Weekend Watching: Pac-12 NFL draft prospects

The Pac-12 Conference Championship features a dozen players that have draftable grades assigned to them by lead NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. He breaks down the matchup and the players to watch that could be in the NFL draft next spring.

Below, I take a look at this week’s conference championship matchups from a draft perspective, examining the talent on those teams that are being analyzed by NFL teams, along with their current status on our draft board.

Oregon (10-1) vs. Arizona (10-2)

The Ducks’ national title hopes hinge on Heisman Trophy favorite, quarterback Marcus Mariota, who sports a 1-2 record as a starter, losing to the Arizona squad during both the 2013 and ’14 regular seasons. The junior, expected to be the first selection in the 2015 draft, has completed 67 of 106 passes (63.21 percent) for 844 yards and six touchdowns, but his turnovers have been costly, with two of his pass thefts setting up Arizona scoring drives.

The speedy Wildcats defense sacked Mariota five times during their 2014 encounter and he turned the ball over twice via fumbles in that 31-24 loss. He also fumbled in both the 2012 and ’13 games. The 446 yards generated vs. the Wildcats was Oregon’s lowest output for the 2014 season.

The junior signal-caller has led a fairly balanced attack, as his offensive line has been sorely depleted by injuries that cost the team four of their projected starters at one point. Couple that with a sluggish start to the season by 2013 All-American center Hroniss Grasu and you have to be impressed that the Ducks still managed to score 33 times on the ground behind a running unit that averaged 232.0 yards per game.

The passing attack featured just one receiver, Byron Marshall, pulling in at least 50 passes (57), but Mariota kept the entire unit involved, with 15 Oregon players recording a reception in 2014. Ten of them scored, with five of Mariota’s targets accounting for at least five touchdowns each.
The defense had problems defending vs. the pass early in the year, as they finished the season yielding 271.8 aerial yards per game, but in their “bend/don’t break” approach, they allowed just 279 points while the offense put 551 points on the scoreboard. The biggest culprit in the defensive backfield was cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who dealt with foot and toe issues the second half of the regular season schedule.

The defensive front seven features versatile down lineman Arik Armstead in the trenches, but even with strong-side outside linebacker Tony Washington bringing the heat from the perimeter the Ducks allowed 157.8 yards per game on the ground, including 208 yards with three rushing touchdowns during their earlier meeting vs. Arizona this year.

Arizona is this year’s “Cinderella” team in the Pac-12 title clash, but coming off an 8-5 season, you would expect one of two things from a Rich Rodriguez team – an aggressive defense and an offense with a rallying cry in the second half. The Wildcats outscored their opponents 110-68 in the third quarter and put up 128 points to the competition’s 73 in the fourth quarter this season, on the way to tallying 440 points, marking the second straight season and just the fourth campaign since 1978 that Arizona accounted for at least 400 points in a season.

Why so many analysts were discounting Arizona’s chances prior to the start of the season was what they deemed to be a suspect offense. Star tailback Ka’Deem Carey bolted to the NFL and no one was going to get close to his 1,885-yard, 19-touchdown 2013 campaign, at least not in a Wildcats uniform. Freshman Nick Wilson provided a spark off the bench, leading the team with 1,145 yards and 15 scoring runs this year.

After an 18-yard effort vs. UCLA, Wilson has been on a tear, gaining 656 yards with eight touchdowns in his last four games, including 218 yards with three scores on 20 tries vs. Utah two games back. With the youngster gaining “steam” heading into the postseason, he teams with frosh QB Abu Solomon in giving the team hope that a very bright future is right around the corner.
Solomon beat out Jesse Scroggins for the quarterback job in fall camp. Since then, he’s connected on 279 of 479 tosses (58.2 percent) for 3,424 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, feeding the ball to 13 different receivers, as 10 of them caught touchdowns. That receiving unit was supposed to be led by Austin Hill (42 for 586 yards and four scores) returning from a 2013 medical red-shirt, but Cayleb Jones has become Solomon’s favorite target, leading the team with 831 yards and eight scores on 63 grabs. Samajie Grant is also a capable slot receiver, snaring 40 balls for 645 yards and five more touchdowns.

It will be a battle in the trenches for Arizona’s bookend tackles, Michael Baucus (left) and Fabians Ebbele (right), as they are the only established veterans up front for the Wildcats. After showing improvement protecting the pocket in 2013 (allowed 24 sacks), the front wall has yielded 37 sacks this season. With Oregon sending Armstead and Washington on stunts and blitzes, the two Arizona tackles are in for a long evening in the title clash.

As for the Wildcats’ defense, it features only one player projected as being drafted, but free safety TraMayne Bondurant will have to wait until the third day of the draft to hope that he hears his name called. He’s posted 58 tackles with two pass thefts, a pair of fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles this year.

The defense has perhaps their finest player since the Tedy Brushi era in sophomore middle linebacker Scooby Wright III, who is racking up tackles behind the line of scrimmage (27) and sacks (13) at a record-shattering pace, adding 139 tackles and six forced fumbles. Junior William Parks mans the “spur” position and has been credited with 11 tackles-for-loss for Arizona.

Oregon Featured Prospects

MARCUS MARIOTA: Quarterback, 6:03.6-217-4.53
Unless Mariota totally implodes vs. Arizona and Oregon’s bowl appearance, he is likely going to cost some quarterback-needy team a king’s ransom to trade up for the top spot in the draft in order to take him. Let’s face it, there are at least a quarter of the league’s teams looking for a franchise quarterback. In this new era, while both might not reach the status stuck on them here, Mariota could be this year’s “Peyton Manning” to Jameis Winston’s impersonation of Ryan Leaf.
While Mariota has some flaws he needs to correct, like not locking on to his primary target and making better progression reads, he has refined his mechanics to the point where he is not throwing across his body as much as he did in 2013. The fleet-footed junior is second on the team with 636 yards and 11 touchdowns on 107 carries (5.9 ypc) and has hit on 229 of 334 passes (68.6 percent) for 36 touchdowns and has thrown just two interceptions, evidence that his decision-making process is maturing. He has distributed the ball well, with 17 teammates having caught passes from him, including five with at least five scoring grabs each.

Mariota Positives…The junior has more than enough arm strength to make all the throws at the next level…Throws the long ball with touch and accuracy, zipping the post…Even when he throws off his back foot, his arm strength is above-average…The thing you see on film is the speed and distance he consistently gets on his long balls…Has shown good improvement with his touch, as he no longer throws the ball too hard, a problem he had at times in 2013…Also showed a better ability to keep the ball in play, putting more air under the ball…Very quick in his lateral moves, showing good hip flexibility and adequate ball protection skills…Has made great stride during 2004 though, maintaining his focus better while under pressure…Another strong point is that he can throw with ease on the run, whether on the left or right hash…Shows a snappy overhead release, and even when he carries the ball lower than ideal when moving out of the pocket, he shows good zip behind his tosses…Has good running strength and shows awareness when heading up field…His quick feet and fluid change of direction agility allows him to escape the pass rush quite a bit, but he must show better awareness to backside pressure…His ability to stay cool under pressure has helped him in rallying the team from defeat several times in the last two years.

Mariota Negatives…Able to feel and avoid pressure in the pocket, but until recently, he preferred to run first rather than search for a secondary receiver when his primary target is covered…Some say that he throws better on the move, but he tends to lose sight of the defender, resulting in a sack, as he tries to make plays that aren’t there (see 2014 Arizona game)…Must convince teams he can become comfortable retreating from center, as he’s struggled at times keeping his feet when not operating from the shotgun…Has never been tasked with guiding a diverse offense and is more of a “mechanic” performing in a simplified offensive scheme.

IFOMENO EKPRE-OLOMU: Cornerback, 5:09.2-193-4.45
The 2014 season was not the Jim Thorpe Award-like performance many experts predicted for the Ducks right cornerback, as he’s been slow to recover when beaten on the deep routes. Opponents gained 2,659 yards with 14 touchdowns and completed 56.5 percent of their passes vs. Oregon last year, as Ekpre-Olomu had 84 tackles and defended nine passes, including three interceptions in 2013.

This year, his man coverage skills seem to be lacking, leading to the Ducks giving up 3,261 aerial yards with 18 touchdowns to opponents connecting on 61.4 percent of their attempts. He’s garnering All-American attention from those in the media, which has resulted in five touchdowns allowed while posting 58 tackles with a pair of pass thefts.

Ekpre-Olomu Positives…Won’t impact a ball carrier with his drag-down tackle style, but he does a good job of staying in front of the runner, grabbing and holding on until help arrives…Intelligent athlete with very good hand/eye coordination, vision and ability to recognize the patterns as they develop…Is very smooth in his backpedal, staying low in his pads with excellent transition quickness…Uses that speed to get a jump on the route to break up the play…Has the body control, balance and adjustment skills to get to off-target throws…Has a solid work ethic and while not vocal, he has been a good leader by example type…Needs to use his hands better in attempts to jam, but when he doesn’t fight the ball, he can look it in for a clean interception…Has the quick feet to compensate for a marginal hand punch (in attempts to reroute), as he allows little cushion and has the recovery speed to get back into the play on the rare occasions he bites on pump fakes…Maintains good position on the receiver throughout the route, along with the hip flexibility and knowledge of taking good angles to close in a hurry.

Ekpre-Olomu Negatives…Has just adequate strength and lacks ideal size, as he struggles to handle the bigger and stronger receivers…Needs to generate a stronger hand placement, as lacks pop in attempts to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage…Does not hit with authority and is more of a drag-down type than a wrap-up tackler…Shows willingness vs. the run, but lacks the “sand in his pants” to prevent blockers from washing him out of the play…Has good leaping ability, but needs to time his jumps better, as he will stop his feet, getting up before the ball reaches its high point.

Arizona Featured Prospect

AUSTIN HILL: Wide Receiver, 6:02.1-208-4.54
Hill returned to the gridiron after sitting out the 2013 season when he suffered a left knee anterior cruciate ligament tear during spring drills. He was expected to be the team’s go-to target this season, but has slid comfortably into the No. 2 spot in the pass-receiving pecking order. He is one of three Wildcats with at least 40 receptions this year (42) and has reached the end zone with four of those balls, averaging 14.0 yards per catch.

Before tearing up his knee, Hill was coming off a 2012 schedule that produced 81 catches for 1,364 yards (16.84 ypc) and 11 touchdowns, as his average of 104.9 aerial yards per game ranked second in the Pac-12 Conference.

Hill moved out to flanker in 2014, having previously started at the right slot position. The Wildcat will never be confused for being a speedster, but he is the type of athlete who is faster on the field than his timed speed indicates (carries his equipment well). He is not a sudden mover, but shows good change of direction, body control and the ability to adjust on the move, thanks to above average hand/eye coordination.

Hill Positives…Is the type of player who can fool a scouting analysis, as he normally outplays his ability…Lacks explosion, but runs with a long, fluid stride and has the change-of-direction agility to become a threat with the ball in his hands…Won’t win a track meet, but his stride generates decent quickness that compensates for a lack of blazing speed…Physical athlete with good strength for this position. He is a savvy route runner with the lateral agility to take slants or crosses and generate separation, especially when he sinks his hips…Has a much better lateral burst working in the short area, but can get caught from behind when he loses sight of the oncoming defender…Does a nice job of sticking his feet in the ground and dropping his weight to get in and out of his cuts, but can’t be considered a special open-field runner…Runs good routes and looks polished, as he can leverage, plant and cut, but could improve his separation burst…Gears down with good body control and is adept at throwing the double move to force the defender to commit too early…Quick enough, thanks to no wasted motion and does not have to gather much to cut and separate…Has excellent concentration and willingness to compete for the ball in a crowd…Possesses good hands and that “old school” toughness, especially when defenders are flying all around him…Maintains his concentration to make tough catches, and seems to have a good feel for where he has to be, especially working inside the red zone…Might be better returning to the slot position at the next level, as he presents a nice package in the short areas, where this sure-handed target shows good field vision and awareness to give his quarterback a passing lane.

Hill Negatives…Will never be confused for a speedster, but there are times where the knee appears to still be an issue, as he takes more time to build to top speed than he did before his injury…Has drawn some concerns for his lack of great athleticism and I question that he will ever be the type that can easily elude cornerbacks in the open field (most of his success came in the slot, where he used his size to create mismatches vs. smaller defenders)…Can get on top of the route, but only occasionally with just adequate speed when playing the vertical game…Won’t run away from defenders and will get caught from behind on deep patterns…Does not have that second extra gear needed to accelerate…For his pass catching ability, the ball does not seem to come alive in his hands…Appears much better once on the move, but could improve his stop-and-go action.

*MARIOTA, Marcus OregonQB 06:03.6217 4.538.4 1
ARMSTEAD, Arik (RE/DT) OregonDE/T 06:06.5 292 4.976.6 2
EKPRE-OLOMU, Ifomeno OregonCB 05:09.2193 4.456.3 1-2
GRASU, Hroniss (OG) OregonOC 06:03.2295 4.966.2 2-3 
HILL, Austin ArizonaWR 06:02.1208 4.546.2 2-3
FISHER, Jacob OregonOT 06:06.4300 5.226.1 3
WASHINGTON, Tony OregonOLB 06:03.7251 4.735.9 3-4
MALONE, Derrick (WB) OregonILB 06:02.0219 4.675.4 4-5
*HARDRICK, Rodney OregonILB 06:00.7231 4.765.4 4-5
Marshall, Byron Oregon TB 05:09.1207 4.475.1 6
BONDURANT, TraMayne  Arizona FS 05:09.5198 4.544,9 7
BAUCUS, Michael ArizonaOT 06:07.0300 5.334.8 7
EBBELE, Fabbians ArizonaOT 06:07.7316 5.294.8 7-FA
JONES-GRIGSBY, Terris ArizonaTB 05:06.7198 4.564.7 FA
*FRENCH, Christian (OB) OregonDE 06:04.5244 4.864.7 FA
STEVENS, Hamani (OC) OregonOG 06:02.7307 5.424.7 FA
DARGAN, Erick (SS) OregonFS 05:11.1212 4.624.6 FA
ALLEN, Jordan  Arizona DE 06:05.2254 4.834.5 FA
GILBERT, Reggie Arizona DE 06:03.0261 4.844.4 CMP
LOWE, Keanon  Oregon WR 05:09.1186 4.464.4 CMP
SCROGGINS, Jesse Arizona QB06:02.1 2084.79 4.3CMP
#BROWN,Pharaoh OregonTE 06:05.1241 4.545.5 4-5
#*JOHNSTONE, Tyler OregonOT 06:05.6292 4.976.4 2-3
*ADDISON, Bralon OregonWR 05:09.5182 4.49   
ERMISCH, Trevor Arizona WR 06:01.0189 4.65   
GRANDON, Jourdon  Arizona FS 06:00.0195 4.54   
GURROLA, Steven Arizona OC 06:02.0291 5.29   
HILL, Troy  Oregon CB 05:11.0175 4.51   
JENKINS, Daniel ArizonaTB 05:09.0195 4.53   
McKNIGHT, Jonathan Arizona CB 05:11.0171 4.53   
SPURGEON, Trent  Arizona OG 06:07.0285 5.27 
NOTES: * indicates player is an underclassman…# indicates major injury that could impact draft grade…CL indicates college class… HT indicates height of the player…WT indicates weight…40 indicates 40-yard dash time…225 indicates repetitions in the 225-pound bench press…VJ indicates vertical jump…BJ indicates broad jump…SH indicates 20-yard shuttle…3C indicates three-cone drill…PRO-indicates The NFL Draft Report’s projected pro potential grade (see chart below)…RND indicates the round we project the player to be selected.

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