Unpacking the Pac-12: Marquee Battles In Los Angeles And Eugene

Photo: Oct 13, 2018; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass during the first half against the Washington Huskies at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

With Washington State, Stanford, Arizona State, and Oregon State all on byes this week, there was already a lighter slate of Pac-12 games. With the unholy thrashings of Arizona at the hands of Utah (42 - 10) and Cal in UCLA's first win (37 -7), the focus was on Washington v. Oregon and Colorado v. USC.

Both games went the distance. Oregon v. Washington ended in overtime, with a gritty performance from the physical Oregon defense making the difference. Colorado v. USC felt over at 28-7 when the 4th quarter began. Colorado's onside kick recovery at 31-20 with 3 minutes left kept a faint glimmer of hope alive -- it was good to see some fight in the once-unbeaten Buffs. But in a heat check game against a Pac-12 blue blood, they really fizzled out.

Steven Montez Is Who We Thought He Was

Colorado QB Steven Montez hardly heard his name buzzed coming into the season. All it took was an Athletic article detailing his transformation, and everyone was ready for Montez to be the next big thing.

After Colorado beat Nebraska -- and this was early enough in the year that people thought Nebraska was good -- I wrote about tempering the Montez hype. I viewed him a project quarterback, with the desirable height/weight/arm strength profile to grow into a prototypical quarterbacking prospect -- but as nothing more than that.

And he has struggled to keep up that world-beating production of his opening weeks. 40% of Montez's passes are attempted at or behind the line of scrimmage; over 80% of the offense production belongs to WR/Wildcat RB Laviska Shenault, a stellar sophomore player. Montez is, at this point, a promising game manager who occasionally puts a pretty deep ball down the field.

His inconsistencies throwing route concepts that cross the middle of the field showed up in an ugly way against USC, and HC Mike MacIntyre tried to take the game out of his hands -- his play-calling got uber-conservative. When Montez had opportunities to look deep, he locked onto his first read and grew skittish under pressure. He's a young player who will grow -- but we should stop trying to take him out of school early.

Justin Herbert: A Flawed QB1

This is the classic case of a "Both can be true" situation.

  • Justin Herbert is the undisputed best quarterback in this class. He is QB1.
  • Justin Herbert has a good deal of struggles as a prospect, and should not be considered equal to the top quarterbacks of classes past.

Open up Twitter, and you won't get far before this play gets retweeted onto your timeline.ut

But what the highlight won't show is that Herbert had a much easier throw to WR Dillon Mitchell on 1st and goal on this very possession and just missed it. There may have been some pressure near his feet, but even if there was, this throw was a gimme. And he just sailed it.

The story of the evening was a microcosm of my full evaluation on Herbert, which you can read here. He is a first-read reliant quarterback who will sit on his opening progression and wait for it to get open, breaking the pocket if he decides the opening will never come. He does not like to hit anticipation routes across the middle, though he can do it -- he's just a see-first player at this point in his career. And finally and crucially, he does not respond well to pressure: it affects his throwing motion heavily and introduces wild inaccuracy.

Herbert is a bit closer to project than prospect than we care to admit. It's fine that he is, and that classification won't affect the fact that Herbert is the clear favorite to be the first QB selected.

But I don't think he's a better prospect, at this point in the season, than four of the top five quarterbacks from last year (excluding Josh Allen) or three of the top four quarterbacks from 2017 (excluding DeShone Kizer).

He looks far more like a Round 2 than a Round 1 grade from me right now.

Evan Worthington Deserves Your Attention

There's a 6-foot-2, 205 pound dude with arms that could span Texas playing safety for one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, and you don't know his name.

Well, you can probably guess it given the title. It's Evan Worthington.

Now, it's important to note here that the 6-foot-2, 205 pound dude is playing single-high free safety. He's much better as a box safety, handling tight ends and attacking against the run -- yet Colorado trusts him up high. His long strides to give him a bit of range, and he has more straight-line explosiveness than you'd expect from a player of his size. That physical profile lets him get away with centerfield play -- and you see the impact he can have at the catch point.

Worthington is yet a practiced free safety, however -- he had another opportunity for a play on a go route, but mis-timed his approach relative to the receiver's jump. Less timing goes into the short and intermediate routes you defend as a box player -- everything is at bang! bang! speed. As such, it tracks that Worthington would lack that knack, that ability to arrive just at the correct moment.

In the box, again he was an impact player for the second game in a row (I wrote about his stellar game against Arizona State in this very column last week). His fills against the run helped bring about multiple TFLs, and he notched one himself on an outside run. He was called for a ticky-tack pass interference on a TE corner route only one play after he ran with a slot receiver down the field, had the closing burst to get into the catch point, and affected the receiver's hands without drawing a flag.

There's still some up-and-down in the game of the senior safety, but his frame and athleticism are NFL-ready, and his playmaking ability is that of a high-quality starter. Keep an eye out on Tuesday, when my Top-75 rankings and Top-10 positional rankings drop -- he just may slide his way into a solid spot.

Nick Harris Continues To Build On His Resume

There's a 6-foot-1, 335 pound monster in Eugene, Oregon called "Fat Mac." Others call him "Mini-Fridge." His name is Jordon Scott, and he's a true sophomore nose tackle for the Ducks. He's one of the most dominant players in the conference and is on the fast track to be the highest-ranked defender in the Pac-12 come 2019.

I have never seen him as neutralized as he was going against Washington center Nick Harris today.

Like Scott, Harris has a rotund, squatty build. He's 6'1 and was listed at 293 last season, but he's clearly bigger coming into 2018. Harris is an aggressive pass-blocker who wins with initial violence, shocking his opponent at the snap with quick hands and a powerful base. In the running game, Harris wins with that natural leverage and those strong hands; he fits himself well, working his elbows and hip points into his opponent to generate displacement power.

Against Scott, you don't really displace. But Harris got Scott to stalemate after stalemate in the running game; and he did it single-handedly. Not a ton of doubles or even combo blocks; just Harris beating Scott to the leverage point, dropping anchors, and holding the point of attack so his running back could scamper through behind him.

In the passing game, Harris relinquished some ground, but he rarely relinquished an angle to the quarterback. He re-anchored as was necessary, with great flexibility through his spine to absorb Scott's strength. Scott is the better player, there's no doubt -- but Harris neutralized the playmaking ability of the best opponent he will face all season. It was an eye-opening performance.

Other notes

  • Oregon WR Dillon Mitchell was tagged as my riser to watch for the Pac-12 WRs, and he has truly answered the call. He dogged a tough Washington CB corps this afternoon, and he looks like a dangerous YAC player with solid route-running ability. I'm buying stock.
  • I wrote this past week on the wildly under-appreciated Washington LB Ben Burr-Kirven. He responded with a 19 tackle performance against Oregon, as well as a high-quality PBU that should have turned into an interception. Get on the train!
  • Washington TE Drew Sample opened my eyes a bit with a 4 reception, 79 yard performance this afternoon. On two deep balls, he modeled maintenance of leverage with a plus frame to keep the ball's trajectory away from the defender. That's high-quality attention to detail. He, USC CB Ajene Harris, and USC WR Michael Pittman all will get watches from me this week.
  • USC OT Chuma Edoga continues to put together a high-quality 2018 campaign. He's a lighter, vertical-set offensive tackle that may need a couple of years to transition to NFL play -- but you can't teach that agility. Truly a dancing bear type. I hope he continues on this developmental path.

Underclassmen that get me pumped

  • Oregon NT Jordon Scott
  • Washington RB Salvon Ahmed
  • Colorado LB Nate Landman
  • Colorado WR Laviska Shenault
  • USC DT Jay Tufele
  • USC LB Palaie Gaoteote IV

Ranking the Pac-12

  1. Oregon
  2. Washington
  3. Stanford
  4. Washington State
  5. Utah
  6. Colorado
  7. USC
  8. Arizona State
  9. Cal
  10. UCLA
  11. Oregon State
  12. Arizona