Whenever a blue-chip player is capable of making contributions on both sides of the ball, scouts certainly take notice during the evaluation process. Decision makers covet prospects with the athleticism and football IQ to excel as offensive and defensive players. Most important, their ability to contribute as two-way players speaks volumes about their football knowledge (evaluators understand and appreciate the work that it takes to master two different playbooks) and gives scouts hope that they could potentially serve as utility players at the next level.
Surveying the collegiate landscape this season, there are a number of players making contributions as two-way standouts (USC WR/CB Adoree Jackson, UCLA LB/RB Myles Jack, Pitt RB/DE James Conner, Hawaii WR/P/PR Scott Harding and SMU RB/LB Kevin Pope), but no one is currently doing it better than Washington OLB/RB Shaq Thompson. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound junior is unquestionably one of the top defenders in college football with the size, speed and athleticism to wreak havoc on opponents as a versatile defender on the edge. He has the first-step quickness and burst to blow past blockers on blitzes, while displaying the instincts, awareness and cover skills to pick off errant passes in coverage. Thompson's combination of athleticism, anticipation and awareness have helped him score four defensive touchdowns this season on a variety of "scoop-and-score" chances (fumble recoveries) and pick-6's that will endear him to defensive coordinators around the league.
On offense, Thompson is starting to make his mark as a dynamic running back with impressive skills as an inside runner. Utilizing the same athleticism, speed and burst that make him a terror off the edge, Thompson has churned out big plays on the ground by exploding to the second level on inside runs off zone-read action. Watching Thompson work against Arizona State on Saturday night, I was impressed with his spectacular stop-start quickness and physicality in the hole. The junior standout repeatedly ran through and/or around defenders at the point of attack on the way to tallying 98 rushing yards on 21 carries. The hefty workload not only showcased Thompson's skills as a potential feature runner, but it highlighted his remarkable athleticism and toughness. While most two-way players are only given spot duty on one side of the ball, the fact that Thompson thrived as a major contributor suggests that his talent is far superior to others manning the position on the Huskies' roster.
This certainly doesn't come as a surprise to scouts familiar with Thompson's background as a highly decorated five-star recruit from Grant High School (Sacramento, CA). As a three-sport standout (football, baseball and track and field) with an impressive career resume (Thompson was first-team All-America by rivals.com, Parade Magazine and USA Today in football; he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB Draft and played for their rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League in the summer of 2012), Thompson has all of the athletic traits scouts desire in a blue-chip prospect. From his speed, quickness, ball skills and physicality to his ability to create big plays with the ball in his hands, Thompson's production as a two-way player in a major conference will enhance his value in the pre-draft process, as coaches covet versatility and athleticism at a premium. If I'm going to place a wager on a prospect with the potential to skyrocket during the run up to the draft (if he declares following this season), I would go "all-in" on the athletic dynamo who is making a ton of plays as a two-way standout for the Huskies this season.
QB Trevone Boykin, TCU: The thought of putting the best athlete at quarterback has been prevalent in the high school ranks for years, but it seems like more college coaches are embracing the idea with the proliferation of spread offenses across the country. TCU has become one of the most explosive offenses in college football with the ultra-athletic Boykin at quarterback. The 6-2, 205-pound junior has compiled a 21:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in seven games and tormented defenses with his dynamic skills as a dual-threat playmaker. Coming off an outstanding performance against Texas Tech (433 pass yards and seven TDs) that showcased his spectacular talent as a passer, Boykin's profile is certainly growing within the scouting community.
DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The 6-5, 285-pound sophomore was a one-man wrecking crew in Ohio State's 31-24 win over Penn State. Bosa finished with 2.5 sacks and six tackles in a dominant performance in which he completely demolished the Nittany Lions' offensive line with his strength, power and relentless energy. Using a variety of power maneuvers to overwhelm blockers at the point of attack, Bosa harassed Christian Hackenberg all over the pocket and kept the young signal-caller from establishing a consistent rhythm as a passer. With Bosa delivering the "walk-off" sack to end the game, it's time to recognize the Buckeye standout as one of the top playmakers in college football.
QB Keenan Reynolds, Navy: Whenever a quarterback rushes for over 200 yards in a single game, it jumps off the stat sheet, even if it is the point man of an old-school, triple-option offense that makes the quarterback the primary ball carrier on the perimeter. Thus, Reynolds deserves a spot on my list after putting on an impressive show in the Midshipmen's 41-31 win over San Jose State. The 5-11, 195-pound junior rushed 39 times for 251 yards and three touchdowns, while also completing 4 of 7 passes for 56 yards. Although the passing numbers leave something to be desired, there is no doubt Reynolds' effort as a runner will pique the interest of scouts looking for an intriguing developmental athlete down the road.
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: If not for a disappointing effort against Michigan State, Abdullah would garner more consideration as a Heisman Trophy candidate after posting his fourth 200-yard game on the season in Nebraska's 42-24 win over Rutgers. The 5-9, 195-pound senior is an instinctive playmaker with outstanding vision, balance and body control. Although he lacks exceptional top-end speed, Abdullah continues to break off big runs as the feature runner in the Huskers' zone-read system. He displays the wiggle, burst and pitter-pat to make defenders miss in the hole and is a slippery runner in the open field. Given his production and potential as a feature back, Abdullah has moved up the charts as an intriguing early-round prospect.
WR Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lane Kiffin's arrival at Alabama has certainly helped Cooper maximize his potential as a No. 1 receiver for the Crimson Tide. The junior standout has become the focal point of the offensive game plan, leading the team in receptions (71), receiving yards (1,132) and touchdowns (9). Most important, Cooper has become a polished route runner and shown the ability to carry an offense as the top option in the passing game. Against Tennessee, he snagged nine passes for 224 yards with two scores and set the tempo with an impressive first-quarter showing (five catches for 185 yards) that propelled the Crimson Tide to a sizzling start against the Vols. With the NFL community already buzzing about his potential as a game changer on the perimeter, Cooper's strong showing on Saturday only solidifies his standing as a blue-chip prospect in the 2015 or 2016 class.
QB Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: The senior quarterback has been steady during the Rebels' recent run near the top of the polls (Wallace posted a 6:0 touchdown to interception ratio in wins over Alabama, Texas A&M and Tennessee), but the bottom fell out against LSU. Wallace completed only 42.4 percent of his throws and made a number of questionable decisions that cost the Rebels an opportunity to sneak out of Death Valley with a rare win. Given how harshly scouts critique quarterback play in big games and clutch situations, Wallace's failures against the Tigers will certainly impact his draft stock going forward.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian, USC: Everyone loves a gambler when decisions work in their favor, but a risk-taker must be willing to wear the goat's horns when things fail to work out in key situations. Thus, Sarkisian earns a spot on the list after his decision to go for it on fourth-and-short backfired and gave Utah an opportunity to snatch a victory in the game's waning moments. While the "pitch-flip" was open for Nelson Agholor to pick up the first down, the fact that it was called into the boundary didn't give the junior enough room to turn the corner. With offensive play-calling directly running through Sark's headset, the Trojans' leader deserves the blame for failing to close out the Utes on the road.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Mississippi State: Don't let the Bulldogs' struggles against Kentucky detract from their impressive early-season resume. Mississippi State has wins over three top-10 teams, which makes it worthy of the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff at this time. With Dak Prescott on the list of top contenders for the Heisman Trophy, the Bulldogs have the franchise quarterback every championship team needs to make it to the winner's circle.
2. Florida State: The Seminoles are not as dominant as the 2013 version that captured the BCS national championship, but credit Jimbo Fisher's squad for showing tremendous grit and resolve while extending their winning streak to 23 games. Although the Seminoles have left some observers disappointed with their efforts, the fact that they consistently bounce back from adversity reveals a lot about their championship mentality.
3. Oregon: After suffering through a spate of injuries along the offensive line during the first half of the season, the Ducks are finally looking like an offensive juggernaut with Marcus Mariota now receiving sufficient protection in the pocket. With Royce Freeman emerging as the primary runner in the backfield, the Ducks' explosive offense is starting to hit on all cylinders heading down the stretch.
4. Michigan State: It would be easy to pencil in an SEC team in this spot, but the Spartans deserve to be in the conversation based on their continued dominance in the Big Ten. Michigan State has pummeled conference opponents to date, and its lone loss to Oregon was far more competitive than the final score suggests. If the Spartans can get past Ohio State in a few weeks, Mark Dantonio will have his team perfectly positioned to sneak into the CFB Playoff this season.
1. QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs' star quarterback continues to post Tim Tebow-like production as the director of Dan Mullen's offense. Prescott has already accounted for 26 total touchdowns (15 passing, 10 rushing and one receiving) and helped the Bulldogs knock off three title contenders on the way to the No. 1 spot in the polls. Given the parallels that exist between Prescott and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner running the same scheme, it's easy to envision Mullen's pupil walking away with the 2014 award.
2. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The Ducks' star is starting to work his way up the charts after putting on a spectacular showing against Cal. Mariota tossed five touchdown passes against the Bears, displaying outstanding awareness and anticipation connecting with his receivers down field. Additionally, he continues to showcase his superb running skills on the perimeter with exceptional execution of the zone-read play for the Ducks.
3. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The speedster has answered a ton of questions for scouts by putting up big numbers for the Badgers despite shaky quarterback play. Gordon has topped the 100-yard mark six times in seven games and shown the stamina to handle a heavy workload as a potential feature back at the next level (20-plus carries in each of the Badgers' last four games).
4. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Winston is viewed as public enemy No. 1 by several observers due to his questionable off-field actions, but there is no denying his immense talent and playmaking ability on the field. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner remains the best guy on the field whenever he steps between the lines and his sensational performance against Notre Dame confirmed that sentiment. Given another national stage (Florida State plays Louisville on Thursday night) to put his talents on display, Winston could put more pressure on the voters to recognize his standing as one of the premier players in the college game.
5. QB Trevone Boykin, TCU: It's unusual to see the Horned Frogs carried by their offense, but Boykin's unique skills are making TCU's version of the spread nearly impossible to defend. The junior standout has posted a ridiculous 21:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in seven games, including a seven-touchdown effort against Texas Tech that showcased his dramatic improvement as a passer. If Sonny Cumbie continues to open up the playbook and allows Boykin to throw the ball all over the yard, the TCU star could walk away as the surprise winner at the end of the season.