Daily Focus: 3 players who need to play up to preseason hype
Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest college football news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
Players who need to play up to the hype
Every year, players find themselves littered across preseason All-American teams, All-Conference teams, and award watch lists and we often go back and test those expectations against previous production. More often than not, the preseason awards are in the ballpark with defining the best players, though there are other times in which the lists are way off or based strictly on projection.
Here are three players who need to back up the hype with better on-field performance this season:
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
We discussed Robinson back in the spring through the lens of the NFL draft and how his instant top-five hype has not yet been warranted through his on-field play. The same can be said for the All-American hype he’s now receiving going into the 2016 season. There’s little doubt that he’s talented and the potential is there to develop into one of the nation’s best players. His game against Florida as a true freshman is one of the best displays you’ll see with regard to solid pass protection and his making a variety of blocks in the run game and on the move. However, the week-to-week production has not been there for Robinson in either of his first two years at Alabama. Injury may have played a part in Robinson’s on-field play and perhaps we get his best this season, but until then, there are still questions about whether or not he can put together a full season of dominant player like other top offensive tackle prospects.
Last season, Robinson graded right around average as both a run blocker and as a pass blocker, allowing seven sacks, two QB hits and eight hurries on 508 attempts. Also concerning were his 12 penalties, tied for third-most among the nation’s offensive tackles. The good news is that things got better as the season progressed, so if it was an early season injury that affected him, there is at least some explanation for his poor games.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Already touted as the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jefferson heads into his true sophomore season with extremely high expectations. He headlined head coach Charlie Strong’s first full recruiting class last season, stepping right in as a starter and playing 645 snaps. Jefferson experienced the expected rough patches, particularly early in the season as he graded negatively in his first four games, including four missed tackles against Rice.
Missed tackles were the story of the first half of the season for Jefferson as he picked up 10 of his 12 misses in the first six games. Perhaps more concerning than the misses was the rate at which he missed: one out of every 6.2 attempts, ranking 114th out of 143 qualifying inside linebackers in the nation. Like Robinson, Jefferson did make progress during the second half of the season and perhaps that’s more in line with what Texas will get from him this season. He did a much better job of tackling and playing the run on his way to four positively-graded games out of his last five. While Jefferson’s improvement is encouraging, it’s still a major leap to project him as the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year. Admittedly, the conference is without many good options for the award, so perhaps he’s being anointed by default, but if Jefferson does take that next big step, Texas will be much-improved defensively and a thorn in the side of Big 12 offenses.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
How can a quarterback who threw for 4,653 yards at 8.0 yards per attempt and 36 touchdowns not be one of the top-graded QBs in the nation? The PFF grading system goes well beyond stats, giving the QB credit where it’s due on a throw-for-throw basis. A short screen pass or well-designed “easy” throw may result in a big, stat-padding play, but it won’t affect the quarterback’s grade any differently than that same throw or same play resulting in a tackle for no gain.
That’s very much the story for Mahomes who relied on his receivers to pick up 62.0 percent of those 4,653 yards after the catch — third-most in the nation in 2015 and tops among returning Power-5 quarterbacks. There’s nothing wrong with letting the receivers do the work, especially if that’s what the system calls for, but the key is to not attribute 4,653 yards to Mahomes as an explanation for greatness, All-American awards, or the Heisman Trophy.
Mahomes is a good quarterback, and perhaps his first year away from baseball will further his development as a quarterback, but he still has a ways to go as he had the 68th-lowest percentage of negatively-graded throws in the nation last season. There’s little doubt that Mahomes will once again put up monster numbers in Texas Tech’s system, but improving his efficiency on a throw-for-throw basis and improving his decision-making will make them that much better.
Tu’ikolovatu adds depth along USC defensive line
Among the tidbits coming out of USC camp, former Utah defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is making life difficult for the offensive line. Tu’ikolovatu transferred to USC after playing at Utah last season and he posted the No. 2 grade among returning interior defensive linemen in the Pac-12 at 81.4 on just 427 snaps. He adds much-needed depth along USC’s defensive line which returns the fewest snaps in the nation. The only other defensive linemen with experience are a pair of true sophomores in DE Rasheem Green and nose tackle Noah Jefferson. While Green and Jefferson were top recruits who held their own in limited action a year ago, Tu’ikolovatu was a crucial add as he brings a 320-pound presence that can hold the point in the run game and push the pocket as a pass-rusher. Even with him in the mix, the USC defensive line is a major question mark heading into the season, but he at least eases the burden as USC looks to repeats as Pac-12 South champions.