NFL evaluators are always searching for the next potential franchise quarterback. Whether it is a senior signal-caller displaying extraordinary physical tools and leadership skills or a young playmaker flashing potential in big moments, scouts pay close attention to the performance of quarterbacks across the country in hopes of finding the next big thing at the position. After watching Tennessee's Josh Dobbs put on a scintillating show against South Carolina in the Vols' 45-42 overtime win, evaluators would be wise to put a visit to Knoxville on their calendars to check out an emerging superstar at the position.
One game doesn't make a full evaluation, but I've been around the NFL long enough to know that a quarterback with superb arm talent, athleticism, leadership skills and big game moxie are coveted at a premium by offensive coordinators around the league. Watching Dobbs (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) destroy a beleaguered Gamecocks defense, I saw a young, athletic quarterback with a diverse set of skills that ideally suit the way the NFL game is trending.
From his pinpoint passing skills from the pocket to his slick execution of the Vols' quarterback running game, Dobbs capably executes the traditional and movement-based concepts that are prevalent in today's game. Dobbs displayed the patience, courage and awareness to hang in the pocket under duress to deliver accurate strikes to his pass-catchers on the perimeter. Yet, Dobbs also showed the elusiveness and agility to flee the pocket when creases opened along the interior. He made big plays with his feet, rushing for 166 yards on 24 carries with three touchdowns, and his arm, completing 23 of 40 passes for 301 with two touchdowns and an interception, and the Vols' offense eventually overwhelmed the South Carolina defense with a flurry of explosive plays that allowed Tennessee to creep back into the game in the final quarter.
From a scouting perspective, I was most impressed with Dobbs' poise and composure in the clutch. He rallied the Vols back from a 42-28 deficit with 4:52 left in the game by making a slew of clutch plays with his feet and arm that kept the offense on track. Dobbs put the offense on his back when it mattered most; he displayed the clutch factor that scouts covet in elite quarterbacks at the next level.
I'm not ready to anoint Dobbs as the next Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton based on a single performance, but I'm certainly intrigued by his physical tools, development potential and confidence as a young quarterback. Given the challenges of identifying elite quarterbacks at every level, Dobbs' strong performance will put him on the radar of scouts looking for a potential franchise prospect at the position.
RB Duke Johnson, Miami: The Hurricanes' star has flown under the radar on the national scene, but his NFL stock could be booming after his impressive performance against North Carolina. Johnson tallied 226 yards from scrimmage (177 rushing yards; 49 receiving yards) on 21 touches and scored three times in Miami's 47-20 win. The 5-9, 206-pound junior has been on fire the last five games, rushing for 843 yards on 97 carries and displaying the vision, quickness and explosiveness that has scouts intrigued by his dynamic game at the next level. With Johnson also showing exceptional skills as a receiver out of the backfield, he could be a better pro prospect than some of the bigger names garnering the headlines at the position.
RB James Connor, Pittsburgh: There will always be a place in the NFL for a workhorse back with size, body control and wiggle between the tackles. Thus, scouts are paying close attention to Connor's performance and production as a feature runner at Pitt. The 6-2, 250-pound sophomore certainly hasn't disappointed evaluators with six 100-yard games on the season, including a 38-carry, 263-yard effort against Duke that also included three touchdowns. He's displayed the physicality, toughness and stamina that scouts covet in big-bodied runners. If Connor can become a bigger contributor in the Panthers' passing game down the road -- he has only four receptions for 30 yards this season -- he could become an enticing prospect for scouts looking for an old-school tailback to add to the mix.
QB Cody Kessler, USC: The Trojans' disappointing record will probably keep Kessler out of the Heisman Trophy discussion, but his production makes him worthy of inclusion. Kessler has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and compiled a 25:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio as the director of the Trojans' pro-style offense. While other quarterbacks have run up similar numbers running fast-paced spread attacks, the fact that Kessler has been so productive in a system that is similar to the schemes used by the majority of NFL teams makes him an intriguing developmental prospect to watch going forward.
QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: The size concerns surrounding Golson will be a major factor in his final evaluation, but there is no doubt that he has the game to play on the next level after watching him carry the Fighting Irish to a 48-38 win over Navy. The spunky senior accounted for six touchdowns and single-handedly put the team on his back with his brilliant play in the backfield. From his pinpoint throws from the pocket to his sneaky scrambles on the perimeter, Golson displayed his full repertoire of skills in effort and made a strong case to the skeptics doubting his ability to play at the next level. With a few key games (Arizona State, Louisville and USC) remaining on the schedule, Golson will have plenty of chances to prove his worth to NFL scouts looking for a young, athletic quarterback to groom.
S Gerod Holliman, Louisville: Evaluators love defensive backs with the instincts and ball skills to generate turnovers in the backend. Thus, there is a buzz already brewing about Holliman's potential at the next level after the Holliman pushed his 2014 interception total to 10 after snagging a pair of errant passes against Florida State. At 6-1, 206 pounds, Holliman shows excellent awareness and anticipation patrolling the middle of the field. Most important, he displays outstanding ball skills and strong hands when the ball is in his area. Considering the importance coaches and scouts place on generating turnovers, Holliman's production and skills will make him a top prospect to watch down the road.
Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia: The Bulldogs' defensive architect earns a spot on the list after failing to slow down a Gators' offense that's struggled moving the ball or scoring points for most of the season. The Bulldogs' run defense was atrocious, allowing the 418 rushing yards and a pair of 100-yard rushers (Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones) despite facing an offense with serious concerns at quarterback. Given the surprising output produced by the Gators' anemic offense, Pruitt gets to wear the goat horns at practice this week.
K Andy Phillips, Utah: The Utes' all-everything kicker has been automatic for most of the season, making 87 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2014, but he couldn't come through for his squad when it counted. Despite getting a mulligan after he missed his warm-up kick in overtime, Phillips pushed his second chance to the left on a 35-yard attempt. Although Phillips finished the night going 3 of 4 on field-goal attempts, the lone miss could derail the Utes' Pac-12 title hopes and keep Utah from receiving a major bowl berth at season's end.
Heisman Trophy Watch List
1. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The junior standout has been sensational all season, but his recent play against the top teams on the Ducks' schedule could vault him up the charts. Mariota has 15 total touchdowns in the past four games (Stanford, Washington, California and UCLA) while helping his offense top the 40-point mark in each of those contests. Given the importance voters place on winning and individual performance, Mariota is the favorite for the honor at this point.
2. QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Despite overcoming a disappointing first-half performance against Arkansas to help the Bulldogs maintain the top spot in the rankings, Prescott loses some ground in the Heisman Trophy race. Although voters will appreciate his resiliency and toughness leading the Bulldogs to a come-from-behind win, the miscues and turnovers that plagued his first-half performance make it hard to rank him over Mariota this week.
3. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Gordon keeps piling up 100-yard games away from the national spotlight. The Badgers' star posted his sixth straight 100-yard game (seventh overall) while continuing to flash the big-play ability that captivates the attention of voters looking for the most dominant player in college football, including a 51-yard touchdown run Saturday. With a marquee matchup against Nebraska on the horizon (Nov. 15), Gordon can make a late-season surge with a few stellar performances.
4. QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: Whenever a quarterback totals six touchdowns in a game, it is worthy of recognition, particularly when it comes in a game in which he was counted on to deliver big plays against a scrappy squad. Thus, Golson remains a viable contender for the honor after single-handedly dismantling Navy and running his touchdown total to 29 (22 TD passes, seven TD runs). Given a chance to pull in some national attention with a big performance against Arizona State this weekend, Golson is a darkhorse to watch in the Heisman Trophy race.
5. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Winston's stellar play in the clutch is one of the reasons the Seminoles are so difficult to dispatch despite being off their game. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has a knack for stepping up his game when it matters most despite whatever miscues might've plagued his game in the opening half. Against Louisville, Winston survived three interceptions and a gimpy ankle to guide the Seminoles to an improbable come-from-behind win on the road. With a 21-0 record as a starter and a number of memorable moments this season, including a number of pinpoint tosses in the clutch against the Cardinals, Winston remains in contention for the award despite his critics' suggestions.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Mississippi State: Give the Bulldogs credit for making enough plays on both sides of the ball to fend off a gutsy challenge from Arkansas on Saturday afternoon. Although Dak Prescott didn't have his A-game against the Razorbacks, he steadied the offense in the clutch and delivered the winning touchdown pass, a 69-yard toss to Fred Ross, on a nifty scramble and toss that showcased his dynamic athleticism on the perimeter. With the defense continuing to stifle opponents with its collective speed, quickness, athleticism and physicality on the perimeter, the Bulldogs remain the most complete team in college football.
2. Florida State: The standard of performance is high for the defending national champions, but that shouldn't prevent the college football world from appreciating the Seminoles' resiliency and mental toughness in sustaining a 24-game winning streak. Those traits were certainly on display during the Seminoles' 42-31 win over Louisville, which featured a gutsy comeback from a 21-0 deficit in the first half. Although the Seminoles have failed to play to their potential this season, the fact that they have been able to overcome subpar play to knock off several quality opponents (Oklahoma State, N.C. State, Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville) suggests that the team simply knows how to win big games.
3. Oregon: The Ducks are beginning to look like the heavyweight contender that everyone expected when Mariota elected to return for another season. Led by the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, Royce Freeman and a healthy offensive line, the Ducks are clicking on all cylinders on offense, topping the 40-point mark in four straight contests. With the defense also rounding into form under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, the Ducks might be the best team in college football.
4. Auburn: It seems like every week the Tigers are the beneficiary of a fortuitous bounce or lucky break, but Gus Malzhan's troops keep finding ways to win big games. Whether it is Nick Marshall making timely throws to Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams, or the defense getting an improbable goal-line stand, the Tigers find a way to make the winning plays at the end of contests. While the skeptics continue to question whether the Tigers are good enough on defense to compete with the heavyweights in college football, Auburn keeps piling on the wins, and that's enough to place them into the postseason tournament.