Is it the talent or the system?
That's the question scouts will wrestle with when they take a long, hard look at Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon during the pre-draft process. Despite shattering the single-game rushing record with a 408-yard effort against Nebraska and challenging the single-season rushing mark (2,628 rushing yards) held by Barry Sanders, scouts will question whether Gordon's talent will translate into production at the pro level after watching a number of Badgers fail to carve out NFL careers despite dominating in college.
Since 2005, the Badgers have featured at least one 1,000-yard rusher in the lineup -- Gordon (2), Montee Ball (2), John Clay (2), P.J. Hill and Brian Calhoun. None made a mark in the NFL as a long-term contributor. While there are always mitigating factors that could contribute to a prospect's inability to crack a rotation, the fact that the Badgers haven't produced a quality NFL running back since Ron Dayne will lead skeptics to wonder if Gordon really has the goods to be a dynamic runner at the next level.
It's hard to dispute Gordon's impressive combination of size (6-1, 207), speed (reportedly in mid-to-low 4.4-range in the 40) and vision when watching Gordon on tape. He exhibits excellent quickness and acceleration in the hole while also displaying the patience and "pitter-pat" to get to the second level. Gordon seemingly cruises through the line to get to the second level, but he shifts gears rapidly to run away from defenders in traffic. As a result, Gordon shines on perimeter runs designed to hit off-tackle or on jet-sweeps that allow him to turn the corner with a full head of steam. He is a threat to score from anywhere on the field; the constant attention on Gordon in the backfield allows the Badgers to use him as a decoy on jet-sweeps or reverses to create big-play opportunities for others.
As an inside runner, Gordon displays the instincts, vision and agility to find creases on the backside while also exhibiting the power to run through blockers at the point of attack. In fact, I was surprised at Gordon's improvement as an inside runner from a season ago; it is one of the reasons why I believe he can succeed at the next level in a zone-based system that allows him to run on railroad tracks to the point of attack. Gordon's speed, burst and eye discipline will help him consistently post positive gains, which is critical to success as a pro.
During the summer, I likened Gordon's game to that of a young Darren McFadden (before injuries) because of his straight-line speed and quickness, but I can see him evolving into a more complete player at the position. Gordon has home-run ability that coaches and scouts covet, and his willingness to grind it out between the tackles suggests that he will succeed outside of the Badgers' system.
RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Whenever a running back tops the 300-yard mark against major college competition, scouts take notice. Coleman continues to generate a ton of buzz in NFL circles after running roughshod over Rutgers to the tune of 302 yards on 32 carries in a 45-23 loss. Although Coleman's production didn't help the Hoosiers get a conference win, the fact that he churned out so much production against a variety of loaded boxes suggests that he has the stuff needed to be a feature back at the next level. With nine 100-yard games this season, including three in which he rushed for at least 200 yards, Coleman has the production to match his spectacular skills (vision, speed and agility) as one of the top runners in the college game.
WR Nelson Agholor, USC: The Trojans' No. 1 receiver is starting to play up to the hype that scouts attached his name prior to the season. After delivering a mixed bag of production for most of the season, Agholor has posted back-to-back 200-yard games, including a 16-catch, 216-yard effort with a pair of scores against Cal. The 6-1, 190-pound junior showcased his full repertoire of skills (route-running, ball skills and run-after-catch ability) in the performance. Although scouts have seen Agholor flash those skills routinely during his tenure at USC, the fact that he has posted consecutive big games suggests that his game is still ascending heading into the final month of the season. With scouts placing a heavy emphasis on the way a prospect finishes the season, Agholor's strong performance could convince evaluators that he is capable of developing into a No. 1 WR as a pro.
DE Nate Orchard, Utah: There is a faction of scouts in the NFL that believes sack production at the collegiate level translates into disruptive production in the pros. Orchard's production against Stanford -- 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks -- will give scouts hope that he can take over games at the next level as a situational pass rusher. The 6-4, 255-pound senior leads the nation with 16.5 sacks, exhibiting a non-stop motor and sneaky first-step quickness to overwhelm opponents off the edge. Although Orchard has flown under the radar on the national scene, the fact that he is nearing the 20-sack mark as a senior will force scouts to take a long, hard look at his skills and determine whether he can make an impact as a 3-4 rush linebacker or nickel pass rusher at the next level.
S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: NFL scouts are already salivating about the Seminoles standout's long-term potential. A 6-1, 204-pound sophomore, Ramsey is playing safety this season, but he is a polished cover corner with the grit, instincts and tenacity that evaluators covet in elite corners at the next level. He put those traits on display during Florida State's 30-26 win over Miami. Ramsey finished the night with four pass breakups and the game-clinching interception while also notching a forced fumble, quarterback hurry and a blocked extra point. The impressive effort showcased his disruptive potential as a No. 1 corner and gave evaluators a glimpse at the kind of dominance Ramsey could impose on opponents at the next level with continued development.
QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Whenever scouts want to see if a SEC quarterback has the goods to play at the next level, they pop in the Alabama tape to see how he fares against a variety of complex looks from a Nick Saban-directed defense. With that in mind, Prescott's stock took a tumble over the weekend after he posted a turnover-laden performance that will lead to questions about his readiness for the next level. Although Prescott's final stat line -- 27-of-48 for 290 yards with 2 TDs and 3 INTs -- wasn't bad, the fact that he struggled to string together completions in key moments suggests he didn't have a clear understanding of where to go with the ball at times. Additionally, Prescott's accuracy woes and inconsistent ball placement lead to questions about his ability to deliver pinpoint passes into tight windows. Given his propensity to turn the ball over in recent weeks (eight INTs in last five games), Prescott's pocket-passing skills are the big question marks for evaluators attempting to project his potential as a pro.
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Scouts pay close attention to how well a blue-chip prospect performs in a primetime game because the experience mirrors the pressure and intensity of an NFL game. For the second time this season, Abdullah failed to play up to expectations in a big game against a Big Ten rival. Against Wisconsin, the 5-9, 195-pound senior rushed for only 69 yards on 18 carries and lost a fumble. Those numbers are an improvement over his dismal output against Michigan State (24 rushes for 45 yards), but they are part of a trend that suggests Abdullah doesn't bring his A-game when he plays elite competition. Given the depth of the 2014 running back class, Abdullah's underwhelming play in big games could torpedo his stock in pre-draft meetings.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Florida State: The Seminoles are not the dominant squad that blew through the college football landscape a season ago, but they are a championship-caliber squad with the fortitude, toughness and resiliency needed to pull off a repeat at season's end. Florida State rallied from another substantial deficit to overtake Miami in the game's waning moments to extend its winning streak to 26 games. Although it's not always pretty, the Seminoles don't get enough credit for finding a way to win games.
2. Oregon: The Ducks are playing as well as any team in the country behind the ultra-talented Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy contender has accounted for 37 total TDs (29 pass; 8 rushing) directing one of the most dynamic offenses in football. Most important, the dazzling playmaker has the offense peaking heading down the stretch, which makes the Ducks a dangerous team to face in a "win or go home" scenario.
3. Alabama: Credit Nick Saban for adding Lane Kiffin to the coaching staff in the offseason. The spunky playcaller has helped the Crimson Tide develop into a more explosive offensive unit despite adhering to the conservative approach favored by Saban. With Blake Sims and Co. capable of putting up 30-plus points on elite defenses, the year's version of the Crimson Tide can hold its own in a shootout with the fast-paced squads that reside at the top of the polls.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' early-season loss to Virginia Tech put them behind the eight ball, but it is possible that Urban Meyer's team is playing the best football in the country. The Buckeyes have blown through Big Ten competition fueled by an offense that's surging behind J.T. Barrett. The redshirt freshman has accounted for 38 total touchdowns and given the Buckeyes a dynamic passing attack to complement one of the nation's most potent running games. With the defense also rounding into form, the Buckeyes deserve the final spot over TCU and Baylor this week.
Heisman Trophy Watch list
1. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The fascination with quarterback play in college football has led to a lack of appreciation for blue-chip runners, but Gordon's remarkable production as the Badgers' feature runner should make observers take notice. The 6-1, 215-pound junior is coming off an FBS-record performance (408 rushing yards) that pushes his season total near the brink of the 2,000-yard mark with at least two games remaining on the schedule. Gordon could shatter the single-season rushing mark set by Barry Sanders (2,628) and finish with the kind of numbers that force voters to recognize his individual accomplishments.
2. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The Ducks' star quarterback has been the most consistent performer in college football this season. Mariota has accounted for 37 total scores and kept the Ducks' high-powered attack humming despite an assortment of injuries along the line. With another marquee matchup looming -- the Pac-12 title game against UCLA or Arizona State -- Mariota will have an opportunity to cement his status as the top player in the country.
3. QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett's emergence as one of the college football's most explosive playmakers ranks as one of the biggest surprises of the season. Yet, it is hard to dispute the fact that Barrett is a scoring machine after watching the redshirt freshman tally 38 total touchdowns this season as Braxton Miller's substitute. The 6-1, 215-pounder is a rare dual-threat quarterback with solid pocket passing skills to complement remarkable athleticism on the perimeter. The combination makes him nearly impossible to defend in the Buckeyes' spread offense; it makes him one of the dark-horse contenders to walk away with Heisman Trophy at season's end.