Saturday Spotlight: Five Prospects To Watch Week 3
A lot has happened in the world over the past 308 days. We've witnessed the resignation of a Pope, the birth of the future King of England, even a winning season by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Could it really be just 308 days ago when Johnny Manziel was just some fresh-faced, happy-footed miracle worker, on his way to beating No. 1 Alabama and becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy?
Now, as the Tide prepares for another afternoon of Johnny Football, we get our best opportunity of the season to see whether Manziel is more than Johnny Myth. His team is back in the spotlight Saturday, and Manziel gets his shot at showing NFL scouts that he can do more than run his feet and his mouth.
Manziel is one of the five prospects we put in our critical crosshairs in Week 3.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M vs. Alabama
Call it "Put Up And Shut Up Saturday" for Manziel, who really does need to start proving to scouts that his maturing skills on the field are worth the headaches of his immaturity off it.
One concern Manziel won't be able to do much about answering against Alabama is his size. He's listed on the A&M roster as being 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, but those measurements feel a little home-cooked. But even if those measurements were accurate, they would still make Manziel one of the four smallest among those NFL quarterbacks who opened the season as their team's starter. Only Russell Wilson (5-11, 206), Drew Brees (6-0, 209) and Michael Vick (6-0, 215) are of comparable size, though I think there's little comparison beyond those most basic of biographical data. Make no mistake, those guys are all NFL passers (Brees, of course, being one of the most prolific passers of all-time).
Which brings us to what I think is the biggest issue scouts have with Manziel -- and where Saturday represents a huge chance to start changing minds. It has not appeared that Manziel can make pro throws with any consistency.
Sure, in his first game-and-a-half of the season, Manziel's passing numbers are stellar: 35-for-50, 520 yards, six TDs and one interception. But all that came in a half against Rice and a full game against Sam Houston State. Scouts need to see what in the Sam Houston Manziel can do against something closer to an NFL defense, and they'll get their chance on Saturday.
To Alabama, Saturday's game is a rare chance at revenge -- something not too many defending champions ever need. To Manziel, it's a chance to show how far he's come as a passer.
Last year, Manziel attempted 31 passes against the Tide (he dropped back another 10 times or so and was forced to scramble to survive). Twenty of those attempts traveled fewer than 10 yards downfield. Five of his throws targeted receivers behind the line of scrimmage, seven were in the air for four yards or less. Three yards to Ryan Swope helped move the chains last year; I get that. Scouts already know he can make that throw. Manziel may not care what the public or media thinks of him, but he damn sure knows he better impress the guys taking notes in the press box.
If he wants NFL coaches to think about turning their offense over to him next year, he must give them something to see on game film, not TMZ.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA vs. Nebraska
Of all the dual-threat quarterbacks eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft, Hundley might be second only to Tajh Boyd in terms of NFL potential. He proved last year that he is a passer first with the added dimension of being a legitimate run threat (he ran for a 72-yard touchdown on his first play from scirmmage).
His debut this season was solid: 22-for-33, 274 yards, two TDs, 63 yards rushing on seven attempts. But now he gets to exploit on a national stage a Nebraska defense that is a pale progeny of blackshirts past.
Last year, Hundley threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns against Nebraska. Already this season, the Huskers allowed 608 total yards to a Wyoming offense run by a lesser dual-threat quarterback, Brett Smith.
There's no reason to think Hundley won't exploit the Huskers again, showing the full range of throws he can make and that he can make a living in the pocket first.
Dri Archer, RB/WR, Kent State vs. LSU
Archer's dream season got off to a nightmare start. He injured an ankle on Kent State's first drive of the season, and he has all of three touches to his credit coming into a night game Death Valley. But Archer knows this is a huge opportunity to show that his speed -- considered otherworldly in the MAC -- is impressive even in SEC country.
Unfortunately, that ankle likely will limit Archer's gamebreaking ability. But he expects to give it a go against an LSU defense still finding its identity after sending six players to the NFL in the first three rounds of the 2013 draft. Allowing 47 points to TCU and UAB isn't what you'd expect on the bayou.
LSU still features potential first-round talent in defensive tackle Anthony Johnson and safety Craig Loston. And, as always, the Tigers have speed all over the field. They're probably the fastest defense Archer will have ever faced.
Archer will line up in the slot against LSU, and he'll line up at tailback. He'll get his carries and his catches, and he'll hope to break that one play that will linger long in the minds of NFL scouts and the imaginations of offensive coordinators.
AJ Johnson, ILB, Tennessee vs. Oregon
Speed. It's the one part of football that can't truly be appreciated on film, can't reasonably be simulated in practice. Only when it's in front of you (or blowing past you) do you know whether or not you'll be able to handle it.
Saturday is A.J. Johnson's personal speed trial.
There is no question about Johnson's ability to make tackles all over the football field. He made 138 of them in 2012, fourth-most in the country and most among the Vols by a country mile.
Against Oregon, though, Johnson will encounter an offense with a gear he's never seen, not even in the SEC. After an afternoon chasing De'Anthony Thomas and containing Marcus Mariota and perhaps covering Colt Lyerla, NFL scouts will have a new read on Johnson's athleticism. He's always been a banger and a textbook tackler. But they're going to learn something about his angles of pursuit and his ability to reduce the field against skill position players so difficult to catch.
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State vs. Wisconsin
The season opener nine days ago was a mere appetizer for Sutton and Arizona State. Saturday is the main course.
Sacramento State's offensive line featured one starter over 295 pounds. Right guard Zac Matthias is the runt of the Wisconsin front, and he's 6-foot-5, 318 pounds.
Sutton lined up in Week 1 more over the nose than usual, which might not be the best fit for him at the next level. At 6-1, 305, Sutton needs to be able to use his elite quickness to beat his blockers (which he did last year to the tune of 23.5 TFL and 13 sacks). Putting him right over the ball means he gets locked up by the center on every play. Against Wisconsin, that means he gets to tangle in close quarters with Dallas Lewallen (6-6, 322).
Wherever he's lined up, Sutton will get to prove his bona fides as a run stuffer against the Badgers. Wisconsin has rushed for 780 yards already this season. In two games. In both games, the Badgers have had three different running backs -- Corey Clement, Melvin Gordon and James White -- rush for 100-plus yards.