NFL Draft: Stanford's Thomas outshines Trubisky in battle of future first-round picks

If the NFL scouts attending Saturday's Sun Bowl entered the game talking about North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky, they left instead raving about Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, who overshadowed the projected top-five pick, earning MVP honors with seven tackles, including the sack in the final seconds to preserve a dramatic 25-23 win for the Cardinal.

The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Thomas was virtually unblockable throughout the entire game, disrupting the Trubisky and the Tar Heels' rushing attack with a combination of initial quickness and explosive hand use that earned a comparison to Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald from CBS color commentator Gary Danielson.

Thomas had been overshadowed by fellow Stanford underclassman Christian McCaffrey throughout much of this season but with the Cardinal's star running back opting not to play in the Sun Bowl to begin early preparation for the NFL, the spotlight was there for the taking -- and Thomas, recently honored with the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's most dominant defensive lineman, responded, raising the question if he, too, might be on his way to the pros.

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Thomas (90) was the clear standout at the Sun Bowl. USATSI

While lacking the imposing height and weight of some of the other top-rated defensive linemen on NFLDraftScout.com's board, Thomas sports a power-packed frame and game that translates very well to the NFL. Quick enough to slip through gaps on the interior -- as he did on the final sack -- or stack and shed blockers to pursue running backs, Thomas is an easy first-round projection whenever he should decide to make himself eligible to the NFL.

Trubisky, on the other hand, was much more erratic, alternately wowing with his mobility and arm only to make questionable decisions with the ball that contributed to North Carolina's loss.

The redshirt junior turned the ball over three times, losing a fumble and twice getting picked off by Stanford safety Dallas Lloyd, who returned the second of the interceptions 19 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Though he made several unforced errors that contributed to the loss, Trubisky also flashed the raw talent that could make him a very early pick should he opt to leave North Carolina for the NFL after his first (and potentially only) season as the Tar Heels' starting quarterback.

Trubisky's final numbers Saturday - 23 of 39 for 280 yards and two touchdowns along with two interceptions - only hint at his inconsistent day.

The rifle-armed 6-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt junior started and ended the game brilliantly, showing the mettle of a much more experienced player. He was frequently under siege by Thomas but showed good spatial awareness of defenders around him, as well as quickness and strength to pull free from arm tackles while keeping his eyes downfield. He delivered several NFL-caliber throws, including a touchdown toss to Ryan Switzer in the first quarter to stake UNC to an early lead, and another to Bug Howard in the fourth quarter to put his team in position to tie the game in the final seconds.

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An inconsistent Trubisky battled pressure throughout the Sun Bowl. USATSI

While flashing the poised play to wow scouts, Trubisky's understandable lack of polish was also quite evident, at times.

He locked onto his initial target on each of his two interceptions, leading Stanford's Lloyd to the play. Trubisky showed poor ball security later, actually having the football knocked out of his hands not by a Stanford defender or a teammate but the umpire, who inadvertently grazed the ball while attempting to back away from the scrambling quarterback.

At times, Trubisky looked like a young passer attempting to fix all of his mistakes with one terrific play. He overthrew a couple of wide open targets and ran his team out of field goal position late in the fourth quarter by retreating in an attempt to outrun Thomas and Stanford's pass rush.

Just when things appeared their most bleak, however, Trubisky guided the Tar Heels on a furious drive over the final two minutes, hitting Howard on a 44-yard deep ball down the right sideline against tight coverage. He had three would-be touchdowns slip through the fingers of Tar Heels receivers before making arguably his most impressive play of the game, outrunning Thomas and a host of other Cardinal pass rushers to the right only to turn back to his left and find Howard with an absolute strike that demonstrated not only accuracy and velocity but mettle.

Unfortunately for Trubisky and the Tar Heels, however, Thomas was too quick on the game's ultimate play, slipping through North Carolina's line (along with several others) to sack Trubisky and preserve the two-point win.

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