It was a civil war of sorts, as "Texas" and "Nation" squads faced off in the first NFL Player Association Game this afternoon on CBS College Sports Network, a new reincarnation of the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Challenge.
The first thing to know about college football all-star games is that evaluating talent purely off of that tape is fallacious. Players and coaches have one game to put together a game plan, and participants are rotated in and out throughout the contest so getting a rhythm or significant statistics is very difficult.
Scouting talent while sitting at the Super Bowl media hotel is also difficult--however, there were some plays and players that caught my eye.
The most talented prospect in this game wasn't difficult to discover, even when watching in a public place; Nation DT Kenrick Ellis (South Carolina/Hampton) was continually putting pressure on Texas squad interior offensive linemen to push the pocket, plug up a lane against the run, or hustle to the ball outside the tackles. The 6-5, 336-pound tackle also forced a bad snap by otherwise stellar center Tim Barnes (Missouri) in the red zone in the fourth quarter, leading to a missed field goal.
The game's MVP, Northwest Missouri State defensive end Roberto Davis, ended up in the backfield regularly in practice before making a sack and forcing a fumble on the day. A late add who scouts didn't really take notice of, even when at the NWMS campus, his ability to get under the pads of taller tackles, driving them in the backfield, will make teams go back to the tape.
Two other Texas defensive linemen made their stamp on the game late, Eddie Jones (Texas) and Jerrell Powe (Ole Miss) combining to stuff a fourth-and-goal run to seal the victory. Jones has a nice combination or speed and strength to be a strong-side 3-4 linebacker or 4-3 defensive end in the right system. Powe did not dominate in this game as many though he could, but he did make himself known by getting into the backfield when not facing double teams (which wasn't often).
Both Ellis and Powe could be very high picks because of their size and relative athletic ability, but both also have issues (Powe-age, pass rush ability; Ellis-suspension from South Carolina) that could make them bargains in the second or third rounds in the Kris Jenkins mold.
Two intriguing quarterbacks, Josh Portis (California-PA) and Taylor Potts (Texas Tech) played well on the day. Portis used his legs to move the ball on a couple of occasions and a strong arm to hit short and intermediate routes. He and fellow Combine invitee WR Stephen Burton (West Texas A&M) had one of the best plays of the game; a perfectly-thrown deep ball down the right sideline which Burton caught while fighting off a corner. He was a bit erratic as the game progressed, but flashed the ability to originally took him to Florida and Maryland (the double-transfer will need to address his jumping colleges with scouts).
Potts was named the game's Offensive MVP after going 9-for-15 for 107 yards and a touchdown; his practice week was the best of all quarterbacks, as well. And though his elusiveness in the pocket is significantly less impressive than Portis', his NFL size, fair arm, usually-tight spiral and accurate intermediate throws may make a team think he is worth a late-round selection.
One group of players difficult to evaluate in practices are linebackers because they don't get a chance to tackle. Tressor Baptiste (Texas A&M Kingsville), Brian Duncan (Texas Tech), Adrian Moten (Maryland), and OLB Spencer Paysinger (Oregon) also quick enough to wrap up receivers and running backs in the backfield or towards either sideline. Baptiste and Paysinger were especially active, always appearing to be around the ball.
Another player who made an impression in practice this week was Texas cornerback Josh Gatlin (North Dakota State), who had a nice high-point interception in the red zone on an underthrown pass. He also displayed nice press ability on the line, like he did in practice, but struggled to stay with receivers when playing off or in trail coverage. Miscommunication with S ChrisProsinski (Wyoming) allowed a big play down the seam from QB Jeff Van Camp (Florida Atlantic) to WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (Iowa) near the end of the game. DJK stepped up with some plays today, especially on that late drive to give his team a chance to win, after an average week of practice.
Nation corner Vince Cuff also had some ups and downs in the game. He has the speed to stay with any receiver, and made an excellent leap in the air to knock down a pass. But he was five feet from the receiver during the play instead of on his hip pocket, forcing him to make the leap to get the ball--something scouts will notice on tape. Cuff also displayed toughness in the run game by cutting down FB Robert Hughes (Notre Dame) inside the hashes and tackling receivers immediately after the catch. His lack of size (5-10, 177), however, prevented him from making key tackles or staying with more physical receivers.
Though explosive plays were at a minimum in this contest, Nation receiver Jock Sanders (West Virginia) and Texas running back Chad Spann (Northern Illinois) each made fans say "wow" with an exciting run. Former North Carolina QB T.J. Yates stepped up in the pocket to find Sanders over the middle in the third quarter, then the diminutive 5-6 receiver made a lot of yardage on his own with spectacular cuts and elusiveness through traffic. Spann showed great balance on a play later on, putting his hand on the turf after getting hit to stay upright and lower his shoulder to pound a would-be tackler after getting a chunk of yards.
Unfortunately, Nation WR Kris Durham (Georgia) and Texas WR Ricardo Lockette (Fort Valley State) aided in the game's lack of offense by starting the game with dropping passes. This was not surprising given their propensity to do so during practice. Another receiver with troubles holding onto the ball this week, UCF WR Jamar Newsome, got popped by his own guy (and some help from opposing CB Kevin Rutland from Missouri) to fumble a kickoff in the first half. All three receivers made good catches later, however, to earn back from respect from scouts.
Nation QB Nathan Enderle (Idaho) did little to help his stock in this game today, coming up short on intermediate and deep throws, and struggling to make any throw on the run. A mid-round prospect to start the year, a rough season and underwhelming NFLPA Game week give him only a slight chance to be drafted.
Another Combine participant, Texas guard Isaiah Thompson (Houston), also struggled mightily--as he did in practice. Defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye (South Carolina) used quickness and violent hands to run by Thompson early and often, and Ellis pushed aside Thompson later to get to unimpressive QB Ryan Colburn (Fresno State) later on.
Reading through this summary review of the NFLPA Game, you'll notice that in most cases, players perform in games as they did during practice week. This is an axiom coaches have followed as long as the game has been played.
So although NFL scouts do not rely solely on an all-star game tape to evaluate a player, they typically aren't surprised by the game's flow or outcome.