AUSTIN, Texas -- Geno Smith is the real deal.
That opinion should certainly not surprise anyone who read the piece I penned last week comparing Smith to USC's Matt Barkley, but it was validated by the way the Heisman Trophy hopeful worked his magic against the Texas Longhorns on Saturday night.
Brooks: Matt Barkley vs. Geno Smith
Smith completed 25 of 35 passes for 268 yards and four touchdowns in leading West Virginia to a 48-45 victory. Those numbers fell short of the ridiculous output he posted in the Mountaineers' win over a Baylor a week ago, but they were indicative of Smith's workmanlike performance against a top-15 team.
Watching Smith from field level, I was impressed by his diverse all-around game and his ability to make plays from the pocket against a fierce pass rush. He never flinched under duress, and his willingness to stand and deliver with defenders in close proximity spoke volumes about his toughness. In addition, he showed tremendous grit and determination by leading the Mountaineers to victory in a hostile environment.
Now that I've had a day or so to reflect on Smith and his performance Saturday, I've identified three aspects of his game that really stood out to me:
1) Leadership: I have no concerns about Smith's leadership skills after what I saw Saturday. From the time the Mountaineers entered the field for pregame warmups until the conclusion of the game, Smith showed outstanding leadership qualities. He encouraged his teammates at every turn, refusing to hang his head when he turned the ball over on a pair of strip-sacks. Smith was obviously annoyed by the mistakes, but he didn't appear to wallow in self-pity, responding instead with improved play on the subsequent series.
2) Poise: Great quarterbacks are unflappable in moments of stress, and Smith clearly handled himself well. He took a beating at the hands of the Longhorns' defensive line, but his game in the pocket never changed. Smith consistently delivered accurate throws to his intended receivers, despite having rushers in close proximity. He refused to wilt under the pressure of constant harassment, and his courage under fire helped West Virginia make several critical conversions with the game on the line. Smith tossed three lasers to Stedman Bailey on slants for scores, despite having defenders in his face each time he released the ball; on each toss, he stood in and took the shot while making an accurate throw. Most quarterbacks alter their release point or delivery with contact on the horizon, but Smith's ability to fire an accurate strike under duress was a testament to his courage and poise.
3) Accuracy and anticipation: Many assume that a quarterback with a gaudy completion percentage is the product of a system predicated on making easy throws like bubble screens and swings. The Mountaineers certainly incorporate such concepts in their playbook, but I was impressed with Smith's ability to excel on intermediate throws from the pocket. He consistently delivered pinpoint passes to his receivers on short posts, square-outs and seams. I loved his rhythm as a passer and his ability to quickly transition from play-fake to delivery without skipping a beat. This skill will help him acclimate quickly to the pro game; he already understands how to reposition his feet in the pocket to make throws, so adjusting to three-, five- and seven-step drops will not be a problem.
Smith also displayed fine awareness and anticipation while throwing his receivers into open areas. He repeatedly led wideouts away from defenders, and pinpoint placement prevented tips or deflections at the second level. Smith consequently avoided throwing any interceptions against a defense that maintained tight coverage for most of the night. On the season, Smith has thrown 24 touchdown passes to zero interceptions.
Conclusion: Smith just might be the best quarterback in college football after his impressive showing against the Longhorns. He has all of the physical tools you look for at the position, in addition to the intangibles one needs to be great at the next level. The season is far from over, but it's hard to find a hotter prospect in the 2013 draft class than Smith at this point.
Smith wasn't the only player who stood out during this game. Here are a few more:
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Teams searching for a Percy Harvin clone will love Austin. The 5-foot-9, 174-pound jitterbug is lightning in a bottle in the open field. Whether he was catching bubble screens on the perimeter or running slant routes over the middle, Austin was nearly impossible to contain when he touched the ball. He possesses rare stop-start quickness, and his ability to reach top speed in a hurry allows him to routinely outrun defenders to the corner of the end zone. He's also one of the most electrifying return men I've seen in recent memory. His combination of skills will certainly make this senior a coveted prospect as the 2013 NFL Draft nears.
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
Bailey's dimensions aren't ideal for a No. 2 receiver, but his combination of route-running skills and hands will make him an effective slot receiver at the next level one day. He shows cat-like quickness coming out of his breaks, and his ability to separate from tight coverage is exceptional. The most impressive part of his game, in my mind, is his knack for getting to open areas over the middle of the field. He repeatedly found space between the hashes on an assortment of routes, and his chemistry with Smith precipitated a productive outing for the Mountaineers' passing game. Receivers with the courage to make a living inside the numbers are rare, and Bailey will be a hot commodity for NFL offensive coordinators in the future.
Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
Scouts are taught to grade the flashes, and no prospect flashed more in Austin than Okafor. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end was a blur off the edge at times; his talent for creating disruption altered Smith's approach from the pocket. Okafor beats blockers with speed and quickness, but also flashes the ability to turn speed into power. He will burst off the ball and sell a speed rush before attacking the blocker down the middle with a powerful two-hand shiver (bull-rush move), shocking and disengaging. When Okafor coordinates the movements in rhythm, he overwhelms blockers at the line, resulting in an easy sack quite often. Against the Mountaineers, he showed his full array of moves, tallying a pair of sacks, including a strip-sack fumble that resulted in a touchdown. Although Okafor didn't bring the energy and effort on every down, the fact that he was able to produce some splash plays in a big game will certainly intrigue scouts looking for a playmaker off the edge.
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Jeffcoat was also a standout performer in this game. The 6-5, 245-pound pass rusher collected four tackles and a sack while displaying explosive first-step quickness and athleticism. He repeatedly used his speed and quickness on upfield rushes to harass Smith from the corner, narrowly missing him on multiple occasions. The constant pressure forced Smith to hasten his delivery in the pocket, leading him to make a few errant throws. If I had to cast a critical eye on Jeffcoat's game, I would cite concerns about his strength and a lack of pass-rush diversity. He appears to be a one-trick pony and will need to develop a more refined game to dominate at the next level. Regardless, he has the talent and athleticism to be a difference-maker off the edge, and that certainly makes the junior an intriguing prospect.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
The NFL has become a passing league, and scouts are searching for cornerback-like safeties. Vaccaro certainly qualifies as a hybrid at the position, due to his ability to cover in the slot and play center field. Against the Mountaineers, he displayed surprising cover skills as a slot defender. He consistently maintained tight coverage down the field and showed excellent patience at the line in press. Most importantly, he didn't look uncomfortable in space. This will make him a desirable prospect for defensive coordinators in need of safeties who can cover displaced tight ends or slot receivers in a base defense.
Carrington Byndom, CB, Texas
The Longhorns will not get enough credit for their solid defensive showing against the Mountaineers, thanks to the amount of points they surrendered, but their secondary was superb for most of the night. Byndom led the effort with his suffocating coverage of the Mountaineers' receivers on the perimeter. He repeatedly challenged them at the line of scrimmage in press coverage, displaying fantastic quickness and agility while shadowing movements early in routes. Byndom's ability to stay square against jitterbug-type receivers was impressive, and leads me to believe he can excel against bigger pro receivers. Some scouts would like to see Byndom pick off a few more passes, but he'll get high marks from evaluators for his solid coverage against two of the most productive receivers in the country.
WORD ON THE STREET
NFL scouts appear to be cooling on Michigan State's Johnny Adams, who garnered a lot of preseason buzz as one of the top cornerbacks in college football. The 5-11, 176-pound senior entered the season with a reputation as a solid all-around corner with the skills to thrive in a man-to-man or zone-based systems. However, scouts worry about his speed and technical skills in isolated matchups. One AFC South personnel executive told me he didn't view Adams as a legitimate No. 1 corner, and said he would have a hard time putting him in a division that features big, physical receivers, due to his less-than-ideal physical dimensions. He went on to say that Adams' struggles against Ohio State were indicative of the problems he could face at the next level.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
In a time when hype routinely overshadows substance, it's refreshing to see a five-star high school recruit live up to expectations. Clowney, who was widely hailed as the No. 1 player in the 2011 recruiting class, is emerging as the best defensive end in the country in just his second college season. He leads the Gamecocks with 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss, showing a combination of size, strength and athleticism that scouts covet in elite pass rushers.
Mike Glennon, QB, N.C. State
Glennon didn't enjoy a spectacular overall game against Florida State on Saturday, but his impressive fourth-quarter showing will certainly create a buzz in the scouting community. With his team down by 13 points, Glennon directed a pair of touchdown drives and made a ton of big plays in critical moments. On the final drive, Glennon converted on three fourth downs, including two inside the 15-yard line, displaying exceptional poise and anticipation in the pocket. What was most impressive about Glennon's late-game heroics was his resiliency following a disappointing first half. He never appeared rattled by the situation or circumstance; his outstanding leadership abilities were apparent when he connected on a two-yard score to Bryan Underwood with just 16 seconds remaining on the clock. Scouts will certainly pick through the rough parts of his performance, but he'll draw praise from some evaluators for bouncing back and leading his team to a huge upset win.
Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
Any running back who rolls up 200-plus rushing yards against a Frank Beamer-led squad deserves a mention. Bernard ran 23 times for 262 yards and a score against Virginia Tech on Saturday, displaying the speed, burst and explosiveness that helped him rush for 1,253 yards as a first-year starter in 2011. Although Bernard had flashed big-play potential in three games against weak competition, his 11.4 yards-per-carry average against the Hokies suggests he could be a major problem for ACC opponents.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida
Rushers rarely run roughshod over LSU's vaunted defense, so Gillislee's 34-attempt, 146-yard performance Saturday will raise eyebrows among scouts. Gillislee collected his third 100-yard game of the season, carrying the ball with a hard-nosed style that is ideally suited for the pro game. He repeatedly powered through tacklers at the point of attack; Gillislee wears down opponents over the course of a game with tenacity and physicality. Against LSU, he was at his best running inside between the tackles out of the Gators' power formations. Gillislee attacked the B-gaps on isolations and power plays and remained persistent, despite achieving modest gains on most of his attempts (Gillislee's longest run of the day was 12 yards). His game is built on grit, determination and toughness, and he's bound to draw the interest of teams in need of productive inside runners.
Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
Cornerbacks with ball skills are valued at a premium, so Poyer can expect his stock to soar after a three-interception performance against Washington State. The 6-foot, 190-pound senior changed the momentum of the game with each interception, and discouraged the Cougars' quarterbacks from taking shots over the middle of the field. Poyer, who spent most of the night playing as the Beavers' nickel corner, showcased great instincts and awareness, jumping intermediate and short routes in his area. Most importantly, he showed scouts that he has the hands to come down with the football when errant tosses go his way. Several games remain against prolific passing offenses in the Pac-12; Poyer will have ample opportunities to show NFL evaluators he can play on an island as a pro.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
After lighting up the Bulldogs' competition over the first five weeks of the season, Murray looked like a mere mortal against South Carolina, completing just 11 of 31 passes for 109 yards with one interception in a disappointing 35-7 loss. What was most disheartening about the performance was Murray's inability to find passing lanes when surrounded by South Carolina's tall front-line defenders. Some deflections are to be expected, considering Murray's height (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), but his inability to adjust during the game suggests he could have issues as a pocket passer in the NFL. One game certainly doesn't make a trend, but scouts will undoubtedly study Murray's play over the remainder of the season to see if there's a serious flaw in his game.