North Carolina State CB David Amerson has a big matchup this week against Clemson WR Sammy Watkins. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Oklahoma vs. West Virginia at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium Morgantown, WV), Saturday 6 p.m. Fox
QB Geno Smith, West Virginia vs. Oklahoma (No. 8 pass defense nationally) — The Geno Smith bandwagon was full-throttle in late September when the Mountaineers were 5-0 and the senior quarterback was viewed as a Heisman favorite based on gaudy numbers: 166 completions in 204 pass attempts (81.4 percent) for 1,996 yards with 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Then the wheels fell off. In the last four games — losses to Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma State — Smith’s production slipped to 119-196-1045-7-3 (60.7%). He even had a chance to engineer a game-winning drive in the final minutes against TCU, but faltered. Needing just a field goal to win a 31-31 game, Smith faced 2nd-and-10 at the TCU 38-yard line with 28 seconds remaining and two time outs. With trips to the field (Smith’s left) and a single receiver split right, Smith took the snap and looked left to find his two outside receivers covered. Instead of dumping the ball to his running back flaring out of the backfield or spotting the single receiver to his right (who had driven off his man and was open on a 10-yard out which would’ve gained a first down and stopped the clock), Smith’s eyes were late panning to the middle of the field. He tried drilling the ball to Tavon Austin, a stationary target who was bumped off his sloppy seam route, but TCU safety Elisha Olabode read it all the way, breaking on the throw and stepping in front of Austin. Olabode dropped the pass (which hit him in the numbers), but could very well have returned it for a touchdown. Redemption was available on the ensuing play when receiver J.D. Woods released inside, stacked the corner and outpaced the safety down the rail — he was open on the “go” route for the winning score...but Smith overthrew him and TCU prevailed in overtime.
Recent performance has tempered the enthusiasm for Smith, and his value appears to be settling somewhere between his preseason, mid-round/developmental outlook and September’s ambitious projections. Mountaineers head man Dana Holgorsen has coached Cody Hodges, Graham Harrell, Case Keenum and Brandon Weeden, so Smith’s prolific passing stats, especially given the weapons at Smith’s disposal and the Big 12’s porous pass defenses, should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, Smith (6-3, 220) is a three-year starter with good arm strength and a nice, high three-quarters release (though he doesn’t consistently throw tight spirals). He shows the ability to throw the out with timing, velocity and accuracy and has made strides as a deep ball thrower this fall. While not a scrambler by nature, he’s quick-footed in the pocket to dance away from pressure and athletic enough to extend plays or dash for the sticks.
Aside from inflated production in a shotgun-exclusive system heavy with predetermined throws, Smith faces an adjustment to pro-style passing. Additionally, he needs to shore up his mechanics, including his setup and footwork in the pocket and a bad habit of retreating or fading away from throws, in order to improve accuracy and ball placement. He also will have to develop a better feel for pressure and address ball security issues (17 fumbles the last two seasons). Smith isn’t ready to inherit a pro offense, but he’s progressed as a senior and has third-tier starter potential with continued refinement. Whether he’s a system player or a quarterback who makes players around him better remains to be seen.
Stanford vs. Oregon at Autzen Stadium (Eugene, OR), Saturday 7 p.m. ABC
RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon vs. Stanford defense (No. 1 rush defense nationally) — It’s easy to get overshadowed in a prolific, revolutionary offense featuring a prominent coach, a second-round pick (LaMichael James) and an explosive playmaker (De’Anthony Thomas), among others, but Barner (5-11, 192) consistently performed when called upon as a complementary player his first three years in Eugene. As the No. 2 to James last season, Barner carried 152 times for 939 yards (6.2-yard average) and 11 touchdowns . As the primary back this fall, he’s totaled 199-1,360-19 (6.8), including a monster performance against USC in which he piled up 321 yards and five scores. Barner doesn’t “wow” you, but shows good patience and balance, nice feet to sidestep tacklers and upfield, short-area acceleration. Not unlike Geno Smith’s evaluation, however, the system Barner plays in has to be taken into account, as he benefits from wide splits, light boxes and fatigued and undermanned defenses. In fact, oftentimes he’s barely touched through the first level. Overall, he possesses an average skill set in terms of speed, burst, creativity and run strength. He isn’t one to lower his pads in the hole or powerfully move the pile between the tackles, nor does he generate a lot of yardage after contact. Barner, who also returned kicks his first three seasons, has fumbled 12 times on 656 career touches. He projects as a No. 2 or 3 finesse, stretch-zone runner in the pros.
USC vs. UCLA at The Rose Bowl Stadium (Los Angeles, CA), Saturday 2:05 Fox
DL Datone Jones & OLB Anthony Barr*, UCLA vs. USC — After playing as a freshman, Jones missed the 2010 season because of a fractured ankle and recorded modest numbers in 2011. In 10 starts this fall, he’s posted 39 tackles, 13 1/2 for loss and four sacks with a forced fumble, two blocked kicks and a safety of Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez when Jones was left unblocked, burst into the backfield and smacked the startled quarterback. Listed at 6-4, 275 pounds, Jones plays a five-technique in UCLA’s 3-4 front, but displays an explosive get-off and disruptive ability, as he fires off low and creates a surge. He can get underneath blocks and play in gaps and shows bull strength to push the pocket. He also has quick, active hands to slap, rip and swim. He doesn’t have ideal length or flexibility for a 4-3 defensive end, but has good balance and could work the edges as an interior player. While he is capable of playing with leverage against the run, he can be more consistent in this area. His two-gap ability is limited and he gets moved by double teams. He also could stand to improve his conditioning and allow for his motor to run for longer periods. Jones borders on tweener status, but his quickness, versatility and disruptive ability should play on the next level, where he has traits to become a penetrating three-technique or develop into a Cory Redding-type five-technique in a one-gapping 3-4 scheme.
When you take notice of Barr, it’s difficult to imagine why the previous staff his time as an “F-back,” but first-year head coach Jim Mora was amenable to Barr switching to defense, and in his first season as a 3-4 outside linebacker, the 20-year-old junior has shown that he possesses big upside, tallying 54 tackles, 17 for loss and 11 sacks with two pass breakups, three forced fumbles, a blocked kick and a safety. Listed at 6-4, 235 pounds, Barr is an athletic bender with speed off the edge to run the arc. He also has loose hips, redirects smoothly and should have no problem playing in reverse. Barr could use another year of seasoning, as he’s still relatively raw — needs to get stronger and learn to play with more pop/violence in his hands, cultivate pass-rush/counter moves and improve against the run. Further, he’s still learning the position and there are times when you can see him thinking instead of reacting, which is only natural. That said, Barr is likely just scratching the surface. When he develops eye discipline, positional instincts and a defensive mentality, the convergence of his physical ability and mental understanding should yield a top-flight rush linebacker. Barr, who missed most of his senior high season because of a broken ankle, also comes from a football family. His father, Tony Brooks, was a running back at Notre Dame drafted by the Eagles in 1992; his uncle, Reggie Brooks, starred as a running back at Notre Dame and was drafted by the Redskins in 1993; and another uncle, Cedric Figaro, played linebacker at Notre Dame and was drafted by the Chargers in 1988.
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium (Madison, WI), Saturday 2:30 p.m. ABC
NT Johnathan Hankins*, Ohio State vs. C Travis Frederick*, Wisconsin —
Hankins was featured in our preseason top 25, and he’s proven he belongs by taking his game to another level this season, posting 50 tackles, four for loss and one sack in 10 starts. The 6-3, 322-pounder has terrific size, including a thick trunk and functional base strength to hold his ground, and has nice movement and athletic ability for a big man. He’s been a bear inside, as he engages quickly and powerfully, carries a load in his hands and plays with leverage. He’s able to force his way into the backfield and create pileups, as well as stack and shed or occupy double teams. He’s also shown improved recognition and reaction, as evidenced by his pursuit of screens and plays away from him. He generally knows where the ball is and is a heavy tackler who uses his body weight to ground runners. Hankins’ pass-rush value is limited, however, and he cannot work the edges. He can do a better job protecting his legs and playing with balance, and could stand to improve his body and conditioning, as he occasionally lets his pads rise and gets turned or washed. He’s established himself as a first-round talent, though, and has impact potential as a nose tackle in a 4-3 or 3-4.
The first true freshman in school history to start a season opener, Frederick has outstanding size and rare strength to the extent that head coach Brett Bielema has called the Badgers junior a “freak of nature” physically and mentally — the 6-4, 338-pounder reportedly squats over 700 pounds and is a double major in computer engineering and computer science. Frederick, who plays center for the Badgers, also has experience at guard and might project better there in the pros. If he remains at the pivot, he would be the biggest in the NFL. Frederick has sheer mass to match with nose tackles and can lean and seal and generate movement in the run game. He shows a heavy punch, can anchor and control in a phone booth and can torque and pancake defenders. His intelligence carries to the field, where he plays with his head on a swivel. At his size, he shows average balance, explosion, quickness and lateral agility. He tends to play from his upper body down and needs to learn to generate more power through his lower body/core. He lets his feet stall, which affects his ability to maintain balance and sustain blocks. He also can be a step late cutting off fast-flowing linebackers. At this stage of his development, Frederick is more of a short-area, wall-off/shield blocker than a masher, but he has clear appeal for teams who value size, strength and smarts on the offensive line.
*Another game of note this weekend is North Carolina State traveling to Clemson (Saturday 2:30 p.m. ABC/ESPN2), which features NC St. CB David Amerson vs. Clemson receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, as well as Wolfpack QB Mike Glennon, who possesses starter-caliber ability.
Sleeper of the Week: CB Robert Alford, Southeastern Louisiana — Recently added to the Buck Buchanan Award (most outstanding defensive player in FCS) list, Alford was a receiver/kick returner and track standout as a Louisiana prep. He missed the 2008 (eligibility) and 2010 (stingers) seasons, but tallied 52 tackles, seven pass breakups and five interceptions in 2011 and has 37-7-4 with five tackles for loss this fall. At nearly 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Alford has nice length and thin ankles, though he could stand to get stronger. He has good feet and balance, moves fluidly and can turn and run vertically. He also shows good closing burst and has good ball skills and hands to intercept. He profiles as a man-cover corner, but shows nice reactions and potential as a zone defender. He supports the run willingly, though he can be more consistent as a tackler/force player. Alford also has experience lining up over the slot and has punt-return ability, which was on display against Lamar when he scored from 75 yards and had another return TD called back. He will be a 25-year-old rookie and faces a steep jump in competition, but has tape against a handful of Division-I opponents and is capable of contributing to an NFL secondary.