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Week 11 Rewind: Oregon's pint-sized RB James can excel in NFL

by | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
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James is averaging an other-worldly 7.89 yards per attempt. (Getty Images)  
James is averaging an other-worldly 7.89 yards per attempt. (Getty Images)  

Each week, we rewind the game film to highlight the star-worthy performances that could impact the 2012 draft rankings:

 It was rumored for years that the University of Notre Dame would allow the grass to grow just a little bit longer whenever they hosted a team faster than them.

If the Stanford Cardinal embraced a similar strategy for their Pac-12 showdown Saturday night with Oregon it certainly didn't work.

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LaMichael James, the Ducks' star running back, noticed the long, wet grass in Stanford Stadium early and switched to longer cleats. As a result, when Stanford defenders were slipping all over the field, the diminutive junior tailback was squirting through holes and leaving would-be tacklers grasping at air on his way to 146 yards and three touchdowns in Oregon's 53-30 win on the road.

James literally had the better footing. In virtually every other game of his brilliant career, James relied on lateral quickness, acceleration and vision to make defenders look foolish.

James led the country in rushing yardage (1,731) and rushing touchdowns (21) last season, finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He is working at an even more feverish pace this season.

Consider James finished among the nation's leaders with a healthy 5.89 yards-per-carry average in 2010. This year, he's at an even higher level, averaging a gaudy 7.89 yards per attempt. Not surprisingly, he's again on pace to lead the country in rushing yards.

Despite staggering production, scouts can't help but be cautious when grading him for the next level. Listed at 5-9, 195 pounds -- many suspect he's considerably smaller than the Oregon program indicates -- James clearly doesn't possess the size most pro clubs want in a featured back.

He's also not necessarily the traditional scat-back as some peg him to be. James has only 13 receptions this season and finished each of the past two years with 17. Though his relatively low catch totals hardly mean that James lacks the hands to be an effective outlet receiver, any concerns about his ball skills weren't helped Saturday night with only one catch (for 10 yards) and a muffed punt in which the ball simply slid through his hands.

James is a stronger runner than you'd think considering his size. He finishes runs like a big back -- feet chugging, twisting and leaning forward to gain ground as he's being tackled. That said, his value lies with his elusiveness and blazing straight-line speed -- and teams have traditionally been unwilling to invest a top 100 pick in undersized backs with this limited skill-set.

Some of the other speedy, undersized backs James has been compared to -- Darren Sproles, Taiwan Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers -- made it to the fourth round despite similarly jaw-dropping collegiate production.

 Long before the public knew anything about the horrors allegedly happening at Penn State, pro scouts had circled the Nittany Lions' home date versus Nebraska as a rare opportunity to see two of the more talented senior defensive linemen in the country.

An early season injury took Nebraska's Jared Crick out of the equation, but Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still has more than held up his side of the bargain. The 6-4, 310-pound senior entered the game leading the Big Ten with 15.5 tackles for loss. In doing so, he's shot up the draft board from the second- or third-round prospect he entered the season rated as into a potential top 20 prospect.

Long-armed and strong at the point of attack, Still is getting attention as a 3-4 defensive end. He also possesses the short-area quickness to beat guards one on one, something he demonstrated clearly by bursting through the line to sack Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez on the Cornhuskers' fifth offensive snap from scrimmage.

The Huskers continued to pound away at Still and the Penn State defense, rushing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Like a lot of taller defensive tackles, Stills' pad level rose as he tired, negating his strength advantage.

Stills, a captain, played hard throughout the game, showing good hustle laterally and downfield, registering six total tackles and forcing a fumble. The sustained intensity will only help his cause with scouts as Stills' had been plagued by bouts of inconsistency in prior seasons.

Clemson's Brandon Thompson is Stills' primary competition as the country's elite senior defensive tackle. While the 6-2, 310-pound Thompson has been the more consistent player throughout their respective careers, Stills' size and versatility could make him the highly regarded prospect by draft day.

 With so much of the pre-draft focus circulating around USC Trojans on the offensive side of the ball, it isn't surprising that a Southern California defensive player would be overlooked.

Junior defensive end Nick Perry entered the game already leading the Trojans in tackles for loss and sacks. Against Huskies' left tackle Senio Kelemete, a legitimate middle-round pro prospect in his own right, Perry enjoyed the type of breakout game that could catapult the 6-3, 250 pound pass rusher into first-round consideration.

The same speed that beat Stanford's Jonathan Martin two weeks ago caught Kelemete off balance for much of the night. Quick enough to cross the left tackle's face and turn the corner, Perry also demonstrated a spin to the inside to complement his speed rush. Perry was officially credited with five tackles, including 2.5 sacks in the game, making him the current leader in the Pac-12 with 7.5 hits on the quarterback.

Considered by the USC coaching staff to be among the team's elite athletes, Perry may only be scratching the surface of his potential. Even more exciting -- at least from the perspective of NFL teams -- is that Perry appears to be one of the few pass rushers potentially available in 2012 with the combination of size and athleticism to make an impact in either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.

 Upon Further Review highlights a player whose performance over the weekend significantly altered my earlier assessment.

Last year, South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery made a mockery of SEC defenses catching 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns on his way to All-America honors.

Through 10 games this season: 38 catches for 504 yards and five touchdowns. He was limited to two catches for 17 yards Saturday by Florida. It is the fourth consecutive game the 2011 Biletnikoff Award finalist has been held under 25 receiving yards.

Some are chalking up Jeffery's mediocre production as simply a by-product of the Gamecocks' season-long struggle to find consistent quarterback play.

The truth: Jeffery is overrated.

In his first two seasons, Jeffery used his size and physicality to gain position on defensive backs. With defenses sucked up to try and contain Marcus Lattimore last season, Jeffery was often able to exploit single coverage, break a tackle and gain yardage -- sometimes big yardage -- after the catch. With defenders not in position to stop him, Jeffery appeared to possess explosiveness.

This season the rare talent playing cornerback in the SEC has exposed Jeffery's lack of explosiveness. He's not getting the ball as much this season, in large part because he isn't getting open.

Jeffery reminds me a great deal of another former USC receiver -- Southern California's Mike Williams (now with the Seattle Seahawks). Like Williams, Jeffery's NFL-caliber traits are his size, strength, soft hands and hand-eye coordination. Due to each man's ability to make the catch even with defenders draped over them, many of Williams' and Jeffery's receptions are memorable plays.

The reality is both need to make plays with defenders clutching at them as neither has the agility or straight-line speed to consistently get open in the NFL.

Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.

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