There were a number of prospects on view in last night's Cincinnati vs USF game, which the Bearcats won 34-17. The most high profile was of course Tony Pike (QB, Cincy) but it was also a good chance to take a look at George Selvie (DE, USF), Jason Pierre-Paul (DE, USF), Nate Allen (FS, USF) and Mardy Gilyard (WR, Cincinnati). However, my main focus of attention remained on Pike to see if he could continue the good form that has made him an outside bet for the Heisman Trophy and a potential high pick in the 2010 draft.
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For one half of football, Pike was very impressive. That was until a sprained left wrist before half time ended his evening early and forced the Bearcats to put in backup Zach Collaros. It raises a serious concern about Pike that just won't go away - he's a brittle guy. At 6'6" in height, Pike has the ideal frame for a NFL quarterback. But he has issues adding weight, "We did some protein shakes. Actually, there were 2,200 calories per shake, and we'd do one in the morning and one at night. Even with those, it was hard to put the weight on. I can eat a ton and not gain anything, miss a meal and lose some weight."
It shows, because Pike is stick thin with very little muscle tone or bulk. He's had injury problems in the past, including a left arm injury which forced him to play wearing a cast for some time. It seems the same area has been injured again and this could force him to miss time over the next few weeks, we'll have to wait and see. This has to spark red flags for NFL scouts. We've seen how injuries can affect a franchise first hand with all the problems Seattle have faced in 2008 and 2009. If Pike is deemed to be incapable of taking hits because of his slight build, it could harm his draft stock.
It was a shame too, because he was impressive in the first half. In two quarters, he was 11/19 for 128 yard and a pair of TD's - against a good defense. He continues to show nice touch on his throws and gets the ball out quickly especially when under pressure. He took some snaps from behind center - not something we always see from quarterbacks playing in a spread offense.
One complaint you often hear mentioned with Pike is his occasional bad decision making. That hasn't been totally eradicated yet but it seems to be improving. He nearly threw a pick six with 11:48 left in the half, trying to get a pass to the right touchline. The throw lacked zip and USF defensive back Jerome Murphy was able to make a play for the ball and probably should have caught it for an easy run-back score. In the tight coverage, Pike really needed to drive the pass to the sideline to avoid the coverage but the pass floated a bit which makes it easy for corner backs to make a play.
This is another concern regarding Pike. Our resident scout, Kyle Rota, testified this in his early report on Pike - that arm strength isn't his speciality. This could again be down to his inability to add weight and muscle, but at the moment a lot of passes float up into the air. On the plus side, he showed above average accuracy last night and a nice tight spiral. I think Pike would be perfectly suited to the Josh McDaniels system we've seen in Denver this year, with a lot of emphasis on short routes, screens and slants. A team wanting a nice deep threat might be put off.
Because of this arm strength issue I wanted to see Pike in the red zone, always a good test of a quarterback playing with a short field. Seattle struggled mightily in this area without Matt Hasselbeck against the Bears and Colts. After free safety Aaron Webster had returned an interception 82-yards, Pike had the ball on the USF three yard line. He took the snap under center, set up the defense with a look to Mardy Gilyard on the left before quickly switching to the right and throwing a very catchable pass to Armon Binns for a touchdown. A nice touch on the pass, but the ball in an area for the WR to make a play and showed a nice feel for the endzone.
Better was to come with 7:05 left in the first half. Pike took the snap in his own end zone on 3rd and 17, managed to avoid strong pressure from George Selvie and scrambled to his left hand side. You assumed at this point he was going to throw the ball away, especially with his team leading 10-7 and deep in their own half. However, he fires a beautiful pass down the left to DJ Woods for a 25 yard completion. It's one of the best passes I've seen for a while, considering he was on the run and had just avoided a potential safety. Put the pass in the only place Woods could get it in coverage, great spiral and super accurate. What could have been a safety or a three-and-out actually ended up being a drive down the entire field for Pike to score his second TD of the game, an 8-yard bullet to Binns once again.
It would have been nice to see Pike end the game and lead his team to victory and concerns from the injury aside it was an impressive performance last night. There's certainly something to work with in Pike and I still believe from the senior class of QB's, he's the most ready to start from day one. At this stage I think he's certainly a safe 2nd-3rd round prospect, but if he was able to add some weight and get more velocity into his throws, he could go higher.
His main target in the passing game is senior wide out Mardy Gilyard. The Florida-born receiver is listed at 6'1" in height but he looked smaller on the screen to me. He's not an obvious deep threat and looks to me like he could be a very good slot receiver in the NFL. The real positive to his game is when he gets the ball in space and can generate YAC. Gilyard is more than useful on screens and dump offs and showed nice, tight route running qualities on short-intermediate routes. He was used on an end around once for a 5 yard gain and could have some use on trick plays.
I also saw Gilyard giving a pre-game speech to his teammates and he appears to be a mature, responsible individual who commands respect. He's been productive this year (592 yard, 7 TD's) and I'd expect to see him go in rounds 2-3 based on last night's evidence.
Jason Pierre-Paul is a defensive end who dropped onto the scene this week when Mel Kiper touted him as a potential top ten pick. In his most recent big board published this week, Kiper has him at #12 having previously been unranked. He's a JUCO prospect who received interest from the Gators and Virginia Tech before choosing USF. The fact he could enter the draft off the back of one year's production may put off some teams (such as the Seahawks) but he's undoubtedly an athletic specimen who could further improve the already stocked class of defensive lineman in 2010.
He seems to have good footwork, often trying to beat his man with a speed rush off the edge rather than bull rush. He has a big frame (6'6", 285lbs) but could actually get a little bigger and probably not lose any speed. Pure pass rusher who regularly got into Tony Pike's face in the first half. He made an interesting play on Collaros in the second half, beating his blocker with flat out speed and making a point guard-esque leap to the QB to try and block the pass. He succeeded in deflecting the ball kindly into the hands of free safety Nate Allen for an interception.
His limited production due to one year makes me cautious of Pierre-Paul, but like Carlops Dunlap he has that size/speed combo that will attract a lot of teams. If he declares for the draft in 2010 and puts on a show at the combine, he could go very early indeed.
Pass rush partner George Selvie benefited more than most from Pierre-Paul's presence. He too showed an ability to get to the QB and looked threatening as a pass rusher. His production has taken a big hit since his sophomore year (14.5 sacks to 5.5 as a junior) and he only has two sacks this season. The presence of Pierre-Paul into the starting line-up should help Selvie avoid those double teams and put up better numbers over the next few weeks, a real boost as he heads into the NFL draft. Right now he's probably a third round pick.
It was difficult to get a read on playmaking free safety Nate Allen. He made an interception thanks to Pierre-Paul's athletic deflection, but with Cincy not throwing deep too often it was tough to get a read on his ability in coverage. I wasn't all that impressed in run support, there's no way a moderately fast QB should be taking a draw through the middle and making a 75-yard touchdown run. It's one thing coughing up a run like that to Frank Gore, it's quite another when it's a backup QB at college level.
Another safety did catch my eye, however. Aaron Webster made a nice 82-yard interception return, looked pretty sound in coverage with good deep speed. He's very stiff in his running style and doesn't change direction particularly well, but could be a good special teams player down the line or a situational coverage guy on passing downs. I'll keep an eye on him throughout the rest of the year as a potential UDFA target, or even a seventh round pick.