10 things you need to know following Week 1
Pro Football Focus is grading every player on every play of every college football game this season. Seriously.
That’s a lot of information to take in every week of the season. Here are the 10 most important things you need to know from the action of Week 1.
1. Malik Zaire is a contender to win the Heisman.
All of the usual “it’s only one game” and sample-size arguments apply here, and for all we know, Texas could be on its way to having a very rough second season under head coach Charlie Strong.
But Zaire was outstanding on Saturday in the Fighting Irish’s big win over the Longhorns, completing 86.2 percent of his passes including 13 of 14 throws 10-plus yards down the field and both of his 20-plus-yard throws. He earned a +6.2 overall grade, which is a star-caliber performance — for reference, Heisman winner Marcus Mariota never produced a game grade that high last season. And more importantly, he earned a +5.6 passing grade (also better than any one game from Mariota last season).
It’s not that he wasn’t effective as a runner — he had a particularly nice 14-yard scramble to evade pressure for a first down in the first half — but he proved Saturday that he is a true dual-threat, something that we saw signs of in our grades for him in his two starts last season. Compared to fellow Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin, the TCU quarterback, he has displayed much more of a well-rounded game, albeit over a much smaller sample size.
We’ll see if he keeps it up, but Zaire played like one of the best QBs in the country on Saturday.
2. Josh Rosen already looks better than Brett Hundley.
Speaking of impressive debuts by quarterbacks that we don’t want to get too carried away with, the UCLA true freshman produced the following stat line on Saturday in the Bruins’ win over Virginia:
28 of 35 for 351 yards (80 percent completions, 10.0 yards per attempt), three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a +4.1 overall grade with a +4.6 passing grade (he lost some points as a runner)
That’d be really good for any college QB in any game – much less a true freshman in his first collegiate action. In fact, it’s a better game grade than any produced by UCLA’s QB last season, Brett Hundley.
Rosen displayed really impressive accuracy and the arm strength to make downfield throws as well — he connected on three of his six passes over 20-plus yards, and had another dropped by one of his receivers.
3. Ohio State QBs continue to stand out more as runners than passers.
It was something of a surprise to see Cardale Jones get the starting nod of J.T. Barrett for the Buckeyes’ win over Virginia Tech Monday night. Jones ended the game with a solid +1.8 grade, which came from a +0.1 passing grade and a +1.6 running grade.
This is consistent with what we saw from both Jones and Barrett last season, when each graded negatively as a passer but excelled as a runner. (Barrett earned a +0.9 grade versus the Hokies on just 10 snaps, completing his one pass attempt for 26 yards and ripping off a long run.)
All offseason, we didn’t see much separation in the two players’ performances from last season, but at least based on common perception, Jones is believed to have the stronger arm and be the better downfield thrower. Jones did fare well with his deep ball Monday night, completing four of his seven pass attempts of 20 or more yards for 131 yards and two touchdowns, including one drop. Jones led Barrett in this area last season as well, so perhaps that was the deciding factor for head coach Urban Meyer between the two QBs.
4. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett might be the best pass-rusher in the country.
The common narrative on the Aggies under head coach Kevin Sumlin is that the offense is consistently effective and entertaining, while the defense has been something of a mess. The opposite was true during Saturday’s win over Arizona State, with the offense producing just three positively graded players (including freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk, who electrified with a 79-yard punt-return touchdown six catches for 106 yards and another TD) and the defense producing 10.
The standout on the defense was true sophomore edge rusher Myles Garrett, who produced an outstanding game grade of +8.4, including a +7.7 pass-rush grade. (Fellow rush end Daeshon Hall also received a lot of credit for the defense’s success during the game broadcast, although he posted a more modest +2.4 overall grade, +1.2 pass-rush grade. That’s good, but Garrett was on another level.)
5. Alabama again looks like a dominant team – with a new star at running back.
The Crimson Tide earned a blowout win over Wisconsin Saturday night, and RB Derrick Henry stole the headlines with his three breakaway touchdown runs and 11.3 yards per carry average. His game grade of +2.3 might seem modest by comparison, but his 181.3 elusive rating (our measure of how effective a running back is, independent of blocking) was off the charts.
The Crimson Tide had several more impressive individual performances, particularly in the trenches (+4.6 grade for C Ryan Kelly, +3.3 for TE O.J. Howard, +3.1 for NT Jarran Reed, +2.8 for RG Alphonse Taylor), and starting QB Jake Coker was solid in his starting debut with a +1.5 grade. He’ll need to improve against pressure (he was 0 for 2 with two sacks on four pressured dropbacks) and on downfield throws (0 for 3 on attempts of 20-plus yards), but the good news is that there are several productive players around him on both sides of the ball.
6. Christian Hackenberg earned a bad grade against Temple – but not as bad as his grades last season.
We went deeper on this subject after the Nittany Lions’ to the Owls Saturday, but based on our 2014 grading, it’s tough to call Hackenberg’s struggles against Temple a surprise.
Hackenberg was our lowest-graded quarterback against Power-5 competition last season. He ranked No. 76 out of 76 qualifying QBs. So while his -4.4 game grade against Temple was bad, he actually graded the same or worse in eight of his 13 games in 2014.
7. One of the nation’s most talented running backs is already out for the season.
Pittsburgh’s James Conner might have been flying a bit under the radar compared to the likes of Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott or Georgia’s Nick Chubb, but he was actually our highest-graded running back from the 2014 season, ranking No. 10 in our elusive rating stat.
Conner went down with a seemingly minor knee injury in the Panthers’ win Saturday over Youngstown State, but the news came down Monday that he suffered a torn MCL and will require season-ending knee injury.
This is devastating news for Pitt, as Conner was the team’s best player. His replacement Qadree Ollison played well Saturday, rushing for 207 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, but producing as much as Conner did in 2014 will be really difficult.
8. Auburn might finally have a defense to match its offense.
Not unlike Texas A&M, Auburn has had a rep for being an offensive juggernaut under head coach Gus Malzahn, but not necessarily a stout defensive team. While the Tigers certainly made things more interesting than they needed to in their win Saturday versus Louisville, it has to be promising to see standout performances from three of their defensive linemen.
Defensive tackle Montravius Adams led the way with a +7.6 grade, while fellow D-tackle Dontavius Russell and defensive end also had excellent games with +6.1 and +5.2 grades, respectively. Adams and Lawson were particularly effective rushing the passer as well, and it was encouraging to see Adams post a +3.6 grade against the run. He was our No. 5 interior pass-rusher in the country last season, and if he continues to show this kind of improvement as a run defender, he could be one of the best defensive players in college football by season’s end.
9. Vernon Adams Jr. was just average in his Oregon debut.
The most talked-about play in Oregon’s Week 1 victory over Eastern Washington was the cheap shot that knocked Adams, the current Ducks starting QB and former EWU QB, out of the game, but that over-shadowed what was unfortunately a mediocre performance from him to that point.
Adams is expected to be fine for the Ducks’ huge Week 2 game against Michigan State, and he’s likely going to need to improve upon his -1.8 overall grade for Oregon to come away with the win. His stat line was gaudy, including 76 percent completions, but he wasn’t one of the top performers of the week in our QB grading.
10. Braxton Miller is adjusting to wide receiver just fine.
Miller earned an impressive +1.9 overall grade in the win over Virginia Tech Monday night, catching three passes for 79 yards and a touchdown on just five targets. Look for that targets number to go up as the Buckeyes get Miller more opportunities in the open field – he forced two missed tackles against the Hokies and produced the highlight-reel play of the night with his spin move.