Commentary

Cal's Hawkins shows off hands and speed against Oregon State

Cal wide receiver/punt returner DeSean Jackson was a Heisman candidate when the season started. But another receiver has proven to be more productive this season for the Bears.

Originally Published: October 15, 2007
By Mel Kiper Jr. | ESPN.com

Cal's heartbreaking 31-28 loss to Oregon State prevented the Golden Bears from being ranked No. 1. However, Cal WR Lavelle Hawkins saw his NFL draft stock rise dramatically.

While DeSean Jackson, the highly decorated junior, was held in check (four receptions, 5 yards) Hawkins was virtually unstoppable. He finished with nine receptions for 192 yards (21.3 yards per catch) and two touchdowns.

Lavelle Hawkins
AP Photo/Ben MargotWhile he had a breakout game against Oregon State, Lavelle Hawkins has been extremely productive all season for Cal.
Several of those catches were critical in the latter stages of the game when Cal was attempting to come back. On one fourth-down play, Hawkins ducked under a tackler to pick up a first down when it looked like he was going to be stopped 2 yards shy.

On Hawkins' 64-yard touchdown reception that cut Oregon State's lead to 31-28, it appeared that free safety Al Afalava had the angle to make the tackle. It didn't matter, though -- Hawkins turned on the jets, left Afalava in his wake and outraced the OSU defenders to the end zone.

Hawkins (5-foot-11, 183) has blazing speed, shows excellent hands and concentration, has great feet and is able to accelerate and locate the deep ball as well as any receiver in the country.

Keep in mind, Hawkins was a sought-after recruit out of the prep ranks in Stockton, Calif., originally signing with LSU.

He landed at City College of San Francisco, where he earned juco All-American honors before moving on to Cal in 2005.

While I've highlighted his stellar performance against Oregon State, he hasn't been a one-game wonder this season. Hawkins totaled seven receptions for 90 yards in the season opener against Tennessee, hauled in seven catches for 87 yards against Louisiana Tech and caught six passes for 95 yards against Arizona. Combine his athletic prowess, speed and natural pass-receiving ability with his current level of play, and Hawkins -- at this stage of the evaluation process -- is no worse than a second-round pick.

• In Arizona's hard-fought loss to USC, senior OLB Spencer Larsen was the standout defensive performer for the Wildcats. Although he was beaten in coverage by USC tight end Fred Davis for the go-ahead touchdown, Larsen was all over the field. Larsen (6-1, 235) finished with 17 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage.

• In the scouting profession, we always like to find players who, pound for pound, are the best at their position. At the top of my list is Michigan senior Mike Hart. The deceptively strong 5-foot-8, 200-pound running back has enjoyed a phenomenal career in Ann Arbor.

At the Big House against Purdue, Hart ran effectively with the ball in his hands; but what consistently gets your attention is the way he gets the job done as a blocker in blitz pickup situations. In this area, he has few peers.

Against the Boilermakers, Hart ran for 102 yards on 21 carries -- all with two minutes to go in the first half. He also had touchdown runs of 11 and 9 yards. On his 21st carry, Hart was sidelined with an ankle injury and never returned to the field. As college football fans, let's hope he's ready to go Saturday at Illinois.

Hart's durability and dependability amaze me. To see him limp off the field Saturday was a rarity. So far in 2007, he has carried the ball 200 times, with 30 carries or more in games against Northwestern, Penn State and Notre Dame. Hart already has surpassed 1,000 yards, is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and has 12 touchdowns.

Hart is only 5-foot-8 and lacks big-time speed, so it would be easy to label him as just another great collegiate running back with so-so NFL potential. However, I don't believe that's the case. With his versatility, tremendous desire to excel and unmatched consistency from week to week, Hart is not only one of the top five Heisman candidates at this point but also a very good NFL prospect who should figure to be a first-day selection.

• My Heisman favorite right now is Boston College QB Matt Ryan, but he's not the only skill-position player for the Eagles who has the NFL brass taking note.

Given more of an opportunity to showcase his skills, senior RB Andre Callender (5-11, 205) has left a favorable impression on scouts this season. Throughout his career, Callender has never been a dazzling runner or someone who jumped out at you with impressive statistics. But as we saw against Notre Dame, he's an underrated all-around back who has been able to elevate his pro grade this season.

Callender finished with 23 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish and also hauled in 10 receptions for 91 yards and one TD. He also did a nice job as a blocker in pass protection.

• Tennessee displayed very good balance on offense in its 33-21 victory over Mississippi State, amassing more than 200 yards on the ground and more than 250 yards through the air. And a lot of the credit has to go to the offensive line.

One player NFL scouts are keeping a close eye on is 6-foot-4, 309-pound senior Eric Young. A starter at right tackle as a junior, he switched to the left side for the 2007 season and has managed to more than hold his own. As a group, the Vols offensive line has done a terrific job protecting senior QB Erik Ainge, allowing him to be sacked just once through six games.

While Young has made a name for himself at tackle, he could follow the same path as Tennessee grad Arron Sears, who made the switch inside to guard at the pro level after being chosen in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

• If there is one thing the NFL can never seem to get enough of, it's speed, and there are two Conference USA seniors who are not lacking in that area: East Carolina RB Chris Johnson and Houston WR Donnie Avery.

A week after setting a school record with 372 all-purpose yards against Central Florida, Johnson rushed for 126 yards on 23 carries and totaled another 117 yards on four kickoff returns as East Carolina knocked off UTEP 46-43 in overtime. With a 40-yard dash time clocked in the mid-4.3s, Johnson's efforts are a big reason why coach Skip Holtz's Pirates sit atop C-USA's East Division with a 3-1 record. Depending on how Johnson performs in postseason all-star games, you could hear his name called anywhere between the second and fourth rounds.

Meanwhile, in Houston's 56-48 victory over Rice, Avery totaled 13 catches for an incredible 346 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-10, 190-pound receiver is a blur with the ball in his hands both as a receiver (46 catches, 19.2 yards per catch, five TDs) and as a returner (29.6-yard average). Avery's stock has risen dramatically, to the point where he could end up going on the first day of the draft.

• Watching Oklahoma redshirt freshman DT Gerald McCoy against Missouri brought back memories of another Sooners great, Tommie Harris. Regarded as the top defensive lineman in the nation coming out of Oklahoma City's Southeast High School in 2006, McCoy definitely looked the part on Saturday. He collapsed the pocket on several occasions, impressing me with his explosiveness and hustling style. McCoy has a chance to develop into a super blue-chipper.

• While we're on the subject of outstanding young defensive linemen, two sophomore defensive ends have distinguished themselves above the rest -- South Florida's George Selvie and Virginia's Jeffrey Fitzgerald. However, sophomore Greg Hardy of Ole Miss may move ahead of them.

Hardy turned in an exceptional performance in the Rebels' 27-24 loss to Alabama, finishing with 13 tackles, five stops behind the line of scrimmage, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two QB hurries. Athletically gifted at 6-5 and 255 pounds, he is currently second on the Rebels with 55 tackles, while he sits at the top of the SEC defensive charts with 16 tackles for loss, eight sacks and three forced fumbles.

Hardy has that super-quick take-off you look for and has few peers when it comes to his athletic prowess and versatility. A member of the Ole Miss basketball team last season, Hardy has seen action on the offensive side of the ball, as well, hauling in a pair of TD receptions this season.

We watched LB Patrick Willis excel during his collegiate career at Ole Miss. Now it looks like it's Hardy's turn to be the huge headliner with the Rebels defense.

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Mel Kiper Jr.

Football analyst