NFL draft Risers/Sliders: Mariota, Golson shine on big stages
Trailing Michigan State 27-18 in the third quarter, Oregon found itself facing a 3rd-and-11 from near midfield. The Spartans defense went for the kill, sending six defenders at quarterback Marcus Mariota. Linebacker Darien Harris came through clean, followed by Riley Bullough and Ed Davis.
Mariota dodged them all, escaping to his left and then shoveling a pass to Royce Freeman for the first down.
It was a crash course in why Mariota has the NFL eagerly awaiting his arrival: size, agility and an uncanny knack for generating positive plays when things break down.
"He’s tough, he leads and he creates," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, via SI's Lindsay Schnell. "That’s the difference in the football game. He created, and we let him get out of it numerous times."
Later, though, came reminders of why picking through the Mariota tape can be so difficult. On that same drive, Mariota pulled the Ducks within two by tossing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Devon Allen; he gave them the lead by hitting Keanon Lowe for a 37-yard score before the quarter was out. Both times, his receiver was wide open.
Mariota helped Allen get to free space by pump-faking a screen pass, but it was hardly anything other-worldly. The Spartans then blew a coverage on Lowe, leaving him all by his lonesome as he streaked toward the goal line.
So, how much of what Mariota does through the air is translatable to the NFL, and how much is a product of Oregon's incredible offensive scheme? The reality may tick off a few boxes in each category -- Mariota finished Saturday's comeback win with 318 yards and three touchdowns on 17-for-28 passing, yet only a small percentage of those throws forced Mariota to roll through progressions or beat the Spartans' secondary with his arm.
When those home-run plays are made available to him, Mariota rarely misses. He also turns in as many of those highlight-reel efforts, like the key one on that 3rd-and-11, as about any college quarterback in the country.
This matchup with Michigan State's aggressive, punishing defense stood as a colossal test for both Mariota and his Oregon offense. It definitely was a meeting that scouts watched intently, to see how Mariota might fare when faced with adversity in the form of an upper-echelon D. He passed that test with aplomb, getting the job done in a variety of ways.
There is little question that Mariota is on track to be one of the first players off the board whenever he enters the draft. NFL scouts just may have to do a little extra legwork to figure out how the Heisman Trophy contender fits at the next level.
• Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame: Golson was out of college football last season, hit with a one-year suspension by Notre Dame for academic issues. The redshirt junior returned a far better player, at least if the results of his first two games are to be trusted.
Golson torched Michigan on Saturday night to the tune of 23-of-34 passing for 226 yards and three touchdowns, on several occasions making something out of nothing in Mariota-like fashion. Quite a long way from the Irish's 13-6 win over Michigan in 2012, in which Golson was yanked from the lineup for Tommy Rees following two early interceptions.
"It’s his understanding of the offense and his understanding of how to read defenses," Notre Dame wide receiver Amir Carlisle told SI's Brian Hamilton of how Golson has had so much success early. "Getting in the film room with him he’s basically an extension of the coaches. His understanding is translating to his performance on the field."
The 6-foot, 200-pound Golson may not be in the draft mix until next season. In just two games back, however, he has revived his NFL prospects.
• Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Let's start here, with a comment from Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, comparing Golden and fellow current starter Shane Ray to current NFL rookies Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
Pinkel said he told some NFL scouts last year that backups Golden and Ray could be even better than Ealy and Sam.— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) September 8, 2014
Golden (6-3, 260), a fifth-year senior, has sprinted out of the gate this season. In two starts he has registered 16 tackles, including five for loss, and 2.5 sacks. He actually stuffed the stat sheet last season, too, despite Ealy and Sam holding down starting spots -- Golden wrapped his junior campaign with 55 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. There's an NFL future here, one that is burning brighter now that Golden is a full-time starter.
• Leonard Williams, DE/DT, USC: Williams' status Saturday at Stanford was very much in question, right up through a warmup session that saw Williams pull himself off the field after just one rep. As he proved throughout 2012, however, even a banged-up Williams is superior to most other defenders.
Pitted against Stanford's strong O-line -- specifically, future NFL tackle Andrus Peat -- a hobbled Williams notched 11 tackles. And he did not even record a tackle on his best play: running down speedster Ty Montgomery in the backfield as his teammates swarmed.
Williams' health will be a red flag in the draft process, as he has now been unable to stay healthy over multiple seasons. The thought of him at a consistent 100 percent still might be enough to justify a top-10 selection in the long run.
• Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Cooper is far from a secret these days. The top 2015 receiver prospect in the eyes of many draft experts, the Crimson Tide junior followed up a 12-catch opener with 13 receptions for 189 yards and a touchdown, plus a 20-yard rushing touchdown against Florida Atlantic on Saturday. Should Alabama continue to focus its offense on him as it has so far, Cooper's numbers could be through the roof by season's end, further solidifying his NFL stock.
• Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State: Those wide-open Oregon receivers mentioned above? Drummond was one of the main culprits responsible, getting caught out of position -- either by his own doing or because of miscommunication issues in the Spartans' secondary -- on multiple big plays.
The Spartans' second-half meltdown on defense was more than a one-man show. But because of how effective Mariota is at escaping the pocket and how sharply Oregon runs its play fakes, defenses playing the Ducks need above-average safety play to stay competitive. While Drummond remains one of the more talented safety prospects for 2015, he failed to provide that on Saturday.
• Austin Hill, WR, Arizona: Chalk it up as bad game for Hill, who still may be shaking off some rust after a devastating 2013 knee injury. Hill was targeted eight times in Arizona's win over UTSA on Thursday. He finished with all of nine yards on two receptions. It was a disappointing follow-up, if nothing else, to Hill's 110-yard showing against UNLV the previous week.
• Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas: The Longhorns again were manhandled by BYU up front, on both sides of the ball, so Brown's 14-carry, 28-yard night must be taken with a grain of salt. He did at least an adequate job in pass protection, too, something NFL teams are sure to take notice of as the senior running back moves toward the draft.
All that said, there were opportunities for Brown to find more yards, either by shaking off tackles or changing course to find a hole. He more or less missed all of them, and his stats look even less impressive when you consider that he had a 16-yard run.
Might be nitpicking here given Texas' brutal night overall. I'm doing so, however, because I believe Brown to be a legit NFL prospect -- he's extremely talented with the build (6-0, 228) to hold up at the next level. This game was a letdown.