Each week, we rewind the game film to highlight the star-worthy performances that could impact the 2013 draft rankings.
On a Saturday in which there were plenty of impressive performances from top teams and individual NFL prospects, nothing stood out more than the Florida State Seminoles and their senior quarterback EJ Manuel (pictured above), who in leading the team to a nationally televised victory over conference rival Clemson firmly planted FSU's flaming spear as a legitimate BCS title contender and himself as a Heisman Trophy contender, as well.
Manuel completed 27 of 35 passes for a career high 380 passing yards and ran for another 102 yards in the victory. It is the first time a Seminole quarterback has eclipsed the 300 yard passing and 100 yard rushing mark since Charlie Ward, the 1993 Heisman winner, accomplished this feat against Maryland on November 7, 1992.
Manuel had been similarly statistically-impressive in each of Florida State's first three games but talent evaluators could take little from them, as the Seminoles cruised to victories over Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest by a combined score of 176-3.
The No. 10 ranked Tigers, however, matched the Seminoles' speed and raced out to an early lead, testing the team's ability to handle the pressure of being behind. The Tigers scored first, went into halftime up 21-14 and twice carried double-digit leads in the second half. Manuel, however, was unflappable, consistently beating Clemson to the edge as a runner and showing deft touch on a variety of short, intermediate and deep passes to stretch the Tigers' defense both vertically and horizontally.
Clemson's inability to stop Manuel (FSU only punted three times in this game) is certain to improve the multi-dimensional quarterback's chances at winning the Heisman. NFL scouts don't put much stock in trophies but Manuel also showed improvement in this contest in some of the key areas they do care about.
Possessing a strong arm, good maneuverability and speed and prototype NFL size at 6-5, 240 pounds, Manuel has always intrigued scouts with his upside. He completed 65.3% of his passes last season - his first as a full-time starter after taking over for Christian Ponder - and tossed 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He still made scouts nervous, however, as he rarely had to move past his first read in Jimbo Fisher's relatively easy spread-option offense before simply tucking the ball and running it himself.
Manuel was forced to make tougher post-snap decisions against Clemson, however, and it was clear that Fisher has tailored his offense over the off-season to better take advantage of his large, mobile quarterback's unique talents. Manuel was often allowed to roll-out on his own or keep the ball on bootlegs after faking the hand-off. His mobility and accuracy on the move kept the Clemson defense off-balance and took advantage of the fact that Manuel is one of the country's better play-action passers - one of several "little things" that the senior quarterback does much better than which he's often given credit.
An example of this is Manuel's touch. The FSU quarterback was able to lob several passes over the linebackers and under Clemson's safeties to gain yardage in chunks. His 29-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Smith, who was tightly covered, was perfectly placed in the right corner of the end zone to give the Seminoles their first lead at 35-31 late in the third quarter.
A second play that demonstrated Manuel's improved awareness actually cost him an opportunity to pad his own statistics later in the game.
With Florida State leading by 12 points and possessing the ball late, Clemson's only chance at winning was to get the ball back. Manuel ended any chance of that happening by electing to slide - essentially tackling himself - after he'd broken free for 28 yards on a 3rd and 8 run. Rather than attempt to score (which would give Clemson the ball back) or fight for more yardage and risk turning the ball over, Manuel slid down at the 9-yard line. A touchdown likely would have sent the fans in Doak Campbell Stadium home that much giddier but by keeping the ball, instead Manuel simply secured the victory, instead.
That type of awareness, selflessness and leadership is precisely what scouts are looking for from a senior quarterback. If Manuel is to emerge as a serious Heisman candidate and potential first round choice, his all-around performance against a talented Clemson defense was certainly a strong start.
* The rapid transformation of the Baylor Bears into a legitimate NFL breeding ground didn't end with the loss of Heisman winner Robert Griffin III heading off to the Washington Redskins. Often overshadowed by RG3 and big play specialist Kendall Wright a season ago, Terrance Williams (pictured above) showed off the skill-set Friday night against Louisiana-Monroe to demonstrate why many scouts view him as the nation's top senior wide receiver prospect.
Statistically-speaking, Williams posted his least impressive performance of the young 2012 season against the Warhawks, who entered this game fresh off of a 31-28 overtime loss at Auburn and having shocked Arkansas in their season-opener. Williams had averaged 6.5 catches for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns in Baylor's first two games. Against the Warhawks, he was "limited" to four catches for 84 yards - though two of them went for scores.
Griffin's replacement at quarterback, Nick Florence, tried to force the ball to his star receiver early in this contest and saw two of his passes intercepted in the first quarter, leading to ULM jumping out to a surprising 14-0 lead. As the game went on, however, Williams' exciting blend of size and speed proved too much for the Warhawks. Respecting his ability to attack defenses deep, ULM tried to bracket Williams, at times. On one such occasion, Williams simply eluded the cornerback with a slippery shoulder fake and slight hesitation before accelerating past the closing safety to gather in a perfectly thrown ball from Florence down the right sideline to knot the game at 21 in the second quarter.
As much as scouts (and Baylor fans) appreciate Williams' receiving ability, it was his hustle midway through the fourth quarter during a botched two-point conversion attempt that may have been his most impressive play. With Baylor having just re-taken the lead at 40-35, Florence had the ball poked free from ULM's undersized defensive end Joey Gautney, who picked up the ball and was racing back in an attempt to give the Warhawks their own two-point score. Gautney, a 6-1, 240 pound sophomore, has good speed and nothing but green grass ahead of him. He also had a convoy of blockers behind him, who picked off three would-be tacklers for the Bears. Williams' speed and determination, however, allowed him to avoid the blockers and track down Gautney 50+ yards later to eliminate the scoring opportunity. Baylor ended up winning 47-42.
* While Saturday proved to be a pit of a coming out party for one highly debated quarterback prospect in Manuel, the same cannot be said for Oklahoma's Landry Jones (pictured below), whose stock is slipping after a disappointing performance in a 24-19 upset home loss to Kansas State.
Scouts have always been intrigued by Jones' size (6-4, 220) and strong arm. In Oklahoma's spread attack, Jones has racked up eye-popping numbers and will likely leave the university after this season atop the Sooners' record books in every major passing category. The same critical flaws that scouts have seen from him in the past, however, were once again on full display against a gutty Wildcats' defense, namely that when the pass rush forces Jones to re-set his feet, his accuracy plummets.
Jones had spent much of the summer working with noted QB guru George Whitfield on improving his mechanics and there is no denying he is more efficient in his set-up and delivery of the football when he has time. The internal clock that the great quarterbacks possess just seems to be running a tick slower for Jones when he faces pressure. He held the ball for too long and saw it stripped away from him in the first quarter to give the Wildcats' their first score. He was bailed out in the third quarter when the referees elected to over-turn their initial call of another fumble and rule a slight forward flip of his toward running back Roy Finch as an incomplete pass. Jones and the Sooners seemed re-energized by the decision. Jones completed his next six passes leading the Sooners to a touchdown that gave them the lead at 13-10. His lack of ideal poise in the pocket once again showed up on the next drive, however, as Jones simply air-mailed a ball over his star receiver Kenny Stills' head that was picked off by KSU's Ty Zimmerman. The Wildcats turned Jones' second turnover into what turn out to be the game's deciding touchdown moments later, early in the fourth quarter.
* Losing starting quarterback Morgan Newton to injury and their SEC opener to Florida by a score of 38-0, there were few highlights for the Kentucky Wildcats this week. One, however, was the play of right guard Larry Warford, the Cats' lone representative on the Senior Bowl's 2013 Watch List. Warford has the short, wide build many scouts prefer in an interior lineman and is remarkably trim considering he's listed at 6-3, 343 pounds by Kentucky. He's quick off the snap, consistently sealing off Florida's Shariff Floyd, NFLDraftScout.com's No. 2 rated junior defensive tackle. Two weeks prior Warford, a starter in the past 28 consecutive games, was named the SEC's Offensive Lineman of the Week after holding former MAC Defensive Player of the Year (and Outland, Lombardi and Nagurski Watch List honoree) Roosevelt Nix to just two assisted tackles, well under the Kent State star's average. Warford can knock defenders off the ball in short yardage due to his explosive initial surge. Despite his bulk, he also shows surprising speed to the second level. Warford is rarely mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper or Alabama's duo of Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. Against a quality defensive line, Warford proved there may not be much of a drop-off after the "big three" after all.
* Scouts are excited about this year's class of talent but some are already calling the group that could make up the first round of the 2014 NFL draft the real story. For all of the talk about Keenan Allen, Robert Woods and Justin Hunter (among others), the elite receivers in the country are both true sophomores - USC's Marquis Lee and Clemson's Sammy Watkins - who will first be potentially draft-eligible following next season. The three elite tight ends in the country - Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins (pictured right), Florida's Jordan Reed and Oregon's Colt Lyerla are also each sophomores. The elite talent isn't limited to just the offensive side of the ball. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would be a top 10 pick this year if he was eligible. By the end of next year, the 6-6, 256 pound pass rusher could prove a legitimate contender to be the No. 1 overall selection.