When scouts are assigned to evaluate the top prospects within their region, it is important to schedule multiple visits to the school to get an accurate gauge on the development of the player during his final season. While it is hard to shake the initial impression formulated on the first visit, astute scouts are willing to tweak their grades when they spot improvement or regression in a player's performance in a critical area when they closely examine game tape from later in the year. Thus, it is important for top prospects to finish their respective seasons playing at their best to convince scouts that their games are on the rise as they head into the NFL.
Looking at UCLA QB Brett Hundley light it up against USC over the weekend, I believe scouts are struggling to determine which grade to put on the junior standout after watching him steadily improve since the middle of the season. Since a disappointing performance against Utah, the Bruins' star quarterback has been arguably the best player in college football. He has completed 71.6 percent of his passes (151 of 211 attempts) for 1,563 yards with a 11:3 touchdown to interception ratio during the team's last six games. Hundley has rushed for 444 yards and six touchdowns during that span while guiding the Bruins to a 5-1 mark.
Although the redshirt junior has always rung up big numbers as the director of the Bruins' fast-paced attack, it has been his decision to get back to the style of play that made him one of the most intriguing prospects in college football that has the scouting community abuzz. Hundley has wisely ignored the whispers from scouts and media members to show NFL officials that he has the tools to shine as a pocket passer and returned to playing like the dual-threat playmaker that torched Pac-12 defenses throughout his career.
Since taking 10 sacks in a dismal showing against Utah, Hundley has made a concerted effort to use his legs to make plays outside of the pocket. He has been more willing to scramble when the pocket collapses and been a bigger part of the running game on designed quarterback runs. As a result, the Bruins' offense has more dimensions and is finally looking like the juggernaut many expected prior to the season.
From an evaluation standpoint, Hundley remains a work in progress as a pocket passer. He continues to occasionally misfire on vertical routes down the boundary; his anticipation and timing on intermediate throws isn't quite at an elite level. But he has been more decisive and efficient playing from the pocket in recent weeks. From getting the ball out of his hands quicker on short and intermediate throws to making quicker decisions to flee the pocket, Hundley's improved decisiveness has allowed him to better exploit the vulnerable areas of the defense.
Now, Hundley must continue to refine his instincts and awareness within the pocket to be an effective player at the next level down the road, but scouts and coaches can certainly craft a plan to help Hundley succeed as a playmaker as a pro until his game rounds into form, much like Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill have done with their respective teams. Given the overall uncertainty of the 2015 quarterback class, Hundley's recent play will certainly keep him in the conversation as a possible franchise quarterback in NFL circles.
RB Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: Somewhere Barry Switzer is flashing a sheepish grin after watching Perine conjure up images of yesteryear with his record-setting performance against Kansas. The true freshman shattered the newly established FBS-single game rushing record by rumbling for 427 yards on 34 attempts. Perine displayed impressive quickness, vision and agility maneuvering through traffic while also flashing the strength and power to run through contact at the end of runs. With Perine also notching five rushing scores, the Sooners were able to lean on a run-heavy game plan to knock off the Jayhawks. If Perine can continue to provide steady production as the Sooners' workhorse runner, Bob Stoops could be inclined to turn back the clock and rely on the run-centric game plan to help the Sooners get back on track in 2015.
WR Justin Hardy, East Carolina: Whenever a former walk-on cracks the starting lineup and makes a significant contribution as a playmaker, scouts certainly respect the "feel good" story. But when that player breaks the FBS record for career receptions and displays the physical ability to thrive at the next level, scouts will make strong arguments to their peers that the prospect deserves a solid grade when the draft board is put together in pre-draft meetings. Hardy has worked his way into Day 2 consideration by displaying strong hands, ball skills and precise route-running ability on the way to snagging 355 receptions for the Pirates during his four-year career. Against Tulane, Hardy continued to solidify his resume as a standout receiver with a nine-catch, 104-yard effort that pushed him past Ryan Broyles on the reception list. Given the importance of production on a scout's final evaluation, Hardy's outstanding numbers will make him an intriguing player to watch throughout the pre-draft process.
WR/PR Jalin Marshall, Ohio State: Some of the best receivers in the NFL are former high school quarterbacks who've made the transition to pass catchers during their collegiate days. Marshall could be the next one to follow the blueprint to the pros. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound redshirt freshman is starting to come into his own as a dynamic playmaker for the Buckeyes, exhibiting exceptional quickness and running skills on the perimeter. Additionally, Marshall has flashed strong hands and terrific ball skills, as evidenced by his one-handed touchdown grab against Indiana. Marshall scored four touchdowns in the Ohio State win over the Hoosiers. With Marshall also exhibiting big-time skills as a punt returner, the Buckeyes' young playmaker is already on the radar of scouts searching for dynamic athletes.
WR Vince Mayle, Washington State: The best-kept secret on the West Coast has been squarely on the radar of scouts since the beginning of the season. Evaluators are fascinated by the long-term potential of the 6-3, 219-pound senior. Mayle is a big-bodied pass catcher with outstanding ball skills who has grown into a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the Cougars' passing game. Against Arizona State, Mayle snagged 15 passes for 252 yards while displaying impressive athleticism, explosiveness and leaping ability. Mayle's ability to win 50-50 balls on the perimeter makes him an intriguing option for a team desperately looking for a big-bodied athlete to use on jump balls in the red zone. Considering the impact big, athletic receivers are making in today's game, Mayle's size and talent could make him a fast riser on draft boards during the pre-draft process.
QB Marquise Williams, North Carolina: The Tar Heels' standout quarterback is playing the position better than anyone in the ACC, including the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Williams has accounted for 18 total touchdowns (nine passing; nine rushing) in the Tar Heels' last five games while helping the team to a 4-1 mark during that span. Most importantly, Williams has given the Tar Heels' offense a spark with his explosive skills as a dual-threat playmaker and helped the team become bowl eligible for the third straight season. Although Williams' game isn't ideally suited for the NFL, the fact that he has accounted for 32 total scores in 2014 will certainly raise eyebrows in the scouting community.
DE Markus Golden, Missouri: Nagging injuries have prevented Golden from fully playing to his potential this season, but the senior has been coming on like gangbusters in recent weeks. Golden has notched four sacks in the past two weeks as a destructive force off the edge for the Tigers. Against Tennessee, Golden tallied two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, six total tackles, recovered a fumble and had two quarterback hurries in a 29-21 win. The sensational effort pushed Golden's sack total to 7.5 for the season and puts the Tigers' senior back into the conversation as one of the most intriguing pass rushers in the 2015 class.
Ole Miss offense: Hugh Freeze's fast-paced offense helped the Rebels crack the top 5 this season, but the unit has struggled scoring points or consistently churning out first downs in recent weeks. Of course, the loss of WR1 Laquon Treadwell certainly robbed the Rebels of their top offensive weapon, but the lack of a consistent running game or steady playmaking through the air have greatly contributed to the team's three-game SEC losing streak. Bo Wallace's inconsistent play has also been a factor in the Rebels' recent woes, with the senior tossing a pair of interceptions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas. With the Rebels' offense sputtering towards the finish line, Freeze and Co. need to take a long, hard look at their approach before facing a stingy Mississippi State defense in the Egg Bowl.
Coach Steve Sarkisian, USC: The Trojans' blowout loss to UCLA might've highlighted the significant personnel and coaching advantage the crosstown rival currently enjoys in this matchup. The Bruins pushed the Trojans around and clearly owned the physical battle at the point of attack. Most importantly, the Trojans didn't look significantly better than the team trotted out by Lane Kiffin a year ago. Given the general disdain for his predecessor, Sarkisian has to deliver better results in the rivalry game to help USC reclaim its spot at the top of the Pac-12.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Florida State:The Seminoles are winning, but the team isn't getting enough respect for its 27-game winning streak. Despite facing a number of second-half deficits this season, the Seminoles have repeatedly discovered ways to win games despite facing everyone's best shot. While SEC supporters will cite a weak conference schedule, the fact that the Seminoles have dispatched three teams that were ranked at the time of that meeting makes their weak arguments moot at this time.
2. Oregon: The Ducks are playing the best football of any team in the country. Marcus Mariota has been brilliant running the fast-break offense, while the defense is finally rounding into form under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum. If the Ducks can finish the season with impressive wins against Oregon State and the Pac-12 South champ, they might deserve the top seed heading into the postseason tournament.
3. Alabama: Nick Saban's squad is solid on both sides of the ball, but the looming showdown against Auburn will reveal if the Crimson Tide has enough firepower to win a shootout against a heavyweight. Lane Kiffin has certainly added dimensions to the offensive attack, but Blake Sims must continue to show foes that he can make enough plays with his arm to keep defenders from focusing extensively on stopping the Alabama's potent running game.
4. Ohio State: The Big 12 champion will merit some consideration in this spot, but it is hard to ignore the steady improvement of the Buckeyes over the course of the season. Urban Meyer's bunch have reeled off nine straight wins following a disappointing loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett is making a strong case to be considered the best player in the country. With a team that is as hot as any in the country, Meyer has every right to tout his young squad as a deserving contender in the playoff hunt.
Heisman Trophy Watch
1. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The Ducks' star has been consistently spectacular for most of the season. He has amassed 42 total touchdowns this year and posted five 300-yard passing games. Those numbers are enough to make Mariota the favorite for the award if he closes the season with solid performances against Oregon State and in the Pac-12 conference championship game.
2. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Gordon saw his single-game rushing record fall after holding it for only a week, but he continued to make a strong case for his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy by surpassing the 2,000-yard mark with his 31-carry, 200-yard effort in a 26-24 win over Iowa. Additionally, Gordon scored his 24th and 25th rushing touchdowns of the season and notched his fifth 200-yard game of the year. Running backs are not en vogue, but it is hard to ignore Gordon's dominance as one of the top runners in college football.
3. QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: The redshirt freshman has pushed the Buckeyes into playoff contention with his stellar play on the perimeter. Barrett has torched Big Ten competition with his arm talent and athleticism on the way to scoring 42 total touchdowns (33 passing; nine rushing) as the ultimate dual-threat playmaker for the Buckeyes. With Barrett emerging as one of the most dynamic scorers in college football, it is time to discuss the redshirt freshman as a viable candidate for the award.