As good as I thought Oregon QB Marcus Mariota was before Monday night's Alamo Bowl, I might be even more impressed with him now.
We saw his performance suffer as he played the last part of the regular season with a partially torn MCL. He still might not be 100 percent, but looked like the Mariota of old in a lot of ways in Monday's 30-7 win over Texas. In fact, I thought last night he ran with even more purpose than he had before. He ran with a little bit more of an edge, rushing for a game-high 133 yards on 15 carries.
I've said it before -- you can't just run to protect. You can't just run to get out of trouble. Players must run to cause damage downfield, and I'm not talking about running over people. I'm talking about picking up nine yards on third-and-8 and breaking the heart of a defense. I'm talking about picking up valuable yardage. Mariota did that in a big way last night. He's still accurate throwing the ball. He showed the calm demeanor we're used to seeing from him. However, he is tougher than whatever credit he has ever received for toughness.
Mariota is a legit star prospect and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with the Ducks next season.
Here are more of my observations on the top prospects in the Alamo Bowl:
Oregon CB among nation's best
During the season, we talked a lot about Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard being the top two corners in college football. I've got news for you -- Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is not far from being in that category, if not already in that category. We don't yet know if he'll declare for the 2014 draft, but his future looks very promising.
Why wasn't Ekpre-Olomu getting more national praise this season? Well, Oregon fell off the radar a bit when it lost to Stanford and fell even further after the loss to Arizona. Dennard is heading for the Rose Bowl. Gilbert was playing for a conference title up until the last week of the regular season. That's why we haven't heard as much about Ekpre-Olomu.
He's a physical tackler with a high football IQ. I think he can play safety, somewhat like Tyrann Mathieu, at the next level. I don't know if he's as instinctive as the Honey Badger, but he can do that in certain sets in the NFL and would be a terrific ballhawk playing inside. He has that type of ability.
Finding the right spot for Jeffcoat
I will be interested to see what position Jackson Jeffcoat, a senior who had a strip sack of Mariota, plays in the NFL. I think Jeffcoast, who won the Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, is going to be tested often as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He stood up a lot as this season went on and came from different angles as a pass rusher. He has good speed, and great bloodlines. His dad, Jim, played for the Cowboys and Bills. He taught him to pass rush like a pitcher. You have to throw curveballs, sliders and changeups to keep blockers off balance. We're going to keep an eye on the player opposite him at defensive end, too, in Cedric Reed. He really came on this season and pushed Jeffcoat to make him better. If he returns for another college season, he'll become that featured defensive end for Texas that Jeffcoat was this season.
Reggie Bush a model for Thomas
I'm a big fan of Oregon RB De'Anthony Thomas, but I think he's a true space player. If he's going to come into the league as a running back, he would have to be used similar to the way the Saints utilized Reggie Bush when he entered the league. When Thomas gets into space, defenses are in trouble, but I don't think he's a front-line ball carrier. If Thomas decides to enter the draft, Oregon is well stocked at running back with Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.
Oregon WR runs like a back
Oregon senior Josh Huff is a classic case of a running back playing wide receiver. As soon as he gets the ball in his hands, he moves like a rusher, as we saw Monday night when he turned a shovel pass into a 16-yard sprint for a touchdown, breaking tackles before taking bodies with him as he dived into the end zone. At the college level, he's done it all. You can throw it to him, you can hand it to him or pitch it to him. He's built very strong.