Few prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft will be tougher to figure out than Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr.
Carr has made great strides in his game as a senior. The difference between his 2012 performance and 2013 performance has been night and day. But questions still linger. He hasn't faced too many tough defenses in 2013. That has allowed one of his biggest flaws to fly under the radar. Carr still struggles to sense and deal with pressure in the pocket, though he hasn't had to deal with a ton of pocket pressure this season. Carr also plays in an offense that doesn't allow him to make a ton of NFL-type reads or attack the intermediate areas of the field very often.
While the ladder issue may not be addressed on Saturday, Carr will be tested by the best defense he's seen all season in the Las Vegas Bowl. USC boasts a particularly strong pass rush and should be able to get after Carr. Between this game and the Senior Bowl, we'll learn quite a bit about Carr.
When Fresno State has the football
Everything about Fresno State's offense runs through Carr. The short passing game serves as a running game for the Bulldogs, and Carr's arm provides the big-play threat. Outside of Carr, wide receiver Davante Adams may be the best future pro. He's a redshirt sophomore, but he's a decent bet to declare for the NFL Draft. He's an excellent deep threat due to his body control when the ball is in the air and his leaping ability. Carr will also look for senior tight end Marcel Jensen, who has a balanced game and is worth keeping an eye on in this game.
USC's defense will be an interesting test for Carr and company. The front-seven has plenty of NFL talent. Linebacker Devon Kennard has been one of the most improved players on the Trojans' defense. Pass rusher Morgan Breslin would be the one to watch, but he will miss the game with a hip injury. Instead, USC will have to get pressure from the interior with sophomore defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who is a prospect to watch for the 2015 NFL Draft. Fresno State guard Austin Wentworth will have his hands full.
When USC has the football
Marqise Lee has had a rough season for USC. He's missed time with an injury, suffered through bad quarterback play and hasn't always been reliable when the ball has come his way. That being said, Saturday is a chance to end his season on a high note against a weak Fresno State defense.
The only matchup worth watching in the trenches would be between USC right tackle Kevin Graf and Fresno State sophomore linebacker Ejiro Ederaine, who has filled up the stat sheet this season and been the Bulldogs' main source of quarterback pressure. Senior defensive end Andy Jennings had some preseason buzz but has been mostly a disappointment for Fresno State.
Question of the day: How will Derek Carr handle the pressure?
If Carr wants to help his evaluation and increase his odds of being a top ten pick in May, it starts with Saturday. We know Carr will look good in the pre-draft process. He'll be an outstanding interview and will dazzle at his pro day. But the final test of his collegiate career is also one of his biggest tests. Let's see how he holds up under pressure, both in the pocket and the pressure that comes with having all eyes on him.