Blackmon shine on Fiesta stage

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Chris Morrison/US Presswire
Stanford QB Andrew Luck completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma State.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As an evaluator, you love any opportunity to watch top prospects square off on a big stage.

These moments occasionally happen throughout the year in rivalry games, but nothing is better than watching top teams loaded with NFL-caliber talent square off in bowls.

When the bowl game schedule was finalized a month ago, I circled the Fiesta Bowl based on the number of stars on both Stanford and Oklahoma State. Here are my observations after getting a first-hand look during the Cowboys' 41-38 win over the Cardinal on Monday night:

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» Andrew Luck is the real deal. He is the best quarterback prospect in college football in recent years, and he validated that assessment with his impressive performance at the Fiesta.

In completing 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, Luck showcased the complete array of skills that evaluators covet in top quarterbacks. He was deadly accurate from the pocket, while displaying exceptional velocity and zip on his passes at all ranges. He showed outstanding poise and presence in the pocket and never appeared rattled by the constantly changing defensive tactics used against him.

From heavy blitz pressure to blanket coverage, Luck quickly adjusted to the Cowboys' scheme and exploited the weaknesses of each approach. He defeated the blitz by quickly releasing pinpoint throws prior to the rush collapsing the pocket, which forced the defense to scale back its pressure. Against traditional coverage, he connected the dots brilliantly with accurate throws. His ability to string together completions was remarkable to watch, and it certainly frustrated defenders hoping to pick off an errant toss.

In delving deeper into impressive aspects of Luck's game, I would point to his ability to work effectively off play-action. He is a masterful ball handler effective at fooling defenders with hard fakes, and his ability to work from the pocket or the perimeter makes him a unique playmaker at the position. His ability to connect with tight ends and receivers on crossing routes while on the run suggests that he is more than capable of thriving in a movement-based scheme that featured multiple bootleg-action passes.

Luck was also impressive directing the Cardinal's no-huddle offense in two-minute situations. He operated like an orchestra conductor while handling the play-calling duties, and displayed the kind of situational awareness you expect from veteran quarterbacks. In addition, he showed exceptional poise and play-making ability under pressure by stringing together a series of completions in critical situations. If quarterbacks are defined by their ability to perform in the clutch, then he certainly provided evaluators with enough information to earn regal status as a prospect.

Justin Blackmon had eight catches for 186 yards and three TDs in the Fiesta Bowl.
Justin Blackmon had eight catches for 186 yards and three TDs in the Fiesta Bowl. (Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire)

» Justin Blackmon* will be the NFL's next great receiver. There's no doubt in mind. The Oklahoma State junior, who has already announced his intention to apply for the draft, possesses the size, speed and playmaking ability that scouts covet in a No. 1 receiver and is a dominant force capable of serving as the anchor to a dynamic passing game.

In breaking down the positive aspects of his game, I was most impressed by Blackmon's explosiveness after the catch. He plays at another speed when he gets the ball in his hands. His ability to accelerate and separate reminds me of a young Terrell Owens, and he certainly possesses the skills to make an immediate impact as a playmaker in the NFL.

Blackmon is an exceptional route runner despite being a taller receiver. He is quick out of his breaks, and flashes some wiggle at the top of his routes. His ability to set defenders up with subtle moves is pretty advanced for a college player and is one of the reasons NFL position coaches will love refining his game at the next level.

As pass catcher, Blackmon shows strong hands and extraordinary ball skills. He easily tracks and adjusts to errant throws with ease. His combination of field awareness and body control allows him to routinely make acrobatic catches near the sideline while keeping his feet inbounds.

After watching Blackmon work against Stanford double-teams, I'm also impressed with his poise and demeanor. He didn't exhibit poor body language on the field when the ball didn't head in his direction early in the game, and appeared genuinely happy when his teammates made pivotal plays. Given the temperamental nature of some receivers, Blackmon's anti-diva persona will only enhance his value in scouting circles.

» Brandon Weeden has tremendous physical tools, but is not an elite quarterback prospect. That's not to suggest that the Oklahoma State QB isn't worthy of consideration during the second or third rounds, but he must correct several aspects of his game to develop into quality starter as a pro.

From game management to decision-making, he doesn't display a high football IQ when operating from the pocket. This was readily apparent when watching him routinely throw balls into coverage despite having other receivers available within his sight line. While some of his questionable decisions could be attributed to poor play calls against some of the defensive looks, most were the result of Weeden failing to correctly diagnose the coverage and hit the open receiver. He appears to predetermine where he is going with the ball prior to the snap and doesn't show the ability to adjust if his primary option is covered.

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In seeing his flaws in person, I'm concerned about his ability to decipher complex coverage as a pro and direct an offense that features more sophisticated concepts than the Cowboys' version of the spread. Most of his completions were accumulated off quick rhythm plays that allowed him to catch the snap, rock and throw from the shotgun.

Although Weeden's statline certainly is impressive when you look at the numbers (399 pass yards with three touchdowns and one interception), the overall performance will lead to more questions than answers in the minds of evaluators.

» Stanford's Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro are two of the best offensive linemen in college football. This certainly is not news in the scouting community, but I'm even more convinced after watching the duo operate in person. Both possess the size and strength dimensions that scouts covet, but are also polished in the technical aspects of their respective positions.

Martin, who plays left tackle and has already declared his intention to apply for the draft, is an athletic people-mover with outstanding feet. He excels on the edge and displays outstanding skills working to the second level in the running game. Although his game is more finesse than power, he routinely swallows up defenders to create seams for the Cardinal runners. In pass protection, his exceptional movement skills allowed him to effectively shadow agile rushers off the edge. This was important to witness first-hand due to his occasional struggles against speedy pass rushers during the season. Scouts believe his flaws are certainly correctable with more experience and repetition, and I'm in agreement after watching him play at a high level against Oklahoma State.

DeCastro is a dominant interior blocker with all of the grit and toughness that coaches covet in guard prospects. He is tenacious at the point of attack, and combines his intensity with a technically sound game that has few noticeable flaws. He overwhelms defensive tackles at the point of attack on power plays but also displays the agility and awareness to thrive in a movement-based scheme. His ability to pull and punish is rare, and coaches will love adding his unique skills to their respective lineups.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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