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Saturday Spotlight: Draft Prospects To Watch Week 9

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Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranks No. 1 in the FCS in passing yards, total offense and TD passes. Photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois University Sports Information.
Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranks No. 1 in the FCS in passing yards, total offense and TD passes. Photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois University Sports Information.

The third-best quarterback in the history of Eastern Illinois football has never won a Super Bowl. Believe me, he doesn't need to be reminded of that fact.

The second-best quarterback in Eastern Illinois history won a Super Bowl. Only he did it as a head coach, not a quarterback.

Could the best quarterback ever to suit up for the Panthers wind up winning a Super Bowl? That's not outrageous (right, Delaware fans?), but it's a long way off at the very least. For now,  Jimmy Garoppolo is still on the Charleston campus, not yet finished erasing the passing records set by Sean Payton and Tony Romo before him.

Once he's done rewriting EIU history, Garoppolo is a threat to do something neither Payton nor Romo did. Get himself drafted. 

A name no one outside of the Ohio Valley Conference knew before this season is now making its way into conversations about the Quarterback Draft Class of 2014. 

Garoppolo, you say? From "Saturday NIght Live"? Loved her in "The Truth About Cats And Dogs."

No, that's Janeane Garofolo. Though Jimmy, in his job, is equally as unconservative.

Hmmmm. . . Wasn't there a children's book about Garoppolo?

No, that's "The Gruffalo." Though, as happened with the mouse in that story, the rise in his reputation has been profound and surprising.

In a lot of ways, Garoppolo has fewer questions about him than many of his FBS counterparts. He's more of a pass-first guy than Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel or Brett Hundley. At 6-foot-3, 222 pounds, he doesn't have the size issue that Manziel, Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray face. And he's more mobile than, say, Zach Mettenberger or Derek Carr. 

There's little question about his arm or his release, his decision-making is getting better and his accuracy has improved dramatically in his third season as EIU's starter. He's completing two-thirds of his pass attempts -- impressive, especially in light of the fact that Garoppolo takes shots downfield as regularly as Stephen Morris. 

The lingering concern, of course, is about the caliber of competition Garoppolo faces in the OVC. His two games against FBS defenses this season should allay some of those suspicions. In a season-opening win over San Diego State and a four-point loss to Northern Illinois, Garoppolo was a combined 65-for-95 for 810 yards, with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. 

This Saturday, he gets to prove himself against the best his own level has to offer when the Panthers travel to Tennessee State. EIU has the top-ranked offense in the FCS; TSU has the second-ranked defense. The Tigers haven't allowed more than 21 points a game; Garoppolo averages more than four TD passes a game.

This is considered a deep quarterback draft class. But the only sure thing seems to be Teddy Bridgewater. Behind him, there are a dozen prospects who could catch a coach's eye, many of whom could emerge as a first- or second-round pick, and all of whom could use time to develop at the next level.

Garoppolo hasn't had the TV time to make a name for himself (no, that's Galafianakis). There's little he can do about that until the FCS playoffs and then the Senior Bowl. But just because you hadn't heard of him before now doesn't mean Jimmy Garoppolo is still a secret to NFL scouts. 

He's not. No one with nearly 11, 000 career passing yards could be.

Eastern Illinois at Tennessee State isn't the only game in town this weekend -- it's not even the biggest game in the eyes of most Nashville-based football fans. Here are a few interesting two-for-one scouting opportunities slated for Saturday:

Wide Receivers: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt and Mike Evans, Texas A&M: One-stop shopping doesn't get any easier than this. Every single team in the league should have someone in the building to evaluate the two best big receiver prospects in the 2014 NFL draft.

Sammy Watkins and Marqise Lee likely will be the first two receivers off the board. But neither has the size (Watkins is 6-1, 205, Lee is 6-0, 195) ideal for the X receiver spot. They may be more dynamic with the ball in their hands, and they may be more versatile in terms of how their future employers might utilize them.  But make no mistake. Matthews and Evans are the kind of big, fast, strong, sure-handed receivers that dictate coverages.

They are the 2014 draft's two best X Men. They both will become favored targets of their NFL quarterbacks, especially in the red zone, where their leaping ability and body control in traffic and along the boundaries can be exploited.

I'm not ready to say which one I prefer (my updated rankings will be released on Thursday). But scouts should flock to College Station to see for themselves the best big receivers next year's draft has to offer. 

Left Tackles: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee and Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: Earlier this month, Kouandjio acknowledged to a gathering of reporters that he needed to become more consistent, that two or three bad plays a game were enough to make him feel as if he played "terrible." 

It's an honest, accurate and fair assessment of Kouandjio's play this season. At times, he looks every bit the potential top-10 prospect he's been touted to be, especially in the run game. But he looks off-balance against a speed rusher or gets flagged for holding or simply gets beat more often than you'd expect. This would be a good time for a statement game.

And it'd be a great time for Tiny Richardson to make a big, bold statement on his own behalf. The guy who more than held his own against Jadeveon Clowney last year (right up until Tennessee's critical late turnover) looked overwhelmed by Clowney last weekend. It took seven plays before Richardson was able to lay so much as a hand on Clowney, despite lining across from him. He wasn't assigned to block Clowney on the first four plays. On the second play of the second series, Richardson tried to cut Clowney, who sidestepped the would-be block with little effort. On third down, Clowney crossed Richardson's face and blew past him to the inside, untouched.

Finally, on Play Seven, Richardson stood up Clowney on a run block. Triumph. But then on the next play, Clowney slipped him again and laid a crushing hit on Rajion Neal reminiscent of the Vincent Smith beheading that blew up YouTube.

Ju'Wuan James, Tennessee's right tackle, actually fared better against Clowney the few times Clowney lined up on the strong side. Richardson, though, is still the far superior pro prospect among the UT tackles. And it would help his draft stock if he could avoid winding up on a highlight featuring Ed Stinson or Jeoffrey Pagan or C.J. Mosley.

Quarterbacks: Brett Hundley, UCLA and Marcus Mariota, Oregon: I hope I'm writing about this matchup again next October, as I think these two developing quarterbacks really would benefit from another year on campus. I'm not sure either is a mature enough passer to make the jump to the NFL next season. And if they do, there's a real possibility that they would be picked high in the draft by teams that would need them to play earlier than would be ideal.

Especially Hundley. No premier passer should look as befuddled by the 93rd-best pass defense in the nation as Hundley did last week at Stanford. I know UCLA is incredibly young along the offensive line; they have guys barely old enough to drive, let along keep a drive alive in the Pac-12. Still, Hundley looked uncomfortable throwing the ball last week, and I still think he arrives at Plan B -- RUN! -- too quickly in his read progression.

Same with Mariota, though more of his runs are by design. 

Both Mariota and Hundley have NFL arms and world-class athleticism. They just don't look to me like they're ready to step in and run an NFL offense and throw the ball 35 times a game, as quarterbacks are asked to do in the league today. Not when their throw of choice is the bubble screen.

Most rankings have either Hundley or Mariota as the second-best quarterback available in the 2014 draft. Indisputably, their potential is considerable. But timing is vital to a quarterback's success, and I'm growing increasingly convinced that the time isn't yet right for either one of them to make the jump.