Jake Fisher

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.

No. 12 Oregon Ducks return to national spotlight after 42-30 victory over No. 18 UCLA Bruins

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After falling to the Arizona Wildcats last Thursday, the No. 12 Oregon Ducks (5-1)  regained the lost momentum by defeating the No. 18 UCLA Bruins (4-2) 42-30.

The score wasn’t as close as the 12-point spread indicated. Oregon dominated the game through three quarters and surrendered 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter after it took its collective foot off the gas pedal.

The victory against UCLA was vital with the heart of Oregon’s divisional schedule looming. The Ducks reemerged against the Bruins as the favorites in the Pac-12 North. Oregon controls its destiny with an opportunity to make an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game and potentially be a part of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Oregon’s remaining schedule against the Washington Huskies, Cal Golden Bears, Stanford Cardinal, Utah Utes, Colorado Buffaloes and Oregon State Beavers should be impressive enough to warrant national consideration as one of the nation’s Top 4 teams should the Ducks run the table.

The biggest difference in Oregon’s play during the past 10 days was improvement along the offensive line.

Senior left tackle Jake Fisher returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games due to a knee injury. His presence proved to be a massive addition to the Ducks’ offense.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota wasn’t under undue pressure throughout the contest like he was during the previous two weeks. The Bruins didn’t register a sack, and it showed in the signal-caller’s play.

Mariota’s Heisman campaign is alive and well after contributing four touchdowns against the Bruins. The Ducks quarterback was 17-of-7 passing for 210 yards and 75 rushing yards.

Mariota’s second rushing touchdown was especially exciting after the ball was fumbled and the quarterback picked it up while slicing through the Bruins’ defense.

UCLA’s Brett Hundley, who was considered a preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy, proved to be nearly as effective as Mariota, but his team didn’t make the plays needed to stay in the game. Hundley threw for 216 yards and ran for 89 more. The Bruins, though, are now 1-2 in conference play and will require plenty of help to earn a possible berth is the Pac-12 Championship Game as the league’s representative from the South division.

Oregon gets offensive line upgrade today vs. UCLA

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Oregon’s offensive line woes have been put on display for the college football world to see in recent weeks, but help could be on the way today. Oregon is expected to have senior left tackle Jake Fisher back on the line when the Ducks take on UCLA in the Rose Bowl later today. Team sources have indicated to CSN Northwest Fisher is expected to start for the Ducks.

Fisher was forced to miss the past two weeks, which has seen the offensive line play some of its worst football. An injured knee kept Fisher out of the mix for the Ducks. With Fisher back at left tackle, Oregon can move redshirt freshman Tyrell Crosby to right tackle, his previous position. The timing of the offensive line upgrade could not have come at a better time. UCLA’s defense has been up nd down this season, but both teams need a win in a big way today after each taking a loss last weekend.

Defensive end Arik Armstead is considered a game-time decision for Oregon. Armstead injured his ankle in the first half last week against Arizona.