PASADENA, Calif. -- I've spent the last week traveling around the country watching the top 2017 NFL Draft prospects compete in bowl games. However, on Monday night in Pasadena, two potential picks for a draft beyond 2017 stole the show. USC redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley lit up the Rose Bowl scoreboard in a thrilling 52-49 USC victory.
Let's start with Darnold. I've been incredibly impressed with his play since he took over the starting job in the fourth game of the season. He's had magical moments, including a clutch performance on the road to defeat Washington. However, he saved his best performance for the biggest stage of his career. He torched the Penn State secondary for 453 yards and five touchdown passes. He was a perfect 10 for 10 in the fourth quarter and overcame a 14-point deficit to pull out a win.
He has ideal arm strength and athleticism, but the best part about his game is his uncanny poise. He never gets too high or too low during a game and he almost looks bored inside the pocket. When evaluating quarterbacks, poise is the second-most important trait, right behind accuracy. Darnold is one of the most poised signal-callers I've seen in the last few years. He showed it throughout the season and throughout this game.
Darnold's game-tying throw late in the fourth quarter was one of the top throws you'll ever see from a college quarterback. He showed tremendous touch and accuracy to squeeze the ball between three Penn State defenders, with the game on the line. He also made a few key runs when the opportunity presented itself. He will be eligible to apply for early draft entry next spring, and you can be sure of the fact that NFL teams will start evaluating him very soon.
If not for Darnold's heroic effort, the media would be gushing about Barkley's performance. I was at the Orange Bowl a couple days ago and this performance was just as impressive as Dalvin Cook's phenomenal effort against Michigan. Barkley finished with 194 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns while also catching 5 passes for 55 yards and another score.
He can do it all and he showed it in this game. He is bigger and faster in person than he looks on tape. His 79-yard touchdown run was a great example of his niftiness. He used a quick stop/start move, exploded to the perimeter and then cut back across the field before running away from the rest of the defense. It was one of the best runs I've seen this season.
He is a true three-down running back because of his ability to help out in the passing game. It won't make the highlights in this high-scoring game, but he made a big-time catch on his back hip while getting hit by a USC defender. He has the size and strength to hold up in pass protection as well. He even went back deep and showed off some kick-return skills in the second half of the game. The 2017 draft class is going to be loaded with running back talent, but Barkley made it known that the 2018 or '19 draft class might also have some star power at the position.
Some quick notes on other players I focused on during the Rose Bowl:
» Penn State WR Chris Godwin was the third-best player on the field. He racked up 9 catches for 187 yards and 2 scores. He made one difficult catch after another. His ability to adjust and high point the ball down the field was extremely impressive. It will be interesting to see if he decides to do apply for early draft entry. I haven't studied him on tape, but he made a big impression with this performance.
» USC CB Adoree' Jackson had an up-and-down game before exiting with an ankle injury at the end of the third quarter. He picked off a ball in the first quarter after it deflected off of a PSU receiver. He also flashed his playmaking ability on offense and in the return game. However, as has been the case throughout the year, Jackson also gave up some plays while in coverage. He was beat by Godwin for a touchdown and he also allowed a couple catches over the middle of the field. He's still a work in progress as a cornerback, but NFL evaluators love his upside. Fortunately, it sounds like his injury wasn't severe and shouldn't have an effect on his upcoming decision about staying at USC or pursuing his professional career.
» USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster made some big plays for the Trojans. He finished with 7 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. He has ideal size and he used his big frame to box out defenders down the field on a few occasions. However, he did have one costly drop on a perfectly thrown skinny post, and I wish he would've been a little more aggressive on a few slant routes. His draft stock will rise or fall based on how he runs (should he elect to enter the 2017 draft). There is concern among evaluators that he's going to run the 40-yard dash in the mid-to-high 4.6s. If he can run in the 4.5s, it could significantly help his cause.