Jordan Lynch probably will fall short in his quest to win the Heisman Trophy, but he is certainly one of the best college players that I've seen step between the lines in the last 20 years.
The Northern Illinois standout is a quintessential playmaker at the quarterback position, with the capacity to torment opponents with his arm or legs. Entering the MAC Championship Game, Lynch had tallied 22 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing scores in 2013. He is the fifth member of the exclusive 20/20 club, with three of the previous members (Johnny Manziel, 2012; Cam Newton, 2010; and Tim Tebow, 2007) walking away with college football's most prestigious individual honor.
A faction of college football observers started to push Lynch as a worthy candidate for the Heisman Trophy, given his addition to the distinguished 20/20 club. With the buzz swirling about his potential to unseat Jameis Winston for the award, I decided to take a trip to Detroit to see Lynch in action at the MAC Championship Game and see if his game was truly worthy of recognition. Here are my observations from Bowling Green's 47-27 win over Northern Illinois:
Lynch is a "baller," but he didn't bring his A-game against Bowling Green.
That's the highest compliment a coach, teammate or opponent can bestow on a football player. It is the ultimate sign of respect for a player's game, yet few guys are able to earn that distinction from their peers. After watching Lynch perform in person, I can only describe the kid as one of the grittiest competitors that I've seen. He plays every play like it is his last, and he leaves it all out on the field. Now, I will be the first to admit that his game isn't aesthetically pleasing, but he has a knack for playmaking that is uncanny. Lynch is a rough and rugged runner adept at running the quarterback power and counter between the tackles. He bounces off tacklers like a pinball and finds a way to break off big runs despite facing loaded boxes with defenders intent on keeping him contained.
Against the Falcons, however, Lynch struggled finding running room for most of the night. He repeatedly ran into a brick wall at the line of scrimmage. Lynch finished the night with only 126 yards on 26 carries (most came in garbage time in the fourth quarter); he didn't produce many big gains against a stingy Falcons' defense. As a passer, Lynch had a tough time stringing together completions. He repeatedly missed the mark on vertical throws, keeping the Huskies from exploiting some of the Falcons' aggressive coverage tactics. On short and intermediate passes, Lynch didn't exhibit good accuracy and ball placement. He frequently overthrew open receivers on deep outs and comebacks despite having plenty of room to connect. The wayward throws highlighted Lynch's inconsistencies as a passer, leading me to believe he lacks the pocket skills to excel at the position at the next level.
Although NFL scouts will certainly keep Lynch's disappointing performance in perspective, I believe the showing could seriously dent his prospects of claiming college football's top individual honor.
Is Matt Johnson the next great MAC quarterback?
The unheralded conference has been the home to a number of talented quarterbacks throughout the years; Johnson might be the next one to carry the torch. The 6-foot, 215-pound sophomore was outstanding against the Huskies on Friday night. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 393 yards with five touchdowns. While those numbers are certainly eye-popping, it was the tremendous display of poise, accuracy and anticipation that caught my attention from my press box seat. Johnson repeatedly delivered accurate strikes to Falcons' receivers in stride despite throwing on the move or from awkward platforms in the pocket. Additionally, Johnson displayed sneaky mobility and running skills eluding rushers on impromptu scrambles.
Granted, this performance was my first exposure to Johnson, but the guy looks like a player to me. He not only showed the physical skills to make nearly every throw in the book, but he played the part of a magician tossing shovel passes to open receivers near the end zone. Although these plays were certainly risky, the fact that Johnson had the nerve to attempt them says a lot about his confidence and big-game moxie.
Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward will be a solid pro safety.
The transformation of the NFL into a passing league makes it imperative for teams to identify safeties with corner-like skills. Ward certainly fits the bill as a natural ball hawk with terrific instincts and anticipation. The senior standout has a knack for getting around the ball; defensive coaches will love adding his playmaking skills to the backend. Watching Ward closely during the MAC Championship Game, I came away impressed with his footwork, movement skills and awareness. He moves like a big corner in space, yet displays the toughness to make solid tackles in the box. While some scouts will have concerns about his size (Ward is listed at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds), the fact that he can possibly play as a nickel corner/safety could make him an enticing option near the end of Day 3.
With a chance to sell his case to a legion of NFL evaluators at the Senior Bowl, Ward should be a name to follow leading up to the NFL Combine.