|'Dre Kirkpatrick is a rare talent who flashed his first-round ability Saturday against Arkansas. (Getty Images)|
Each week, we rewind the game film to highlight the star-worthy performances that could impact the 2012 draft rankings:
1.) There were multiple players who stood out for Alabama during their SEC-opener against rival Arkansas Saturday, but none likely carry a higher draft grade than junior cornerback 'Dre Kirkpatrick.
NFL scouts have caught on to the fact that few Nick Saban-coached defensive backs enjoy the same success in the NFL that they had for him at the collegiate level, but he may prove the exception to the rule. Kirkpatrick has rare speed and fluidity for a cornerback his size (6-2, 195) and demonstrated a greater degree of physicality Saturday in helping to limit arguably the elite wide receiving corps in the country to a combined 15 catches for 114 yards and one touchdown.
Kirkpatrick is at his best in press coverage. He uses his long arms to knock the receiver off-stride at the snap. He also demonstrated the recognition of underneath routes when in zone, rushing upfield to drop a shoulder into receivers as they attempted to secure the pass. His physical play translated into an impressive stat line. Kirkpatrick was credited with six tackles -- all solo -- as well as a tackle for loss and three pass breakups.
Scouts will want to see Kirkpatrick use his strength more consistently. Kirkpatrick was knocked to the ground by true freshman receiver Marquel Wade in the first quarter to create an avenue for Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson to turn a quick swing pass from quarterback Tyler Wilson for an 11-yard score.
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Kirkpatrick also failed to take advantage of his unique physical tools when in coverage. He was in good position to knock away a throw from Wilson, but in locating the football late and mistiming his leap, he surrendered a 19-yard touchdown to receiver Cobi Hamilton that may have been the Razorbacks' most impressive play of the game.
Kirkpatrick is a rare talent who flashed his first round ability throughout the afternoon. Superstars, however, rarely give up the only touchdowns surrendered. To ensure that he'll be drafted as high as his unique talents appear to warrant, Kirkpatrick will need to play with greater consistency.
2.) Considering that Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions in the second half to help Oklahoma State steal a win, one might think the Aggie quarterback will take a tumble down scouts' boards. The reality is... he might. But, he'll likely be joined by fellow senior Aggie, wide receiver Jeff Fuller.
The son of former Aggie and San Francisco 49er safety of the same name, Junior looked like a safety, at times, against the Cowboys, showing a disappointing lack of straight-line speed to challenge deep. Tannehill targeted Fuller deep down the sideline on a few occasions. In each case, the two-time All Big-12 receiver was locked up in single coverage by Cowboy cornerback Brodrick Brown. Fuller was unable to beat Brown over the top or make catches above him, allowing the 5-08, 185 pound junior to sit on underneath routes.
This fact led to two of Tannehill's interceptions. On the first, Fuller simply slipped when attempting to plant and drive back towards the ball on a third quarter comeback route. Unafraid of Fuller beating him deep, Brown was again able to quickly break on a poorly thrown comeback from Tannehill in the closing minutes of the game. Brown tipped the pass into the air, creating an easy interception for teammate James Thomas to intercept, essentially ending the game.
At 6-3, 220 pounds, Fuller is an ideal flanker prospect for the NFL. His unique size, strength and willingness to go over the middle make him dangerous, especially in the red zone. It was here that Fuller was at his best, as two of his six receptions (for 65 yards) went for touchdowns. Not surprisingly, his 30 career receiving touchdowns are a Texas A&M record.
Fuller has a reputation for being a big play receiver. His propensity for scoring touchdowns proves this to be true in one sense, at least. Teams, however, are hesitant to invest first round picks on wideouts lacking the speed or elusiveness to turn the ordinary play into the extraordinary ones.
3.) As the focal point of an offense so explosive it led Oregon last year to the precipice of the first BCS Championship in school history, LaMichael James is a well-known commodity.
His rare lateral agility and sudden acceleration were once again on display Saturday night as the Oregon Ducks traveled to Tuscon and throttled the Arizona Wildcats 56-31 in the Pac-12 opener for both. James was electric from the outset, helping stake Oregon to a 35-3 lead by breaking school records for the most rushing yards in one game (288), as well as the most career rushing touchdowns (43).
To put James' spectacular night into perspective, understand that he rushed for 288 yards on only 23 carries. That means he averaged 12.5 yards per attempt. This after leading the country in rushing yards last year (1,731), becoming the first Duck to ever win unanimous All-American honors.
With production like this, it is easy to understand why some believe James is destined to be a first round pick.
Considering that James is listed at Oregon at 5-09, 195 pounds (and looks smaller than this), however, the likelihood of his being selected within the first two rounds is slim. No one doubts that James' electric running can translate into NFL success, but he's a change-of-pace option in the NFL, not a feature back.
That's why the improvement that James has shown as a punt returner and receiver out of the backfield that may have actually boosted his stock with scouts more significantly yesterday than his gaudy rushing totals. James only caught two passes for 15 yards against the Wildcats, but showed his comfort extending his hands to pluck the outside away from his frame. With 11 catches on the season, James has already surpassed his total from last year's Heisman-finalist campaign (nine catches).
Furthermore, with Oregon's usual return-extraordinaire Cliff Harris still in coach Chip Kelly's doghouse, James has proven his ability transfers to punt returns, as well. James fielded three punts on the evening, taking one 51 yards to set up his second scoring run of the game. The three punt returns is the most James has been asked to make during any previous season of his collegiate career.
Likely to serve in a similar role in the NFL as mighty-mite Darren Sproles does the New Orleans Saints (and previously the San Diego Chargers), and it is imperative to James' final pro grade that he prove his versatility.
With 303 all-purpose yards on the road against a tough conference foe, James did precisely that.
4.) Upon Further Review highlights a player whose performance over the weekend significantly altered my earlier assessment.
Whatever hype there was leading to San Diego State traveling to play Michigan in The Big House Saturday was distributed among Denard Robinson, running back Ronnie Hillman and the Aztecs facing their former head coach, Brady Hoke.
NFL scouts on hand for the game likely were most interested in another player -- San Diego State senior quarterback Ryan Lindley -- and how he would fare in such an inhospitable climate.
Under Hoke, Lindley had emerged as a Mountain West Conference star. He completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 3,830 yards and tossed twice as many touchdowns (28) as he did interceptions (14). More importantly, boasting a strong arm and the prototypical NFL frame at 6-4, 230 pounds, Lindley has the physical tools to project to the next level.
Against what is likely to be the most athletic defense he'll face all season, Lindley completed 23 of 48 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown. He did not throw an interception, but struggled with accuracy, especially when Michigan forced him to move his feet.
When forced to slide laterally or move up in the pocket, Lindley's accuracy dropped significantly. This fact, combined with average pocket awareness, is a concern as Lindley -- unlike many quarterbacks who primarily operate out of the spread offense -- has plenty of experience taking snaps from under center. To maintain his ranking as a middle-round prospect, Lindley will have to show improvement in this area throughout the rest of the season with the Aztecs or during whatever postseason all-star opportunities he receives.
Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.
Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.