When I was an NFL scout, there was nothing like watching a prospect play in a big game to determine if he had the goods to play at the next level. After witnessing Michigan's Devin Gardner's performance against Notre Dame Saturday night, I'm convinced he is not only capable of playing in the NFL but has the tools to be a franchise quarterback.
Now, I must admit I've been smitten by Gardner's talents since watching him work at the Manning Passing Academy this summer. He was arguably the most explosive athlete in attendance, but also displayed the kind of arm talent that makes offensive coordinators salivate at the possibility of building a scheme around an explosive dual-threat quarterback. Gardner also impressed me with his football acumen when we sat around and discussed X's and O's in an informal setting.
While those traits are certainly admirable, I couldn't gauge his upside until I watched him perform in a pressure-packed situation as a starter. Against Notre Dame, Gardner showed the complete array of skills coaches find desirable in a starter. He capably made strong throws to every area of the field, while also showing a deft touch dropping in teardrops near the sideline. He flashed ability to make accurate throws on the move to either direction, which makes him a terror to defend on bootlegs and naked passes. Factor in Gardner's ability to execute the zone-read and some designed quarterback runs, and he becomes a dangerous weapon in the backfield.
Gardner also showed resiliency and poise bouncing back from a poor decision that led to a pick-six score for Notre Dame. He immediately completed his next pass without hesitation, and led the Wolverines to a game-clinching score a few possessions later. Gardner's courage and willingness to make tight-window throws following an interception speaks volumes about his leadership, maturity and poise as a potential franchise player.
With only seven starts in his collegiate career, Gardner still has a lot to learn about playing the position at a high level, but his flashes of brilliance has scouts excited about the possibilities. Given another year and a half to work through the rough spots in his game, the junior quarterback could be a tantalizing choice as a face of a franchise in the 2015 draft.
Calhoun stock on rise
Defensive coaches are captivated by disruptive playmakers, which is why scouts are paying close attention to the play of Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun. The red-shirt sophomore has scored three defensive touchdowns in two games, while also tallying a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and a handful of quarterback hurries. He has also shown a combination of athleticism and rush skills that has put him on the radar of scouts since entering Michigan State as a highly regarded recruit out of New Jersey three years ago.
Looking at tape of Calhoun's play from the past two weeks, I've been most impressed with his instincts, awareness and anticipation as a frontline ball hawk for the Spartans. He not only shows a strong nose for the ball, but he has a feel for executing the "scoop and score" that is uncommon for a guy who plays primarily with his hand in the dirt. With turnover mavens coveted at a premium, the scouts will continue to monitor Calhoun's play to see if he has the goods to blossom into a top playmaker at the next level.
Beckham Jr. intriguing player
When I worked for Mike Holmgren as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks, he told me to play close attention to receivers with exceptional return skills. He believed punt returners, in particular, possessed the kind of running skills to thrive in a West Coast offensive system that places a premium on yards after the catch.
I paid close attention on Saturday to Odell Beckham Jr., LSU's dynamic and versatile wide receiver. And he did not disappoint, amassing 331 all-purpose yards with four combined touchdowns against Alabama-Birmingham, including a 100-yard return off a missed field goal (see video above). It marked the second week in a row he has delivered a big play in the kicking game, which will certainly excite offensive-minded coaches looking for additional ways to put points on the board.
Beckham has the tools to thrive in a scheme that places receivers in catch-and-run situations on the perimeter. Measuring 6-foot, 187 pounds with 4.4 speed, he is an explosive athlete with quickness and acceleration. He gets to top speed in a hurry, and flashes the burst to separate from defenders out of the break. While he is not a polished route runner at this stage of his career, Beckham's combination of speed and burst allows him to make plays on the perimeter as a vertical route runner.
After entering the season as one of the top three offensive tackles in college football, Alabama junior Cyrus Kouandjio has some work to do following a dismal performance against Virginia Tech. Kouandijo struggled handling the speed and quickness of the Hokies' defensive ends, which resulted in a pair of sacks and numerous quarterback hurries from the left side.
While he is not solely responsible for the leaky protection in the pocket, the fact that he failed to sufficiently protect AJ McCarron's blindside raises major concerns about his ability to develop into a franchise tackle at the next level. An AFC personnel director told me he thought Kouandjio might be a better right tackle at the next level based on his struggles against speed and quickness against the Hokies.
Of course, one poor showing doesn't completely alter a scout's grade on a player, but it will lead them to view Alabama's next few games with a ton of intrigue, particularly the marquee match up this week with Texas A&M. While the Aggies don't have an established pass rusher on the defensive line, the fact the unit is loaded with explosive athletes will give evaluators another opportunity to see how well Kouandjio handles speed and explosiveness off the edge. If he turns in another poor performance in front of a large contingent of NFL scouts, Kouandjio could see his stock plummet dramatically.
Colorado wideout impressive
It's hard to imagine one high school producing three NFL-caliber receivers in a two-year span, but Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif., is on the verge of accomplishing such a feat with Colorado's Paul Richardson and USC's Marqise Lee set to join Robert Woods as potential high-round selections in the 2014 draft. While most of the college football world is familiar with Lee's sensational game, Richardson is quickly becoming a household name after posting back-to-back 200-yard games to start the season.
The Colorado standout has bounced back from a torn ACL injury that kept him out of the 2012 season to lead the nation after two weeks with 417 receiving yards. He is averaging a ridiculous 19.9 yards per reception, and scored four times in two weeks. While Richardson's slender frame (6-foot-1, 170 pounds) will cause some scouts to worry about his durability, the fact he has displayed big-play ability and explosive speed throughout his career will make him an intriguing Day 2 possibility in the 2014 draft.