|The popularity of Robert Griffin III is moving well beyond Waco. (US Presswire)|
Each week, we rewind the game film to highlight the star-worthy performances that could impact the 2012 draft rankings:
A record-breaking performance Saturday night by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III could one day be looked back as his ultimate trifecta. Griffin gave Baylor its first win over Oklahoma in 21 tries; it made him a Heisman favorite and perhaps answered the last question scouts had about his ability to play in the NFL. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt junior carved up an athletic Oklahoma secondary for a school-record 479 passing yards and four touchdowns -- including the winner with only eight seconds remaining -- in a thrilling 45-38 upset victory.
Considering the gaudy statistics RGIII had been producing all season long -- he entered the game completing 70 percent of his passes with a 29-5 TD to INT ratio -- Saturday's performance wasn't necessarily a surprise. It was, however, confirmation of Griffin's toughness as the Sooners hit the Baylor quarterback early and often. Spread offenses typically limit the decisions quarterbacks have to make, allowing them to get the ball out of their hands quickly with a variety of short routes. Few spread quarterbacks ever develop the poise to handle pressure when they do see it. Most spread quarterbacks are limited to the pocket. Make them move their feet and their effectiveness typically takes a tumble. This is precisely where Griffin III broke the stereotype.
On multiple occasions, Griffin demonstrated his poise and intelligence by throwing the ball away. Griffin erased what could have been a huge momentum switch in favor of the Sooners by collecting an errant shotgun snap, running to his right and firing a pass out of bounds. Plays like these go down in the stat books as just another incompletion, but they prove a quarterback's football intelligence.
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Griffin showed that he isn't just an athlete blessed with extraordinary physical skills and an offense catered to his strengths, he's also a thinking man's quarterback. Of course, to be a first-round pick in the NFL, he needs to have those physical skills, as well. Most important, Griffin has a strong right arm capable of making any NFL throw. Some of the most difficult passes asked of pro quarterbacks, in fact, are among Griffin's best.
The fourth-year Baylor product throws a better deep ball than any other quarterback in the country due to his arm strength and extraordinary touch. Spread offenses typically pad quarterbacks' stats because they feature a great deal of underneath routes. Baylor's does too. The quick screen is as fundamental to the Bears' success as it is spread team. But they also attack the field vertically with remarkable consistency. Saturday's win over Oklahoma was the eighth time this season (in 10 tries) in which Baylor has completed at least one pass of 60-plus yards.
Griffin does not possess the textbook technique or experience in the pro-style offense that Stanford's Andrew Luck or USC's Matt Barkley boast. He is however, an undeniably more unique talent who could join the Pac-12 stars as top five picks come April.
• While Griffin answered questions, another Big 12 quarterback -- Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden -- raised more questions a day earlier about his ability to transition to the NFL. He turned in an uncharacteristically poor performance in a double-overtime loss to Iowa State. Weeden can certainly be questioned for his decision-making and lack of accuracy once forced to re-set his feet. Some will simply blame him for the then-second-ranked Cowboys' upset loss.
More accurately, Weeden and reigning Biletnikof winner Justin Blackmon were matched up against the top cornerback in the Big 12 and Iowa State's Leonard Johnson was up to the task. The 5-10, 202-pound Johnson doesn't get a great deal of national attention, but he will after last Friday's game. The senior was officially credited with five solo tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. As well-rounded as those numbers are, they don't do Johnson justice. Johnson provided much more physical coverage against Blackmon than the Cowboys' star is accustomed to facing.
Blackmon, NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated wide receiver for the 2012 draft, caught 10 passes Friday night, but was effectively contained by Johnson's tenacious coverage gaining "only" 99 yards and a score despite the game going into double-overtime. Johnson announced his presence with a strong open-field tackle to keep Blackmon a yard shy of a first down on OSU's second drive. The play appeared insignificant as the Cowboys normally convert easily on 3rd-and-1, but this time running back Joseph Randle coughed the ball up, setting the tone early for a gritty effort from the Cyclones.
Johnson was in press coverage when he gave up Blackmon's score in the second quarter. Johnson did not get an initial jam on Blackmon, granting him an outside release. Johnson trailed slightly in coverage but was in good position. A perfect back shoulder fade by Weeden, however, drew Blackmon back to the ball, dipping inside Johnson at the perfect time for the catch and stroll into the end zone.
The play was a perfect example of the old adage that the perfect throw can beat perfect coverage. In the third quarter Johnson's play appeared to be tailing off, as he was called for pass interference for getting his hand around the back of Blackmon. Johnson quickly atoned for the mistake by recovering a fumble, which gave ISU the ball back in position to kick a field goal and narrow the Cowboys' lead to 24-17.
Johnson erased OSU's next possession, snatching a deflected pass for an interception early in the fourth quarter that put the Cyclones in position to tie. A physical and tenacious defender capable in man and zone coverage who shows the maturity to bounce back after plays that didn't go his way, Johnson may have boosted himself into top 75 consideration with his impressive performance.
• Upon Further Review highlights a player whose performance over the weekend significantly altered my earlier assessment.
Entering the season, Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson was graded by many as one of the elite senior prospects in the entire country regardless of position.
The 6-2, 310-pound defender had been overshadowed in the past by Da'Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins, but scouts appreciated his burst off the snap and high-revving motor. It was hoped that Thompson would take the next step this season and turn pressures he had often created into more big plays. But that hasn't happened. Thompson is credited with an impressive 59 tackles through 10 starts for the Tigers, but with only 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, scouts worry that he lacks the sustained quickness to ever be more than a rotational three-technique at the next level.
Saturday's upset loss against North Carolina State won't help Thompson's cause. Limited to four total tackles (three were assists), Thompson was effectively bottled up. The Wolfpack, in fact, recognized Thompson's burst upfield and countered with traps to get the aggressive defensive tackle out of the way, rushing for over four times the yardage (145 to 34) as Clemson for the day. A weak senior class of defensive tackles may be enough to keep Thompson among the first 50 picks of the 2012 draft, but he's been overtaken by Penn State's Devon Still as the country's top senior and there is a host of underclassmen who may also pass him by.
Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.