|Kellen Moore continues to improve his NFL Draft stock after Boise State's win over Georgia. (Getty Images)|
A year ago at this time the idea that Cam Newton would eventually ascend to be the first pick of the 2011 NFL Draft was pure fantasy.
Robert Griffin III will have to buck even longer odds to lead the Baylor Bears to a BCS Championship and the top spot in the 2012 draft, but the junior quarterback known as RGIII firmly planted his flag as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate with a stellar performance in Friday's upset victory over TCU, the defending Rose Bowl champions.
Griffin, a 6-2, 220-pound redshirt junior, burst onto the scene as an 18-year old freshman in 2008. He threw 15 touchdowns against only three interceptions in 2008, but it was his maneuverability (843 yards, 13 TD) that was so dazzling. A torn ACL ended Griffin's sophomore season prematurely and since he's developed into a quarterback much more interested in torching defenses with his arm than his legs. The Horned Frogs, the top-rated defense in college football the past three seasons, certainly learned the hard way of Griffin's maturation. Griffin was spectacular, threading the ball through tight windows and lofting deep passes down the sideline to hit receivers in stride.
He completed 21 of 27 passes for 359 yards and five touchdowns and did not throw an interception. Griffin showed his toughness and versatility late in the game, catching a pass from receiver Kendall Wright and absorbing a wicked hit to put the Bears in position for the game-winning field goal.
A scout who happened to be in Waco, Texas, for the game couldn't help but gush about the quarterback's performance.
"There were several guys who stood out," the scout, requesting anonymity, told me in a text message. "The receiver [Wright], the running back [Terrance Ganaway]... but no one helped himself more tonight than Griffin. He was lights out."
• Kellen Moore's numbers weren't quite as stunning as Griffin's, but in leading the Boise State Broncos to yet another impressive victory Saturday night against Georgia, the quarterback everyone loves to characterize as too small and too weak-armed continues to challenge conventional thinking.
The 6-0, 195-pound Moore completed 28 of 34 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and an interception against a talented SEC defense boasting legitimate NFL talent on the defensive line, linebacker and secondary. Georgia's best defensive player -- cornerback Brandon Boykin -- was beaten to the inside by Tyler Shoemaker for Moore's third touchdown pass of the evening.
While Moore's height and slight frame is a concern for scouts, with NFL offenses increasingly shifting towards a primarily shotgun snap, his lack of ideal size is less of an issue than it may have been even five years ago. Moore's below average arm, however, will keep him off the draft board for some teams regardless of how many games he wins in college.
Like some of the great passers of yesteryear, however, what Moore lacks in size and arm-strength, he makes up for with anticipation and accuracy. Moore spread the ball around against Georgia -- completing passes to nine different receivers -- and didn't appear to be the least bit fazed by the fact that he lost his two best receivers (Austin Pettis, Titus Young) to the NFL.
Some have compared the left-handed Moore's composure and ability to hit receivers in stride to former Oakland Raider great Kenny Stabler. Others have gone even further, likening Moore's instincts, ball placement and clutch play to the usually incomparable Joe Montana. The leader of perhaps the most well-rounded team in Boise State history, Moore isn't going away. He lit up the most talented defense he'll face in the regular season and looks poised to shatter a host of school, conference and national records. The fourth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy voting, Moore could leap to the top of the list should the Broncos once again be in position for a BCS Bowl.
The question remains what NFL team will be willing to overlook his lack of top measureables to recognize his rare talents. NFLDraftScout.com currently rates Moore as a fifth or sixth-round pick and the No. 8 senior quarterback in the country.
• Few players entered the year boasting as impressive a resume as Boston College inside linebacker Luke Kuechly. The 11th consensus All-American in school history, Kuechly led the country in solo (110) and total tackles (183) last season playing alongside a player who was a bigger story -- Mark Herzlich. The production wasn't a surprise, considering that he finished second the year before in both categories as a true freshman (87, 158).
The two-time All-ACC selection picked up Saturday right where he left off, racking up 18 tackles, 1½ tackles for loss and an interception in a tough 24-17 home loss to Northwestern.
Kuechly owes his gaudy statistics to the fact that he simply is the most instinctive defender in the country. He has an uncanny ability of diagnosing the play as it is happening, beating blockers to the action. He has long arms and good upper body strength to shuck blockers even when they get to him. He is also a secure wrap-up tackler who pursues to all levels of the field. Despite his instincts and production, Kuechly has his warts. At 6-2, 235 pounds, he is a lighter and less explosive than scouts would prefer at the Mike position. Kuechly also had an uncharacteristic missed tackle in the closing moments of the first half that allowed Northwestern's backup quarterback Kain Colter to slip by him for a touchdown and momentum heading into the half.
Kuechly's over pursuit resulted in Northwestern's first touchdown of the 2011-12 season. Ironically, earlier in the second quarter, his big play against Colter also led to Boston College's first trip to the end zone this season, as well. Kuechly eased to his left to cover the running back and quickly broke on the ball for an easy interception. Kuechly weaved his way toward the end zone, nearly scoring the second touchdown off an interception return of his career (Central Michigan, 2009). Moments later, Eagles' running back Andre Williams ran six yards for the score.
Upon Further Review
Upon Further Review, a feature we're adding this year to Weekly Rewind, will highlight a player whose performance over the weekend significantly altered my earlier assessment of the prospect.
A few highly touted players struggled in season-openers. I'm quite high on the upside of Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, for example. However, the behemoth Glenn (6-5, 345) struggled with Boise State's speed in his first start at left tackle in nearly two years. While Glenn did start four games at left tackle in 2009, the other 32 starts of his career have come inside at either left (28) or right (four) guard. If Glenn continues to struggle outside, he'll confirm what scouts already suspect -- that he best projects inside at the pro level.
The optimist in me, however, wanted to highlight a breakout performer rather than a disappointing start considering the season has just begun.
A strong performance from true sophomore inside linebacker Andrew Jackson of Western Kentucky made this easy to do.
His performance in a defensive battle with in-state rival Kentucky could lead the youngster to shoot up draft boards -- even though he's just two years removed from his high school graduating class the soonest he'll be eligible for the NFL would be in 2013.
Western Kentucky boasts a talented prospect for the 2012 draft in running back Bobby Rainey, the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. Rainey's stout frame coupled with his blazing speed are legitimately NFL-caliber, but it was Jackson who stock leapt the most in this Friday night showdown.
At 6-1, 255 pounds, Jackson is the physical prototype of what scouts are looking for in an inside linebacker prospect. He has long arms and good upper-body strength, which he used repeatedly to greet and shuck blocks.
Jackson is a heavy hitter who arrives with an explosive pop and provides very good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit. He finished the contest with a team-high 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. He was enjoying a terrific breakout performance, but was unfortunately cleanly blocked on the game's most critical play.
Fortunate to be ahead 7-3, Kentucky had the ball facing a 3rd-and-14 from its own 16-yard line. As Wildcats quarterback Morgan Newton collected the shotgun snap, Jackson drifted to his right to cover running back Raymond Sanders. In doing so he gave Newton room to run up the middle. Jackson would have had plenty of time to make the tackle before the Kentucky quarterback gained enough for the first down -- but a crushing block from a hustling tight end Jordan Aumiller gave Newton the clearance he needed to scoot for 58 yards. He threw the game-sealing touchdown to put Kentucky up 14-3 two plays later.
There was little Jackson could do about the block. Aumiller actually took out two Hilltopper defenders on the play. He caught strong safety Ryan Beard off-balance and toppled him over into the path of the closing Jackson.
The Hilltoppers, like Utah State (vs. Auburn) and Eastern Washington (vs. Washington), won't take much solace in the fact that they came close to beating a high profile program in their season opener. Regardless of how close the outcome was, the game remains a loss.
For scouts, however, the impressions made by individual players in those highly competitive losses won't soon be forgotten.
Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.