Hroniss Grasu

CFT Previews: Top NFL prospects playing in the National Championship Game

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As the excitement builds for the first national championship decided by a playoff system, NFL scouts will be even more giddy about the available talent on the rosters of the Oregon Ducks and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Both squads are loaded with players that will eventually make the transition from student-athlete to the professional ranks.

Two potential No. 1 overall picks could play in the contest with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota facing off against Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. However, Bosa is only a true sophomore, therefore he is not eligible for the 2015 NFL draft class.

Here are the Top 10 draft-eligible talents in the contest as they project to the NFL:

1. Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon
The National Championship Game will be Mariota’s next opportunity to make his case to be selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April’s NFL draft.

The Oregon quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner has all the physical tools a team searches for in a franchise quarterback. He stands 6-4 and weighs 219 pounds. His arm is above average. And Oregon coaches claim the quarterback is one of the fastest players on the team with a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.

But the most impressive aspect of Mariota’s play is his decision-making. Questions will continue about Oregon’s system and the type of throws Mariota is usually asked to make. However, the quarterback owns an astounding touchdown-to-interception ratio over his career. Entering Monday’s contest, Mariota has thrown 101 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. It’s an amazing number that isn’t dependent purely on system.

The National Championship Game should be the proper platform to highlight the skills of the best player in college football and arguably the top talent preparing to enter the NFL.

2. Michael Bennett, defensive tackle, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ late season surge was helped by the resurgence of its veteran leader along the defensive line. Bennett didn’t perform to expectations during the first half of the season even though the defensive tackle was considered a first-round talent.

Ohio State’s coaching staff then decided to only play Bennett as the team’s 3-technique (defensive tackle that lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard). The senior admitted an increased comfort level, and his play reflected as such.

Bennett is an explosive up-field disruptive force that is nearly as adept at taking on double-teams and properly splitting those blocks. The defensive lineman absolutely dominated the Wisconsin Badgers’ offensive line in the Big Ten Championship Game, and he turned up the heat on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims during the second half of the Sugar Bowl.

Due to Bennett’s strong second-half performance, he will once again be considered a top talent as the draft nears.

3. Arik Armstead, defensive end, Oregon
California v OregonVery few players on the field will present Armstead’s combination of raw talent and athleticism.

The 6-8, 290-pound junior chose Oregon, because the Ducks allowed him to play both football and basketball. Armstead wasn’t great on the hardwood, but he can be very difficult to block when he’s on the gridiron.

Due to Armstead’s size and strength in his hands, he projects as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme — it’s an easy projection since the Ducks employ a three-man front. The concerns this year, though, were from a lack of production and nagging injuries that slowed the talented defensive lineman.

4. DeForest Buckner, defensive end, Oregon
These Oregon defensive ends could easily be flipped based on system fit. Buckner is better at penetrating and making plays in the backfield than Armstead, who is more stout at the point of attack.

The 6-7, 290-pound junior led the Ducks with 13 tackles for loss. He also finished fourth on the team with four sacks.

As a tall and angular defensive lineman, though, Buckner’s ability to play with leverage is inconsistent, and he can be driven off the ball by more physical offensive linemen.

5. Hroniss Grasu, center, Oregon
Grasu is arguably the best center in college football. However, he is yet another system fit. Teams that employ a heavy zone-blocking scheme will value Grasu more highly than traditional power blocking systems. His lateral movement is as good as any interior blocker in the nation. As such, Grasu’s value will range from the early to mid rounds.

The Los Angles native already proved to be an iron man in the middle of the Ducks offensive line. He started 40 straight games before finally getting dinged as a senior. Still, Grasu maintained his status as one of the team’s leaders and his toughness was never questioned.

The center’s ability to prevent penetration against Ohio State’s talented defensive front will be a major indicator as to how well the Ducks perform on offense.

6. Jeff Heuerman, tight end, Ohio State

Jeff Heuerman, Antonio Allen
Jeff Heuerman, Antonio Allen

A quick peek at the tight end’s stats doesn’t indicate a top pro prospect. Yet, Heuerman could easily be one of the first players off the board at his position.

Heuerman only caught 17 passes for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Despite the poor production, the senior presents two key qualities. First, Heuerman is a very good athlete, and he can serve as a vertical threat in any passing game. He may not be used often in Urban Meyer‘s offense, but his potential as a receiver is readily apparent. Also, the tight end is a competent blocker.

As the age of the receiving tight end continues, a prospect that can do well in both areas is extremely valuable.

7. Devin Smith, wide receiver, Ohio State
The best deep threat in college football resides in Columbus, Ohio. Smith leads the NCAA with an average of 27.7 yards per catch. The senior receiver hauled in a catch of over 30 yards in all but two games this season. Smith’s overall route running may be limited, but his ability to take the top off a defense at any time is rare.

8. Taylor Decker, left tackle, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ rock along their offensive line has a decision to make after this season. The junior may be leaning toward entering the NFL draft, but his value may not be as high as he suspects. After moving to left tackle in 2014, Decker proved he was a competent collegiate blind-side protector. However, he may be better suited at right tackle.

9. Doran Grant, cornerback, Ohio State
The senior cornerback proved to be a physical presence on the edge as Ohio State’s sixth-leading tackler as well as one of the team’s top ball hawks. Grant finished second on the team with five interceptions. When he was challenged by quarterbacks, he continually displayed good ball skills. The cornerback deflected a team high 14 passes, too.

10. Cardale Jones, quarterback, Ohio State
Cardale JonesThe wildcard in both Monday’s game and the NFL draft is Ohio State’s third-string quarterback.

Jones, a redshirt sophomore, is eligible to declare for the draft. It will be an extremely difficult decision after only three career starts, but Jones has played lights out in the biggest games so far. No quarterback in this year’s draft class presents the same size (6-5, 250) nor the arm strength as Jones.

Both teams possesses even more talent, particularly among the underclassmen. Ohio State is absolutely littered with freshmen and sophomores that will one day be in the NFL. One of Oregon’s top players, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, won’t even play in the contest due to a knee injury.

These two programs aren’t simply built for one title run. Both will be legitimate contenders in the foreseeable future due to the NFL-caliber talent found on each roster.

Rimington Trophy finalists include Marcus Mariota’s center

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Oregon center Hroniss Grasu is among the six centers named as a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, presented to the nation’s top center in college football. Grasu, who snaps the football to the likely Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, is the lone finalists now preparing for the College Football Playoff, with Oregon prepping for Florida State in the Rose Bowl, but each finalist will be playing in a bowl game this season.

Joining Grasu on the list of finalists for the Rimington Trophy are Michigan State’s Jack Allen, Georgia’s David Andrews, Auburn’s Reese Dismukes, Kansas State’s B.J. Finley and Boston College’s Andy Gallik. Every player up for the award, besides Michigan State’s Allen, is a senior. Allen is a junior.

The winner of this year’s Rimington Trophy will be announced Thursday night before the Home Depot College Football awards Show in Orlando. The winner is determined by the consensus All-American center pick from three existing All-America teams, which eliminates the need for a voting panel for the award, which is somewhat unique. The three All-America teams used to determine the award winner are compiled by the Walter Camp Foundation, Sporting News and the Football Writers Association of America.

Last year’s Rimington Trophy was awarded to Bryan Stork of Florida State. Whichever player wins this year’s award will be doing so for the first time in his program’s history. The Rimington Trophy was first awarded in 2000.

Oregon reimburses insurance premiums for Marcus Mariota, three other players

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One of the newest trends in college football is for universities to use part of the athletic department’s student assistance fund to pay for the insurance premiums on policies taken out by football players with promising NFL futures. The Oregon Ducks are the latest to do so.

Four players from Oregon — quarterback Marcus Mariota, center Honriss Grasu, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and defensive end Arik Armstead — took out insurance policies for this season. Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu did so after passing on the NFL for one more year in Eugene, Oregon. Armstead will be eligible for the NFL draft after this season, but his brother, Armond Armstead, once had to sit out an entire season due improper administration of painkillers and his family made sure to protect their younger son’s future.

The family of each of these players initially paid the premiums, because the university was worried about violating NCAA rules. Once the athletic department discovered they could use the money provided by the NCAA from the school’s student assistance fund to cover the cost, it chose to do so.

The athletic department released a statement Friday, “The UO athletic department is reimbursing four families of football players for out-of-pocket expenses related to the purchase of insurance policies for loss of future earnings in the event of an injury…”

The trend began when talented offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was lured back to Texas A&M with the promise to provide insurance in case of injury. Florida State may have bought itself another year or two by doing the same for quarterback Jameis Winston.

The estimated amount Oregon will pay for each of the four players wasn’t revealed, but, in the cases of Ogbuehi and Winston, their estimated premiums were over $50,000. Winston’s premium may even be near $60,000.

That’s a lot of bills for these current Ducks.

Florida State’s Bryan Stork wins Rimington Trophy

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Florida State center Bryan Stork was named the best center in the country Thursday by the Boomer Esiason Foundation. Stork was awarded  the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation’s top collegiate center.

The player who hands off to Walter Camp Player of the Year Jameis Winston beat out Auburn’s Reese Dismukes, Oregon’s Hroniss Grasu, Oklahoma’s Gabe Ikard, Utah State’s Tyler Larsen and Travis Swanson of Arkansas for the award.

The Rimington Trophy was introduced in 2000. Stork is the first player from Florida State to win the award. Alabama’s Barrett Jones won the award last season.