I watched the USC vs California game last night with a host of potential top draft prospects on view. Two explosive running backs (Joe McKnight for the Trojans, Jahvid Best for Cal) a highly rated Seattle-born safety (Taylor Mays) and a wide out who's getting more and more attention (Damien Williams).
I'll start with Taylor Mays. I was particularly disappointed with Mays during USC's victory at Ohio State recently. Last night was a better performance, but not perfect by any means. It's important to stress at this point that a knee injury is slowing him right now. He picked it up against the Buckeyes and missed SoCal's defeat at Washington. The knee was causing him problems against the Golden Bears, but credit to him for playing through the pain.
So to his performance. He made a nice interception in the end zone from the first drive. Kevin Riley probably shouldn't have thrown the ball after the play quickly broke down, but Mays diagnosed the play quickly to change direction, move to his left and cut off the pass. He didn't try to take it out of the end zone, smartly jogging out of bounds.
Throughout the game Mays showed much better play in run support. One of my main issues with Mays is that he doesn't always react quickly, letting things unfold in front of him and then planting a big hit usually after a first down has been achieved. Today he was getting up to the line quickly, stuffing plays and generally being more of a forceful presence as opposed to a last line of defense.
I still maintain concerns with regard to his ability to diagnose plays in general. It looks to me like sometimes he's either a little slow or he just switches off. A key example came with 13:51 left in the third quarter. Riley experienced a big USC rush and was forced to run left. He looks down field, you presume to try and throw the ball away. Instead, he picks out a wide open receiver for a first down (it was 3rd and long). Mays was the closest to the open wide out but simple didn't recognise the threat. He really needed to pick up that man and at least make an attempt to force an incompletion, especially on third down.
He made another error with 39 seconds left in the third. He failed to wrap up a tackle in the open field, but followed the tight end out bounds and bundled him over. It drew a late hit penalty and turned a first down into a big gain.
It wasn't all bad in the second half, he did flash that superb athleticism to follow Jahvid Best on a sweep to the right, match Best for pace and force him out of bounds for a short loss. Not many safeties will be able to keep up with the Cal RB and it really showed off Mays' physical qualities.
Funnily enough it wasn't all about the one safety last night. At half time the footage switched to Tennessee against Auburn for three drives. Just enough time to see Eric Berry miss an interception chance by not reacting to a tipped pass quickly enough and then whiff on a tackle. Berry does a lot of things well, but a top five pick he is not.
Back to USC vs Cal and I was very impressed with Joe McKnight again last night. It was hard not to compare the two running backs, McKnight and Best. Both have speed to burn, are capable of hitting a home run and need to show they can carry a big load. McKnight won this battle, although in fairness he was playing on a much more productive offense.
On SoCal's first drive he scored a superb touchdown which really showed off his raw ability. He takes a carry from the Cal 38 yard line, sees a hole and explodes through it. He dodges a tackle with a second burst of speed before taking the run to the outside. He closes in on the end zone being chased by two defenders, before leaping a full 5-6 yards to tickle the pylon with the football. Poise, speed, athleticism - it was all their on that play.
When I've watched McKnight this year, I've needed to be convinced that he can live up to the hype he received upon recruitment, that he can carry a load and avoid his fumbling issues. I have to say, for the large part I've had those concerns satisfied. He ran twenty times last night for 120 yards, caught three passes and scored a pair of touchdowns - adding a late score in the end zone to his earlier effort.
Compare this to Jahvid Best who struggled all night and has all but certainly seen any hopes of Heisman ended. Best had fourteen carries for 47 yards and no touchdowns, never really threatening. It's certainly a worry that unless Best is given a clean running lane he struggle to make things happen. I'm not convinced he's a guy you can lean upon and although he wasn't playing on a productive offense, on this evidence he isn't a guy who you can depend on to get you out of a hole. C.J. Spiller remains my #1 ranked running back, but I'm tempted to say Joe McKnight is my clear second choice now.
Finally to Damien Williams, USC wide receiver. He had eight catches on the night for 101 yards and also scored on a 66 yard punt return. It stands to be a poor class for wide outs in 2010. Dez Bryant gets the most attention almost by default, but recently I've seen Williams touted as having first round potential. I liked what I saw today. It's hard to tell without coaches tape, but he appeared to have good speed (gliding, almost comparable to Jeremy Maclin at times). He showed solid hands and an ability to make some YAC. He can clearly be useful returning kicks as his punt return showed. I'm not sure he has that ability to be a sure fire #1 receiver and his routes could be a little tighter, but to a team looking for a playmaking wide out with speed I wouldn't bet against him being a first round pick.
Elsewhere, it was another tough day for Jevan Snead. He was having a nightmare at one stage, throwing three expensive picks before hitting back to score three TD's in Ole Miss' fortunate win over Vanderbilt. I still think Snead will be a first round pick because some team will fall in love with his arm - I'm looking at you, Washington - but I think he's going to be taken in the teens or twenty's rather than the top few picks as touted before the 2009 season began.
Clemson's C.J. Spiller again flashed his playmaking ability against Maryland, scoring on a 92 yard kick return. He also had eighteen carries for 72 yards rushing and caught a couple of passes. Another running back, Jonathan Dwyer, also scored a TD in Georgia Tech's victory over Mississippi State. Spiller looks like a first round pick to me, or at least an early second. I don't think Dwyer will go quite as early.
Quarterback Tony Pike led Cincinnati to another victory, this time against Miami (Ohio). It wasn't Pike's finest display, he forced a lot of throws against a mediocre defense. He did score two nice touchdowns though in a 270 yard, one interception performance.
There was some talent at wide receiver on show in the LSU vs Georgia encounter. The Bulldogs A.J. Green had another productive day, notching 99 yards from five catches including a TD reception. The Tigers boast a pair of talented wide outs - Terrance Toliver had 76 yard and senior Brandon La Fell recorded 52 yards.
Finally, the game that will receive the most hype over the next seven days - Washington at Notre Dame. See yesterday's blog post below for more on that, but be warned - you're going to be hearing a lot about Jake Locker and Jimmy Clausen being top picks for 2010.