Friday, October 11, 2013
Most improved players in college football
By Travis Haney
Following an underwhelming junior season, Zach Mettenberger has exploded in 2013.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The narrative for LSU football in recent years had been something to the effect of: Average offense tries to score enough points to prevent screwing it up for a defense with future NFL stars all over the field.
The quarterback position, in particular, had become a revolving door of futility, and whatever hope had been invested into Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger had all but evaporated by this time last season.
A funny thing happened, however, sometime after the point when many already had written off Mettenberger.
“He has played as well as any quarterback in the league,” one SEC assistant told me this week.
That’s a pretty incredible statement, considering this is the best crop of quarterbacks the conference has seen in years. But it’s accurate. Mettenberger has stacked up with veterans such as Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray -- whom Mettenberger once battled with for the UGA job -- and newer stars such as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
It's why Mettenberger, who ranked 98th in QBR a year ago and currently sits fifth this season, leads a short list of college football’s most improved players in 2013.
In our adjusted QBR, Mettenberger is currently ahead of Heisman contenders such as Manziel, Jameis Winston of FSU and Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville. ESPN Stats & Information says no player has had an increase in QBR like Mettenberger’s 49.3-point vault from last season to this one.
Mettenberger’s 11.1 yards per attempt are behind only Baylor's Bryce Petty and Winston. He has 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s now a name on NFL scouts' lips.
Asking around confirmed what I thought: Yes, Mettenberger has been better -- but a big reason is the development of his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
“They’re uncoverable when they want to be,” one SEC assistant said. Another added: “They play much bigger than their size, from what I’ve seen of them.”
Beckham, a 6-foot, 193-pound junior, has 686 yards and six touchdowns. Landry, a 6-1, 195-pound junior, has 616 yards and seven scores. They account for 71 percent of LSU's completions and 74 percent of the team's yards.
Reflective of the receivers’ success, Mettenberger has completed 21 percent more of his passes on throws of 15 or more yards. He already has eight touchdowns of that distance, equaling last season’s total.
“With the way they can run the ball [with Jeremy Hill], I’m not sure how you defend those receivers,” one SEC assistant said. He added how glad he is that LSU isn't on his team’s schedule.
As much as the compliments are flying around about the trio, a lot of coaches were intrigued when I told them I’d be at Tiger Stadium for Saturday’s game against Florida.
“If there’s any team that can defend the pass well, this is the one,” one of the coaches said. And per another coach: “They [the Gators] might have the best defense in the country.”
Even without star defensive tackle Dominique Easley, the Gators still have an active enough front to create problems for Mettenberger. And, as one draft analyst told me, Florida corners Vernon Hargreaves III, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are all Sunday stars playing on Saturdays. Hargreaves, in particular, has turned heads in his freshman season.
The word I’ve been using to describe Saturday’s game is "mystery," because it's strength on strength for each team. Who wins out? The home crowd typically plays a role in that here. But it's particularly intriguing to see how Mettenberger and his receivers respond and what that might mean for the Alabama game in November.
Here are four other players who have made the biggest strides in 2013.
When I met in July with Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, he was confident that Price would bounce back from a season in which he had 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, completing 61 percent of his passes.
Keith Price has thrown for 1,394 yards and 11 TDs for the 4-1 Huskies.
So far in 2013, even after facing Stanford’s staunch D, Price has 11 TDs, three picks and a 71.3 completion percentage.
The reason for Sark’s optimism, beyond belief in his QB, was the style of play. He thought Price would flourish in a tempo-style offense, and so far that has been the case.
Running back Bishop Sankey, on pace (732 yards, seven touchdowns) to surpass his impressive 2012 numbers (1,439 yards, 16 TDs), is helping attain balance in the retooled offense.
Oregon's athletic defense will again test the Huskies, on the heels of that battle versus Stanford. Just playing close with the Cardinal gave Price credibility. He could do it again this week in a shootout with the Ducks.
Clearly Washington isn't far off the pace in what could be the sport’s best division outside of the SEC West.
Sometimes the next-one-up cliché in college football isn’t a cliché at all. Baylor just keeps plugging in new pieces at quarterback and receiver, and the offense isn't losing a step. This version’s early-season returns are better than units that included Heisman-winner Robert Griffin III and big-play receivers now in the NFL, such as Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams.
Just look at Goodley, who went from a 17-catch receiver in 2012 to the bona fide No. 1 threat in 2013. He has 540 yards and five touchdowns in four games, averaging a galling 25.7 yards per catch. He has had catches of 61, 65 and 83 yards in the past three games.
I suggested to one coach in the preseason that this was the season when Baylor’s receivers could take a half-step back -- coach Art Briles was already crowing about the 2014 talent coming in, making me wonder about the '13 group. Nope, the Bears are fine.
They’re now considered one of the favorites in the Big 12. Could they be national title contenders in a month’s time?
Eight of Beasley's 18 tackles as a sophomore were sacks, so it's not as if he was a nobody coming into this campaign. But Beasley has gone, ahem, beastly in 2013. He already has eight sacks, which leads the country, and the Tigers defensive line has been incredibly important to the team's success. The evaluators have noticed: Mel Kiper moved Beasley into his top 10 among NFL draft prospects earlier this week.
Entering the year, coaches around the region told me that Clemson’s secondary was its chief liability. A great way to mask that concern is to create a consistent pass rush, and the Tigers are tied for first in the country with 19 sacks. They’re a respectable 37th in yards per play allowed.
A real test for Beasley and the Tigers is on the horizon. Get through Boston College this weekend and we’re set to see how Beasley and the Tigers handle Winston and FSU.
When I asked Steve Spurrier this summer for a breakout candidate on his team, he started with Davis. After a 75-yard touchdown in the team’s opener against North Carolina, in which he ran away from the secondary, I quickly saw why.
Davis, the younger brother of former Clemson back James Davis, has inside-the-tackle power with the speed that he demonstrated on that run against the Tar Heels. The breakaway ability is something that lauded Gamecock Marcus Lattimore didn’t possess. Lattimore never had four 100-yard performances in five games, either, and now Davis has done that.
Davis seems comfortable with his role, too. South Carolina was in trouble on the road two weeks ago at Central Florida, trailing UCF by 10 at halftime, when Davis took over the game to push the Gamecocks to victory. He had 150 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
It’s a crowded Heisman field right now, but Davis’ name is starting to pop up. If the Gamecocks win out to again get into the SEC title game -- and Davis is the reason why -- he could make a sustained push for the award.