The changing dynamics of the NFL game have made the safety position one of the marquee spots on defense. Fueled by the desire to slow down the basketball-like athletes occupying the tight end and wide receiver positions at the next level, NFL coordinators are placing a premium on acquiring big, athletic safeties with ball skills and instincts. Thus, the stock of Louisville safety Gerod Holliman is soaring through the roof after his emergence as the premier defensive playmaker in college football.
A 6-0, 213-pound redshirt sophomore, Holliman leads the nation with 13 interceptions after getting three against Boston College in a 38-19 win. Holliman has come down with at least one interception in eight of the Cardinals' 10 games while displaying the kind of instincts, awareness and anticipation that are hard to find at the position. He exhibits the hands and ball skills of a receiver, yet plays with the aggressiveness that also allows him to act as an enforcer between the hashes. Holliman has a keen understanding of when to attack the ball or play the man, a skill most NFL defensive backs lack.
That's why I believe veteran scouts will see a young Ed Reed in Holliman's play when they take a closer look. When I evaluated Reed during his final season at Miami, I was blown away by his instincts, awareness and ball skills as a deep defender in the Hurricanes' scheme. He had a knack for being around the ball, and his ability to make the play was unrivaled in the college game. As a result, Reed snagged 21 interceptions during his four seasons at Miami, including 17 during his junior and senior seasons. With those traits also fueling Reed's production as a pro (64 career interceptions in 12 seasons), it is possible that Holliman could develop into a game-changing defender at the next level.
There is a bit of a "one-year wonder" concern surrounding Holliman's game based on his lack of production as a freshman (16 tackles, three pass break-ups and zero interceptions), but it is hard to dismiss his knack for being around the ball when studying the tape this season. I've played with enough ball hawks in my career -- Charles Woodson, Darren Sharper, Eugene Robinson and LeRoy Butler -- to know that interceptions come in bunches when a player understands coverage, route concepts and how to read the quarterback. Thus, I'm already willing to go all in on Holliman's skills and potential as a ball hawk down the road despite his limited playing experience.
WR Corey Coleman, Baylor: The 5-11, 190-pound sophomore is beginning to make his mark as the designated playmaker in the Bears' offense. Coleman has posted four 100-yard games in the Bears' past six games, including a 15-catch, 223-yard effort against Oklahoma that featured a pair of touchdowns (one receiving, one rushing). He blows past defenders on vertical routes with his speed and burst, yet he displays the balance, body control and wiggle to make big plays on the perimeter on "catch-and-run" plays. With Coleman supplanting Antwan Goodley as the Bears' No. 1 wide receiver, Bryce Petty not only has a plethora of weapons to target in the passing game, but he will continue to pick apart elite defenses ill-equipped to handle the collective speed and quickness on the perimeter.
QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: The five-star recruit finally showed the college football world he was worthy of the hype, surgically picking apart Auburn's defense for 277 passing yards and four touchdowns. A 6-3, 205-pound freshman, Allen was sensational from the start, tossing each of his touchdowns in the first half and setting the tone for the Aggies with his efficiency from the pocket. While some doubted whether Allen was ready to play in a big game after his dismal performance in his collegiate debut against Louisiana-Monroe, he proved he was up for the challenge, and more, with his impressive effort Saturday.
QB J.T. Barrett, RB Ezekiel Elliott and WR Devin Smith, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' version of the triplets keyed an impressive offensive performance against Michigan State. Ohio State had a 300-yard passer (Barrett), 100-yard rusher (Elliot) and 100-yard receiver (Smith) in the team's 49-37 victory over the Spartans. Barrett was particularly impressive, completing 16 of 26 passes for 300 yards with three touchdowns while also rushing for 86 yards and two scores. Elliott was also spectacular, rushing for 154 yards on 23 carries. He exhibited the speed and quickness to turn the corner on outside run, yet also displayed the strength and power to pick up the tough yards between the tackles. Smith flashed explosive speed and acceleration as the Buckeyes' deep threat. He finished with a pair of 40-plus-yard receptions and changed the game with his explosive plays in the passing game. Urban Meyer's squad is suddenly in playoff contention behind the play of three dynamic playmakers making their mark on the perimeter.
WR Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia: Whenever a player shows big-time ability as a returner, scouts take notice. McKenzie will be the talk of NFL circles after returning a pair of kicks for touchdowns (90-yard kickoff return; 59-yard punt return) against Kentucky. A true freshman, McKenzie has plenty of time to attract the attention of evaluators, but astute observers pay close attention to the progress of explosive playmakers. With McKenzie already showing potential as a home-run threat in the kicking game, scouts will certainly keep his name in mind when targeting players to watch down the road.
QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: The Heisman Trophy candidate has been a bit of a turnover machine for the Fighting Irish in recent weeks. Golson has 17 turnovers in the past six games, including five (four INTs and a fumble) against Arizona State. With three of his turnovers occurring within a four-minute span of the first half, Golson allowed the Sun Devils to race out to a 24-3 lead. Although the senior led a furious rally in the second half, the fact that he has shown a propensity to turn the ball over will drive NFL offensive coordinators crazy when they study the tape of Golson's play down the stretch.
QB Nick Marshall, RB Cameron Artis-Payne and C Reese Dismukes, Auburn: Coaches at every level harp on the importance of the quarterback-center exchange and the quarterback-running back mesh during every practice. It has to drive Gus Malzhan and his coaching staff crazy that the inability to execute fundamentals led to a pair of fumbles in the game's final moments against Texas A&M, probably costing the Tigers an opportunity to land a playoff berth. Marshall and Artis-Payne mishandled a handoff in the backfield with the Tigers poised to score the go-ahead touchdown near the three-minute mark in the fourth quarter. Marshall and Dismukes botched a quarterback-center exchange when a miscommunication resulted in an early snap. Although those miscues occasionally occur in an offense that uses checks at the line of scrimmage, the blunder by a pair of seniors in critical moments proved costly in a tight SEC West battle.
Heisman Trophy Watch list
1. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The Ducks' star is starting to pull away from the pack with his consistent production as the director of one of college football's most explosive offenses. Mariota has accounted for 38 total touchdowns (29 passing, eight rushing, one receiving) while passing for 2,780 yards and amassing 524 rushing yards on 89 carries. With a spectacular performance against Utah keeping Mariota and the Ducks firmly in the playoff hunt, he is inching closer to claiming the Heisman.
2. QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott ran up impressive numbers against an inferior opponent (Tennessee-Martin), but he will face a stern test against Alabama next weekend. If he puts on a spectacular showing against Nick Saban's defense, he could re-emerge as the frontrunner for the Heisman.
3. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The devaluation of the running back position has led to Gordon flying under the radar despite posting eight 100-yard games this season. The 6-1, 210-pound junior has run roughshod over Big Ten competition while displaying a silky smooth running style that reminds some of Darren McFadden during his time at Arkansas. With Gordon also displaying soft hands and explosive playmaking skills as a receiver, the Badgers' star is rising in NFL circles.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have earned the right to sit at the top of the hill after knocking off three top-10 opponents this season, but the road to the playoff will require Dan Mullen to rediscover their A-game. The Bulldogs have seemingly been on cruise control the past few weeks against the likes of Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin, but the team must get back to playing the rough and rugged brand of football that succeeds in the SEC West. Facing Alabama next weekend in a heavyweight battle, the Bulldogs need Dak Prescott and Co. to get back to playing championship-level football to maintain their hold on the top spot.
2. Florida State: The Seminoles are certainly not the dominant squad that ran through the college football landscape a season ago, but they definitely deserve credit for their resiliency and grit this season. Florida State overcame another slow start, trailing 13-7 in the first half before defeating Virginia to extend its winning streak to 25 games. Skeptics wonder if the Seminoles' luck will run out against Miami next weekend, but it's hard to bet against a team that consistently finds a way to win down the stretch.
3. Oregon: The Ducks are playing the best football in the country at this point. Led by Marcus Mariota, Oregon is slicing through defenses with a fast-paced attack that delivers explosive plays on the ground or through the air. Although the defense has looked vulnerable in recent weeks and is dealing with the potential loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the unit gets enough stops and takeaways to fend off challenges from competitive opponents.
4. TCU: The Horned Frogs are piling up an impressive resume with wins over four top-25 opponents (Minnesota, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas State) and a narrow loss on the road to Baylor. Fueled by the spectacular play of Trevone Boykin, the Horned Frogs have an explosive offense that perfectly complements the stingy defense Gary Patterson directs in Fort Worth. If the Horned Frogs run the table to close the season, it will be hard for the committee to keep TCU out of the tournament despite its head-to-head loss to a Big 12 rival also in contention.