Sugar Bowl: A big game for Tebow, Gilyard

Two of the nation’s top senior prospects at their respective positions face off in tonight’s Sugar Bowl as quarterback Tim Tebow leads the Florida Gators against wideout Mardy Gilyard’s Cincinnati Bearcats. Tebow and Gilyard have been nothing short of dominant the past couple of seasons and are on the brink of taking their games to the next level. However, even after all the production, awards and big-game performances throughout their careers, the two still have a lot to prove/lose in tonight’s showdown.

The breakdown:

QB Tim Tebow: Florida, No. 15, 6-3, 245

The last time we saw Tebow on the field was at the end of a 32-13 drubbing by Alabama in the SEC championship game. Tebow finished the game 20 of 35 passing for 247 yards, one touchdown and one interception. However, he struggled to consistently decipher information quickly in the face of pressure, lacked timing in the pass game and was simply out of rhythm most of the night.

When watching Tebow on tape, the elephant in the room is his elongated throwing motion, but with time I think he’ll be able to shorten his release and smooth out his overall throwing mechanics. As for his pure arm strength and overall accuracy, I think he grades out highly enough in both areas to make the necessary throws needed at the next level.

Tonight’s matchup with Cincinnati is huge for Tebow if he hopes to start building some positive momentum entering the draft season. Tebow has had nearly a month to prepare for this game mentally. He should know the Cincinnati 3-4 defense inside and out, he should be decisive in the pocket and he should be able rely on his arm to make plays in the pass game. This is an ideal setting for him to play well and effectively throw the football down the field because of the additional study time granted during bowl season. And if Tebow really does have the ability to mature into a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL, he should be able to show very well for himself tonight.

However, if Tebow struggles vs. a lackluster Cincinnati pass defense after having nearly a month to prepare, maybe it’s time to gear down expectations for him as a quarterback-only prospect.

WR Mardy Gilyard: Cincinnati, No. 1, 6-1, 180

His body control, balance and ability to accelerate out of his breaks are three of the main reasons Gilyard has been one of the nation’s most productive collegiate receivers over the past two years. He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, and once he gets into his routes, the guy has the ability to consistently separate from the slot or when lined up on the outside. I still have some reservations about Gilyard at this point, but I’m excited to see if he can prove me wrong vs. Florida.

Gilyard isn’t the most gifted straight-line athlete and doesn’t exhibit the type of second gear to routinely outpace NFL-caliber corners down the field. Now, is that a major concern? No, because he’s sudden and balanced enough as a route runner to consistently generate significant separation out of his breaks vs. man coverage.

What does worry me about his chances on the outside is that NFL corners won’t be intimidated -- like most of the Big East corners he faced this year -- to get into his grill and press him off the line. The Cincinnati coaching staff has done a great job all year moving him around the offense and putting him in positions to avoid press coverage. However, press coverage is something he won’t be able to escape at the next level.

Since Florida has a pair of corners in Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins who love to get physical and bump off the line, tonight is a big game for Gilyard to prove to NFL scouts he can beat pressman. And if he does prove he can consistently get into his routes and separate vs. man coverage, there’s no reason to think he can’t develop into a productive starter at the next level. But if he’s consistently re-routed off the line, struggles to get into his routes and can’t generate much separation vs. Haden and Jenkins, maybe he’ll simply be better suited to playing slot-only at the next level.

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