This week’s battle for first place in the American Athletic Conference between UCF and Houston came down to the wire. The Cougars had four chances inside the Golden Knight’s 10-yard line down by 5 with under a minute left in the game but the UCF defense held, ensuring that the Golden Knights control their own destiny for a BCS bowl berth.
A game of that magnitude would go a long way to making a few offensive stars for UCF household names around the nation, while scouts are already well aware of their talents.
(RS JR) Blake Bortles, QB, UCF (#5), 6’4, 230
One of those stars is Bortles, a quarterback with NFL size, a strong arm and nice touch. He made a few good throws early to beat Cover 2, anticipating his receiver’s break into the open zone and showing the arm strength to get the ball there before the safety could get to the sideline. Houston tried to rattle Bortles by bringing consistent pressure and it worked, as Bortles didn’t throw a touchdown pass all game and was forced out of the pocket often.
The redshirt junior struggled with his decision making, ending UCF’s second drive with a bad interception inside the Houston 10-yard line. Bortles looked right to move the linebacker before coming back left, but didn’t see Houston’s Trevon Stewart jump the route. Instead of pulling the pass back and looking for another option, Bortles watched his receiver get undercut for the pick. He also fumbled in the third quarter facing immediate pressure on a bootleg. Bortles showed nice athletic ability to spin away from the blitzer but tried to throw the ball downfield when additional pressure came and had his arm hit. He had two chances on that play to go down and live for another down, but cost his team by trying to do too much.
Discussing Bortles in Week 5, I noted his talent was evident but he “showed room for improvement.” That was more about his footwork, where this week it’s about his decision making. His arm strength, mobility and natural passing talent could make him a first or second-day prospect if he stays for his senior season and continues to work on the little things. To his credit, Bortles realizes this. He’s ahead of where Zach Mettenberger was as a junior and could see a similar rise in stock with improvement next season.
(RS JR) Storm Johnson, RB, UCF (#8), 6’0, 215
While Bortles should put his NFL dream on hold, Johnson may be wise to ride the momentum he’s built this season into the 2014 NFL Draft. A hotly recruited running back out of high school, Johnson left a crowded backfield at Miami after his freshman year to transfer to UCF and is enjoying a breakout season with 719 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns (9 rushing). Johnson combines the size of a feature back with great vision and elite change of direction skills that bring visions of LeSean McCoy to mind.
Johnson fumbled early in the game to kill a UCF drive inside the Houston 10 but UCF gave him the ball on the first play of the next drive, showing confidence in him to protect the ball. Johnson runs with good power and keeps his legs moving, breaks through arm tackles easily and shows a solid stiff arm to keep defenders at bay. He loses nothing on cuts and glides around the field with ease.
With a weak class of senior running backs heading into this year’s draft and talented true freshman William Stanback behind him on the depth chart, the timing seems perfect for Johnson to make the leap to the NFL, especially if he shows well in a BCS bowl game. Johnson is a sleeper who doesn’t receive the same hype as some of the nation’s other top running backs but has the talent to be mentioned with them.
(JR) Derrick Mathews, LB, Houston (#49), 6’0, 214
A middle linebacker who fills the hole quickly, Mathews’ lack of bulk is indicative of the entire Houston defense, which gives up pounds to its opponents at almost every position. Mathews will need to add 15-20 pounds to stay at linebacker, likely on the weak side of a 4-3, or move to safety in the NFL. A position change may be difficult for Mathews, who plays mostly downhill and is rarely seen in coverage, leaving him as a tweener at the pro level.
Regardless of where he fits in at the next level, Mathews is a talented linebacker who flows well to the action, has nice extension to keep blockers away from him and is a solid tackler. He reads plays quickly, shows good burst to fill the hole and has the strength to stop running backs in their tracks, even a powerful runner like Johnson. Mathews can rush the passer as well and gets skinny through the hole to avoid blocks and quickly disrupt plays in the backfield.
Mathews was caught slightly out of position after a nice inside cut by Johnson on the game’s first drive, but clubbed the ball with his left arm to force a key fumble that kept points off the board early in the game. Mathews has the ability to be a playmaker against the run and rushing the passer and while his lack of size will keep him off the draft radar, he has the potential to show well as a free agent and could make his way into the league as a special teamer and backup weak side linebacker.
- Sophomore safety Trevon Stewart had a big day for the Cougars defense with 13 tackles (9 solo) and an early interception of Bortles. A Freshman All-American last season, Stewart is fast and aggressive despite his lack of size (5’9, 192). He comes up hard against the run and stays tight in coverage across the middle. Stewart is a playmaker that shouldn’t be overlooked as he develops.
- Great safety play was a theme in this game, as UCF’s Clayton Geathers (RS JR) and Brandon Alexander (JR) were a dynamic tandem at the back end of the Golden Knights’ defense. Geathers is a hard-hitter with excellent timing and a knack for ripping the ball away from receivers at the catch point while Alexander is a solid tackler who comes up hard to play the run and showed great concentration to make a juggling interception after jumping a route.
- UCF senior defensive tackle E.J. Dunston showed off his talent against South Carolina in Week 5 and flashed again against Houston, showing the ability to push through the interior line and the awareness to see the ball coming out and get his hands up to knock away a third down pass. On the next play, he bull rushed the left tackle to the outside for one of his two sacks on the day to force a turnover on downs. It’s easy to come away impressed with Dunston when you watch him and he should come off the board sometime during Day 3.
- On a young Houston offense, sophomore wide receiver Deontay Greenberry leads the way with 70 receptions for 1,042 yards and 9 touchdowns this season. He had 8 receptions for 94 yards against UCF and uses his 6’3 frame well to shield defenders from the ball, especially on passes thrown behind him. Greenberry has good hands to handle errant balls but has a slight frame (198 pounds) that may limit him to just a possession receiver.