|Gerald Herbert/Associated Press|
|LSU running back Jeremy Hill has off-field issues, but there's no doubting his ability on the field.|
The classic, downhill running back is on the verge of extinction in college football, but that only makes NFL scouts more appreciative of a workhorse runner when they see one.
With LSU's Jeremy Hill showing impressive running skills and a rugged game that is ideally suited for grinding it out between the tackles, the buzz is slowly growing in NFL circles that Hill could be a legitimate bell cow at the next level.
Now, I know the character concerns and off-field issues surrounding Hill will make some NFL scouts pause, but his talent warrants serious consideration based on his spectacular performance since rejoining the Tigers' lineup this fall. In three appearances, Hill has totaled 351 rushing yards on 42 carries with six touchdowns. He has topped the 100-yard mark in consecutive games and sports an impressive 8.4 yards per attempt on the season. Those numbers are remarkable for any running back, especially a power runner who grinds it out between the tackles.
Watching tape of Hill's play against Kent State and Auburn, I believe the 6-foot-2, 235-pound sophomore is an old-school power runner with a dynamic game. He excels at moving piles between the tackles, yet shows surprising speed and quickness getting to the second level. His acceleration and burst is uncommon for a runner of his size, which makes him a tough runner to bring down in the secondary. With Hill also displaying terrific vision and instincts, it is easy to fall in love with his ability to make plays against a loaded box.
Although Hill must sustain his impressive play against a tough SEC slate that includes dates with Georgia and Alabama, the fact that he has already topped the 100-yard mark five times against SEC competition suggests that he is built to shine against top defenses. If he continues to dazzle with the spotlight squarely on him, NFL scouts will certainly consider him an intriguing franchise-caliber running back in a few years.
QB James Franklin, Missouri
It doesn't take long to go from a hero to a zero in the eyes of NFL scouts, which is why the pressure was on Missouri QB James Franklin to bounce back from a miserable 2012 campaign. The spectacular dual-threat playmaker completed only 59.4 percent of his passes and posted a pedestrian 10:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a junior while battling through a host of injuries that forced him to miss three games. Those disappointing totals stood in stark contrast to the numbers posted by Franklin during a sensational sophomore season that saw him nearly join the exclusive 3,000-yard passing/1,000-yard rushing club.
After watching Franklin account for nearly 1,000 yards of total offense through three games of the 2013 season, however, I believe the Missouri standout is working his way back onto the radar of scouts looking for dynamic weapons to add to the lineup. As a passer, Franklin has been more decisive from the pocket and has shown improved accuracy on intermediate throws. Although his three interceptions would suggest that he remains careless with the football, Franklin has shown resiliency bouncing back from those miscues to get the Tigers back on track. When I spoke to him before the season at the Manning Passing Academy, he said an offseason emphasis was being positive as a leader. He also talked about learning how to command the huddle and take on a bigger leadership role as a senior. Those traits are not only necessary to become a successful quarterback as a collegian, but they are necessary to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL.
While it's still too early to determine if Franklin will emerge as a legitimate draft-worthy prospect as a quarterback, it's very likely that a team could find him as an intriguing offensive weapon based on his size, athleticism and speed. With Denard Robinson paving the way for athletic college quarterbacks to make an NFL roster as a versatile playmaker in the backfield, Franklin is likely to get a shot to make his mark in the NFL.
WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
The Pac-12 conference has long housed some of the best wide receivers in college football. This year is no exception, with USC's Marqise Lee, UCLA's Shaq Evans, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Stanford's Ty Montgomery. While each has certainly had his moments this season, the best receiver in the conference has been Oregon State's Brandin Cooks.
Now, I know his more accomplished peers are certainly deserving of effusive praise, but none has been as productive as Cooks through the first few weeks of the season. Cooks has totaled 43 receptions for 639 yards with seven touchdowns. Most impressive, he has a pair of games with at least 13 receptions and has displayed a game built on speed, quickness and burst. Additionally, Cooks has shown impressive short-area quickness and running skills that make him a legitimate threat to take it the distance whenever he touches the ball in the open field.
When I talked to an NFC South scout about Cooks, he told me the Oregon State star is "more dynamic than (Markus) Wheaton" and has the tools to be a legitimate playmaker at the next level. Although he suggested to me that Cooks needs to do a better job taking care of the ball, the scout said he believes the junior receiver could quickly rise up the charts this season and emerge as a solid Day 2 prospect in the 2014 draft if he skips his final year of eligibility.
TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina
The changing job description of the tight end at the NFL level has prompted scouts to look for versatile athletes with size, length and agility. With those parameters in mind, it is not surprising evaluators are smitten with the talent and potential displayed by North Carolina's Eric Ebron this season.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior was already on the radar of NFL scouts following an impressive sophomore campaign that saw him snag 40 passes for 625 yards and four touchdowns. He capably runs every route in the playbook but is at his best executing vertical routes down the seam. Ebron blows past linebackers and safeties down the pipe and uses his size and length to post up defenders unable to match his size and physicality over the middle of the field. In fact, Ebron was such a tenacious athlete that the Tar Heels used him occasionally at defensive end to bolster a sagging pass rush. Although he only made modest contributions as a part-time defender, the use of Ebron on the defensive side of the ball only speaks to his athleticism and versatility.
Against Georgia Tech last weekend, Ebron showcased his varied talents and potential by totaling 108 receiving yards on six catches. He added a touchdown reception on a remarkable one-handed grab that is one of the many highlight-reel-worthy plays that he has made throughout his career. Ebron also displayed impressive running skills on a clever shovel pass. It's not a surprise the Tar Heel star is beginning to attract attention from NFL scouts searching for a Jimmy Graham-like playmaker between the hashes.