T-Minus 49 Days: Separating Stat and Fiction

Thursday March 12th, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Gerod Holliman’s collegiate career was defined by the number 14. In his first full season as a starter, the redshirt sophomore burst onto the scene with 14 interceptions in 13 games for Louisville in 2014. And he’s part of the reason more NFL personnel showed up at the school’s pro day, held Wednesday, than one year ago. Three Cardinals went in the first round last May, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

How does one get 14 picks in a season, a mark that tied the Division I single-season record? Bad quarterbacking, surely. And tipped balls, right?

Wrong. Only two of the free safety’s interceptions were off redirected passes. And he had his best performances in tight games against conference foes, including a two-interception showcase against Florida State and presumed No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston. (Louisville led that game in the fourth quarter before Winston brought the Noles back for a 42-31 victory.)

Holliman was kind enough to break down both plays on Wednesday.

On the first pick, in the second quarter, Louisville was set to run Cover-1 with Holliman as single high safety until Winston audibled. So the Cardinals checked to Cover-2. Based on the formation, Holliman guessed the two receivers to his right would run a smash route combination, so he drifted to the spot where the corner route would climax. Winston overthrew the route, the ball falling squarely into Holliman’s arms.

“Just a bad throw,” Holliman says. “I think we executed well. We knew what they wanted to do, because we felt like they were a really basic team with their play-calling.”

On the second pick, in the third quarter, Louisville was in Cover-1, giving the pre-snap appearance of Cover-2 before Holliman, the “rat hole dropper,” settled into a hook-curl zone. His zone empty, he started freelancing, backpedaling and following Winston’s eyes.

“That was a big thing with him,” Holliman says. “It is with most quarterbacks. He didn’t look anybody off.”

Right now, the Bucs are trying to decide if the bad habits that led to Winston’s 18 interceptions last season can be corrected. As for Holliman, he’s trying to prove that his gaudy INT total is a better indicator of his talent than his shaky pro day showing (4.61 40-yard dash). He says he was experiencing hamstring soreness but wanted to run after not running at the combine. He has also been criticized for lackluster tackling and poor angles, a topic of conversation with every team he has interviewed with (the Steelers, Jets and Jaguars have shown the most interest early).

“They wanted to know if I wanted to be a great tackler,” Holliman says. “I told them I was a good tackler and I wanted to be better, and I just have to improve my angles to be in better position to make the plays.”

And yet, Holliman will remain intriguing because of that number: 14. To get 14 interceptions in 13 games in college football, you have to be seriously lucky or seriously intelligent. Holliman is one of only 10 FBS players with 10 or more interceptions in a season over the last 20 years. That list also includes Sean Taylor, Jim Leonhard and Rahim Moore.

“When you see a number like 14 interceptions, it has to mean something at that position,” said an NFL scouting director whose team was well-represented in Louisville. “Regardless of his 40 time and his workout numbers, it tells you that this is a guy who knows how to be around the ball and can win the ball. With safeties, those are the intangibles you're looking for.”

The soft-spoken Holliman won’t turn 21 until a week after the draft. One of his motivations is his large family back in the Miami area. He’d like to ease the financial burden on his mother and five siblings, including a twin sister.

“Somehow she always makes ends meet,” he says. “I’ve always wondered how she did it.”

Above all, Holliman jumped to the draft after only one season as a starter because he felt he was ready to compete in the NFL. Of course, that number also went into Holliman’s decision to declare. He solicited coaches for advice (Bobby Petrino told him to return to school). But he did some research of his own. N.C. State cornerback David Amerson was widely regarded as a first-round pick after intercepting 13 passes as a sophomore in 2011. He picked off only five as a junior, and ended up lasting until the 51st overall pick, to Washington, in the ’13 draft.

“I think he’s starting now,” Holliman says, “but they downplayed him after that season, and he was still the same player.”

Five Things You Need To Know About The Draft

Five prospects who had eye-popping statistical feats in college, and CBS Sports’ Rob Rang’s take on each...

1. Hau'oli Kikaha, DE/OLB, Washington—19 sacks in 2014 (FBS leader)

Kikaha haunted Pac-12 quarterbacks, yet is considered a second- or third-round pass rusher behind the likes Dante Fowler Jr., Randy Gregory and others.

Rang’s take: “He’s very good at what he does—a speed rush move with an inside counter. He has very strong hands and can defeat blocks well. That translates nicely. But he’s undersized and too stiff to drop into coverage, which makes him a 4-3 defensive end and not a guy you want on the field on first and second down.”

2. Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State—430.3 passing yards per game in 2014 (NCAA leader)

Halliday broke his leg in November, ending a prolific season under Mike Leach. During his time coaching Texas Tech, Leach also oversaw prolific passers in guys like B.J. Symons (448.7 YPG in 2003, seventh-round pick in ’04) and Graham Harrell (438.8 YPG in 2007, undrafted in ’09).

Rang’s take: “It’s coming from Mike Leach’s offense, so you can generally throw those numbers out the window. But he’s a lot taller and has a stronger arm than some typical Mike Leach quarterbacks. I’m intrigued by him, and I think he’s a draftable prospect.”

3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin—2,587 rushing yards in 2014 (NCAA leader)

Gordon came up just 41 yards shy of Barry Sanders' single-season FBS rushing record. Think defenses didn't focus on stopping him? Wisconsin’s top two quarterbacks combined for a 14-to-16 TD/INT ratio.

Rang’s take: “He’s the real deal. One of the few running backs in the last 10 years I’ve given a first-round grade to. An upright runner, which gives you pause, but he has the acceleration and vision to make an impact.”

4. Justin Hardy, WR, East Carolina—387 career receptions (FBS record)

Hardy, a mid-round receiver in a deep class, caught 235 balls over the past two seasons alone.

Rang’s take: “Not a big guy, and doesn’t have great straight line speed, but he’s quick and knows how to set up defenders. You will see some drops, but when you put the tape on you see the quickness and the savvy. That translates to a slot receiver role in the NFL.”

5. Gerod Holliman, S, Louisville—14 interceptions in 2014 (tied Division-I record)

Holliman was a ballhawk on a talented defense that could see five players drafted in Chicago.

Rang’s take: “We know he can locate the ball, and part of that has to do with teams recognizing his lack of speed and trying to exploit it, then finding out his instincts more than make up for it. The big concern is the tackling, which hasn’t improved. I see him as a mid-to-late round guy.”

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Draft Season Do-Over

Every week, we’ll ask a current NFL player what he would have done differently in the time between his final collegiate game and the day he was drafted…

Eric Wood, C, Buffalo Bills (2009, 28th overall). “I would’ve lived more comfortably in Louisville knowing that I was about to have enough money to be able to do that. I was living in our college house in the basement still, and we all agree that I lived in the worst conditions of any first-rounder of all time. We had this big old house with five guys, and the walls in the basement were cinder block, so it was pretty cold down there. I was nervous about money. I didn’t want to spend it before I got it. You don’t really get paid until training camp, so I was pretty firm on staying in the college house. I could’ve spent a little bit of money on a nicer place in retrospect. Beyond that, I don’t really have any regrets.”

Better Know a Prospect

Michael Conroy/AP Photo by Michael Conroy/AP

Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame after playing 40 games for Florida at cornerback and safety, in part so he could pursue a master’s degree in science and management. A projected late-round pick, Riggs was also a state champion hurdler at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). The 5-9 defensive back will wait until Notre Dame’s March 31 pro day to showcase that athleticism.

The MMQB: When you left Florida, you made a point of letting fans know it was about academics. How important was that for you?

Riggs: People speculated about things, and I wanted to make it clear that it had nothing to do with playing time and it was just a personal decision that was best for me on and off the field. I had a lot of support from my teammates; they understood, so I didn’t have any negative reactions.

The MMQB: Have you had to answer the question, Why should we believe you really want to be a football player after committing so much time to setting yourself up for your next career?

Riggs: Yes. I never anticipated that would be a question until a scout brought it up at the NFLPA game. It blindsided me, because when I made the decision I was thinking long-term, setting myself up for life after football, and not so much the short-term consequences. It’s a legitimate question. It’s just something I have to deal with. I think how hard I play speaks for itself. When I come to a camp and they see how dedicated I am, that will be out of the question. Any coach that has dealt with me will attest that I would not trade football for anything. I was prepared to talk about that at the combine, but I didn’t get the invite.

The MMQB: Do you envision yourself as a safety or corner in the NFL?

Riggs: I see myself playing nickel corner, and maybe a little bit of safety. I played outside, one-on-one, against a lot of taller receivers in school, and I plan on showing that I have the leaping ability and strength to play with bigger guys. I don’t see my height as a disadvantage because I’ve gotten so used to it. But really I just want to play any role where I can contribute.

Quote of the Week

Eagles coach Chip Kelly, asked if newly acquired QB Sam Bradford could be used as a trade chip.

“We didn't bring Sam in here to be a chip. I'm the only Chip here.”

No, no, no, Chip. That was just too cute to be completely genuine. I was all about the notion that Philadelphia would build a talented/expensive defense and roll with rail liquor at QB. Now I’m starting to question that. Washington isn’t buying your brand of bull either, apparently, with John Clayton relaying the franchise’s intention to draft Chip’s former QB, Marcus Mariota, if he’s available at 5. That’s Washington telling Chip and anyone else that the road to Mariota runs through Ashburn, Va.

Stat of the Week

Here’s a look at the overall Pro Football Focus grade for each of the Ravens’ recent major defensive free agent departures, first in their final season in Baltimore, then in their first season with a new team. (PFF grades players on a play by play basis. For context, their highest- and lowest-rated QBs last year, Aaron Rodgers and Blake Bortles, earned a 40.4 and -38.9, respectively.)

Player Grade in last year w/ Ravens Grade in first year w/ new team
Dawan Landry 17.5 (2010) 1.3 (Jacksonville)
Paul Kruger 16.2 (2012) 4.1 (Cleveland)
Dannell Ellerbe 16.2 (2012) 4.1 (Miami)
Arthur Jones 8.1 (2013) -10.0 (Indianapolis)

 

There are obviously extenuating circumstances; each player went to a new coaching staff, and several struggled with injuries (most notably Jones with a bum ankle in 2014). But the trend is undeniable: The Ravens are consistently proven right when they pass on rewarding young defensive players with new contracts. Kruger and Ellerbe combined to earn $34 million in guaranteed money with their new deals after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, and only Kruger improved on a subpar 2013 with a combined 53 quarterback hits, hurries and sacks in 2014. But that was still well off the production he had during his breakout 2012 season for the Ravens. Ellerbe, meanwhile, is reportedly on the trade block in Miami.

Is it the coaching? Or does roster depth mask players’ inefficiencies? Or are these players simply system guys who struggle when asked to do different things? Whatever the case, the Ravens obviously know how to draft for their system, and when to cut bait on a sought-after free agent.

• SHOCK AND AWE: King, Bedard, Brandt and Benoit analyze the head-spinning opening of free agency

Inexact Science

Where we highlight a hilariously bad scouting report from yesteryear...

Dr. Z was right a lot. He was also wrong sometimes. I am a 27-year-old brat with no respect for my elders so here’s that time Dr. Z was really wrong.

Excerpted from Paul Zimmerman’s 2008 mock draft for Sports Illustrated (Bill Parcells was the Dolphins’ Executive VP then):

1. Miami Dolphins: VERNON GHOLSTON, DE, Ohio State

His workouts have been off the charts. He runs a 4.65 40, and his bench press of 37 reps tied Jake Long's mark for the best at the combine. Bill Parcells has been very quiet about this super pass rusher, which is his trademark when he really likes a player.

Gholston ultimately went to the Jets with the sixth overall pick in 2008. He lasted three seasons in the league. Career sack total: 0.0.

Scorching Hot Take of the Week

To be fair, the former Bucs GM wasn’t alone. It’s just surprising that a former general manager would jump to that conclusion with so many moving parts, so much time between now and the draft, and the possibility that Eagles coach Chip Kelly could still flip his newest QB into a high draft pick, ostensibly Mariota.

And your sober take of the week.

 

Yeah, that’s more like it.


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