NFL evaluators had Saturday's Alabama-Florida State game circled on the calendar well before the season started. There probably won't be another game this season with more future NFL players than the one that took place in Atlanta on Saturday night. While Alabama pulled away in the second half for a 24-7 win, outside of a few plays on special teams, I thought the teams were pretty evenly matched. In the midst of a game like this, there are always a handful of players that jump out to me. Here are the guys that stood out Saturday night.
- After being buried in the Alabama offense last season, it was nice to see WR Calvin Ridley making plays and stretching the field vertically. That was a field with a lot fast guys on it, and he was clearly the fastest.
Ridley didn't receive a ton of buzz in the offseason, and I think a lot of that has to do with last season. He had a solid year (72 catches for 769 yards, 7 TDs), but he didn't have a special year. Last night was an early glimpse of him in Alabama's new offense (with former NFL assistant Brian Daboll as the coordinator), and they got him back to doing what he does best ... against one of the most athletic secondaries in the country.
He deserves to be in the conversation when it comes to the top receiver in college football.
- Coming into this game, I thought Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State S Derwin James were elite players at their position. They lived up to the hype on Saturday.
Even though he gave up a contested touchdown to FSU's Auden Tate, Fitzpatrick stood out in a positive way. He was playing near the line of scrimmage, he was inside in some nickel packages and he lined up outside at corner. He has big-time tackling ability when you watch him as a run defender and blitzer. There's a lot of things he can do, and he was flying around the field.
Alabama has produced a lot of big-time DBs, and the scouts that have been through Tuscaloosa talk about Fitzpatrick being right up with the best of them. He was never out of position Saturday. Even on the Tate TD, he was right there, raking at the ball. Fitzpatrick made a big play on special teams, too, blocking a field goal.
This was our first look at James since early last season (suffered a meniscus tear in Week Two), and he had a great game. He generated a lot of pressure on blitzes and was outstanding as a tackler in the open field. He stopped QB Jalen Hurts in space a couple times, which is not an easy assignment. He looks like the same guy we saw before the injury. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see him get involved in the return game -- Alabama avoided him -- but I'll be shocked if he doesn't take one back for a score this season.
- There were several future NFL running backs on the field Saturday night. They all flashed. I know FSU's Cam Akers is just a freshman and averaged 3 yards per carry vs. Alabama (10 rushes for 30 yards). I don't care what the box score says -- he looked good running the ball. He's the real deal. FSU's Jacques Patrick and Alabama's Bo Scarbrough are both big, powerful backs. Alabama's Damien Harris led all rushers with 73 yards, including a physical TD run, and made a huge play on special teams, blocking a punt. He was impressive. Not to mention, I recently spoke to an NFL personnel executive who believes the Tide's Najee Harris will be the Alabama RB everyone is talking about by the end of the season.
- Alabama's Ronnie Harrison is a physical safety. He reminds me of Landon Collins when I watch him play in the Alabama defense. He's a force player who's also athletic enough to make some plays over the top. He didn't make a ton of plays vs. FSU, but he's an intriguing guy.
- It was really unfortunate to see Deondre Francois go down with an injury, which we've since learned will end his 2017 season. Francois played well until late in the third quarter. He showed poise, plenty of arm strength. There weren't huge throwing windows for him, and there was a lot of pressure, but he still hung in there and was playing well. Interceptions hurt him late. Overall, against that dominant defense, I came away bullish on Francois. I thought he performed better than the box score (19 of 33 for 210 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) suggests.