Prior to Alabama's highly anticipated matchup against Texas A&M last week, I believed quarterback AJ McCarron to be much more than a game manager (I wrote about it here, here and here). My viewpoint remains the same after watching McCarron's impressive exhibition of moxie, leadership and poise in Alabama's seven-point win over the Aggies.
McCarron completed 20 of 29 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns, while helping the Crimson Tide rally back from a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter. The performance marked only the third time in 29 career starts McCarron topped the 300-yard mark, but it was his sixth four-touchdown game in his career.
Speaking to McCarron at the Manning Passing Academy this past summer, he told me he was capable of putting up big numbers, but that's not his role in the Crimson Tide's offense. However, he also told me he is a "playmaker," and pointed me toward tapes of LSU (2012 BCS National Championship Game and regular-season win) and Notre Dame as validation. While those contests certainly showcased his skills as a playmaker, I believe his play against the A&M on Saturday was far superior, and it should convince NFL teams he has the goods to get it done as a franchise quarterback at the next level.
Watching the coaches' tape of the performance, I was most impressed with McCarron's poise and steady hand as the leader of the offense. He never appeared rattled despite facing difficult circumstances in the opening quarter. He magnificently guided the Crimson Tide to their first touchdown by stringing together a series of completions on variety of quick-rhythm throws, including Y-sticks, comebacks and quick fades. In fact, McCarron's 22-yard strike to Kevin Norwood (about 25 seconds into this video) on a back-shoulder fade showcased his pinpoint accuracy and superb timing. Additionally, he displayed tremendous arm strength and touch on a 44-yard bomb to DeAndrew White on a flea-flicker that helped the Crimson Tide even up the game in the second quarter.
From a game-management standpoint, McCarron will also earn rave reviews for his sound decisions at the line. He routinely makes checks and adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on the alignment of the defensive front; he also checked to hot routes against blitzes to exploit the vulnerable areas of coverage. Given the importance of executing pre-snap reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage in the NFL, scouts will love McCarron's awareness and football acumen against the Aggies.
McCarron's performance in the clutch of this contest will make him a favorite of coaches and evaluators in the pre-draft process. He repeatedly made the correct play in the late stages of the game, while showing the college football world he was capable of delivering the knockout blow with critical passes under pressure. McCarron efficiently completed passes on play-action and bootlegs with defenders in close proximity to extend drives and salt away the game. The execution of these plays is paramount to winning consistently in the NFL, which is why the senior McCarron could go much higher than many expect come draft day.
Johnny Football is a baller
The ex-player in me absolutely loves the way Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel performs in big games. He is not afraid of the moment, and appears to play better when the lights are the brightest.
I sensed that quality in Manziel after watching him dominate a few big games a season ago, but I fully grasped his love of the moment when I talked to him this summer at the Manning Passing Academy and the Elite 11 Finals. He told me how he patterned his game after the likes of Brett Favre, Michael Vick and Cam Newton, and how he lived for the challenge of competing against the "best of the best" in the SEC.
Of course, I privately questioned if Manziel had the proper focus and concentration to fulfill his immense potential after hearing about the series of off-field incidents, but watching him play in the biggest game of his young career, there is no doubt he has worked diligently on the rough spots of his game. Manziel is throwing the ball with more zip and velocity this season, while also displaying better accuracy and ball placement on his throws. While he is still at his best when playing in a "sandlot" fashion, he is definitely capable of making enough plays from the pocket to pick apart defenses intent on keeping him within the tackle box. Manziel's ability to string together completions, particularly on pass plays from empty formations, makes him nearly indefensible as a dual-threat playmaker.
With the Heisman Trophy winner possessing a flair for the dramatic and unbelievable resiliency following poor plays, it is hard to take issue with his on-field performance based on his knack for delivering in the clutch. Although Manziel's size and character will impact his final grade on NFL draft boards, there is little doubt he is a player with the skills to shine at the next level, whenever he decides to enter the draft.
Scout: Sutton has added 'bad weight'
Arizona State DT Will Sutton is viewed as an enigma in NFL circles. The 6-foot-1, 307-pound interior defender entered the season regarded as one of the best pass rushers in the country after posting 12 sacks a season ago, but scouts I've talked to are wondering if Sutton has lost his edge after gaining nearly 20 pounds in the offseason.
Talking to several evaluators at the Arizona State-Wisconsin game this weekend, I had a few guys tell me that Sutton looks sluggish and lacks the explosiveness that was a hallmark of his game in 2012. An AFC North personnel executive told me that Sutton has added "bad weight" and that his weight gain has taken away from his biggest assets -- speed and quickness. An NFC West scout suggested to me that Sutton needs to get in better shape and get his motor running to become the difference-maker some envision as a situational interior rusher in the NFL.
Wisconsin's Gordon on verge of stardom
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon is one of the most explosive runners in college football. The redshirt sophomore is averaging nearly 13 yards per carry this season for the Badgers, while displaying a crafty running style built on speed, quickness and wiggle. He has a knack for making defenders miss in the hole, but also shows the burst and acceleration to run away from defenders on the perimeter.
Last season, I caught a glimpse of Gordon's talent at the Big Ten Championship Game when he rushed for 216 yards on just nine carries. The majority of those yards were amassed on an assortment of fly-sweeps, which allowed him to turn the corner with his impressive speed and quickness.
However, Gordon's spectacular production in 2013, which includes a 193-yard outburst on Saturday against Arizona State, has been derived from more conventional runs between the tackles. He attacks the line of scrimmage patiently, but he understands when to shift gears in the hole. Gordon's sudden acceleration is impressive, particularly when given a clean hole by the Badgers' mammoth offensive line. With few Big Ten opponents possessing the size and strength to hold up at the point, Gordon might put up monster numbers as the feature back in the Badgers' punishing offense.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.