|Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press|
|Michigan State QB Connor Cook impressed Bucky Brooks with his poise and accuracy against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.|
The 100th Rose Bowl was considered the marquee matchup of the bowl season by several scouts around the NFL, with a number of intriguing prospects taking the field in Pasadena. Although there weren't many household names on the big stage, I decided to make a trip to see how a handful of underrated playmakers would perform in a big game. Here are my thoughts:
Hogan, Cook among strong 2015 QB class
The quality of quarterback play in the college football landscape bodes well for NFL teams looking for franchise quarterbacks down the road. I outlined this fact about the next generation of quarterbacks a few weeks ago; I remained convinced that the game is in good hands after watching Kevin Hogan and Connor Cook battle it out in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Entering the game, observers questioned whether Cook could duplicate his spectacular performance in the Big Ten championship game a few weeks ago. He was on fire against the Buckeyes in that contest, but didn't face a defense as disciplined as the Cardinal's. Scouts wanted to see if he had the poise and patience to rely on a "connect the dots" approach to engineer an upset win. Additionally, evaluators wanted to see if Cook could make big-time throws to all areas of the field with the game on the line.
Looking at Cook attack the Cardinal defense, I was impressed with his poise, confidence and resiliency. He didn't appear overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game, settling in quickly after two non-productive series in the first quarter. Cook found his rhythm by connecting on a handful of throws from the Spartans' movement-based passing game. He displayed pinpoint accuracy and ball placement throwing sprint-out passes to his right and left. More important, he showed surprising athleticism completing passes on the run.
As a pocket passer, Cook showed outstanding anticipation and awareness throwing to receivers open on in-breaking routes between the hashes. Those throws were pro-caliber, particularly when considering the pressure Cook faced on several of his pass attempts.
Cook's performance wasn't flawless. He got away with a few poor throws that should've been interceptions, and his pick-six at the end of the first half was the result of a horrible decision from the pocket. To his credit, Cook bounced back and led the Spartans to touchdown following an impressive two-minute drill. The overall resiliency and mental toughness exhibited after the mistake is an encouraging sign for a young, developing quarterback.
Hogan didn't put up impressive numbers against the Spartans' stifling defense, but he showed flashes of greatness at the position. He made a handful of pinpoint tosses on vertical routes that showcased his above-average arm strength and range. Additionally, Hogan made a few throws over the middle of the field that highlighted his sound footwork and fundamentals in the pocket. He correctly anticipated the open window down the field and led his receiver to the spot with the throw. While he didn't get many opportunities to show off his pocket-passing skills, the glimpses are enough to feel good about his developmental potential down the road. With Hogan also flashing impressive athleticism and running skills executing the read-option on third down, scouts will rave about his versatility in meetings with general managers and head coaches over the summer.
Gaffney likely a rotational player at next level
It seems crazy to project a runner with more than 1,600 rushing yards as a part-time player at the next level, but Stanford RB Tyler Gaffney is considered a highly productive player without blue chip characteristics for the position. Sure, there are a handful of runners in the NFL without exceptional speed and burst, but it's hard to consistently pick up yardage in the pro game without elite physical tools.
While Gaffney has the physical dimensions (6-1, 226 pounds) coaches covet in downhill runners, scouts question his quickness, agility and explosiveness. Talking to an NFC South scout before the game, he told me that Gaffney benefits from playing behind arguably the best offensive line in football, allowing him to routinely work past the line of scrimmage before fielding contact from a defender. Although he respected Gaffney's game, he didn't see the senior as an elite player when he studied the Cardinal star in the fall.
Watching Gaffney work against the Spartans, I wasn't impressed with his speed, quickness or burst. Although he racked up 75 yards on 18 carries, including a 47-yard jaunt, he struggled finding creases in the defense when the play wasn't blocked perfectly at the point of attack. He lacked the elusiveness, agility and pitter-pat to turn negative plays into positive gains. Scouts view this as an important characteristic when evaluating running backs, so Gaffney's lack of creativity will affect his overall draft grade.
In addition, I was a bit surprised by Gaffney's inability to consistently pick up yardage after contact. He frequently went down after initial contact and didn't finish runs aggressively. His 16-yard touchdown run was fueled by Gaffney breaking a tackle in the secondary, but he didn't run through many tackles the rest of the day. Given his frame, Gaffney must display better strength and power against elite defenders to be considered a prospective feature runner at the next level.
I also thought it was telling that the Cardinal didn't give the ball to Gaffney on a critical fourth-and-1 situation with the game on the line. In those instances, the ball is expected to go to the best player on offense. I believe it says a lot that David Shaw elected to hand the ball to another player with the game hanging in the balance.
The "No Fly Zone" is legit
Michigan State's defense has received a lot of attention this season, but I can't write a recap on the Rose Bowl without throwing a few bouquets in the direction of the Spartans' secondary. The unit boasts a likely first-round prospect in Darqueze Dennard, but Trae Waynes, Kurtis Drummond, Isaiah Lewis and R.J. Williamson deserve a mention based on their outstanding play. The Spartans surrendered only 143 yards through the air despite playing a "Quarters" scheme that essentially put the secondary in man coverage based on pattern reads.
Dennard and Waynes, in particular, played press-man coverage extensively throughout the game. The dynamic duo challenged Cardinal receivers at every turn without assistance from a deep safety on most downs. While the absence of Ty Montgomery for parts of the second half made the job easier, the Spartans' cornerbacks deserve a ton of credit for doing what they've done all year to Big Ten opponents. Waynes was challenged repeatedly on vertical routes but didn't flinch when the Cardinal appeared to attack him relentlessly down the field. He snagged a key interception on an overthrow on a post-route by maintaining ideal position on his receiver throughout the down. Additionally, he showed terrific agility and movement skills shadowing receivers on the perimeter utilizing press or bail technique. Waynes' frame (6-1, 185 pounds) is ideally suited to play at the next level, and his performance could catapult him into the discussion as one of the top cover corners in the country next season.
Dennard was already entrenched as one of the top corners in the 2014 class; he didn't disappoint with his play against the Cardinal. He blanketed receivers on the short side of the field without a safety protecting him over the top. Additionally, Dennard played a role in the Spartans' spectacular defensive performance by routinely blitzing off the edge on cornerback "cats." Although he isn't the stoutest player on the perimeter, he exhibits the physicality and toughness that coaches look for in starting corners. With few cornerbacks in the 2014 class capable of matching Dennard's sound technical skills and overall physicality, it is possible that he will rate near the top of the board at the position when draft day arrives.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.