Last year was my first year attending the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, California, and I said I would always return for this game, as the level of talent was tremendous. That was also the case this year, as both rosters were stacked with excellent pro prospects from across the country.
What was also cool about last year was that former Tennessee Titans and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher was coaching one of the teams. And then, later on that same week, he ended up getting the head coaching job for the upstart/restart USFL’s Michigan Panthers.
He returned this year to coach the American Team, and I was able to catch up with him after practice to ask about seeing his former player and current Tennessee State coach Eddie George coaching against him on the other side, his thoughts on the USFL’s first season, and what we can expect from his Michigan Panthers in 2023.
Before getting into the standouts from both teams throughout the practice week, here’s all of the game information for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
How to watch
Date: Saturday, Jan. 28 | Time: 6 p.m. ET
Location: Rose Bowl Stadium (Pasadena, California)
TV: NFL Network | Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
QB Lindsey Scott Jr.: 5-10 215, Incarnate Word
The 2022 Walter Payton Award winner (best offensive player in FCS) had an impressive showing throwing the football all week in Pasadena. What really stood out was the decisiveness and accuracy shown over the middle of the field. Scott has a complete mastery of the passing game, as well as the type of throws necessary on any given play.
I was able to catch up with him post-practice to get his thoughts on the week.
WR Malik Heath: 6-2 216, Ole Miss
Heath played like a man amongst boys all week at the position, and he let it be known that he was playing well. You love that type of confidence in a receiver, both verbally and physically, and he backed up his talk with his play. Last year it was Braylon Sanders from Ole Miss who starred at the NFLPA Bowl; this year it was Heath.
WR Mitchell Tinsley: 5-11 207, Penn State
Tinsley had himself a stellar week. We always use the phrase “plays bigger than his size”; well, that aptly described Tinsley’s week. It was surprising to see his measurements juxtaposed to how he performed. You would’ve thought he was 6-5, 225 with how big he played. He also displayed a lot of athleticism in terms of his footwork in and around the goal line.
WR C.J. Johnson: 6-1 225, East Carolina
Johnson had a strong start to the week before going down with a bit of a hamstring injury. He’s a very physical receiver, both at the release and at the catch point. His functional strength is exactly where you’d want it to be, and he’s someone who always seems to find the void within the defensive zone.
OL Sidy Sow: 6-4 329, Eastern Michigan
Sow is also a highly touted CFL prospect, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him taken in one of the top two rounds of their draft. He had an excellent showcase here in Pasadena. I came away mostly impressed with his footwork and overall athleticism.
DL Scott Matlock: 6-4 308, Boise State
Matlock was virtually unblockable throughout the week. In my opinion, he was the best defensive lineman on the American squad. On Day 2 of the OL/DL 1-on-1s, his repertoire of moves were on display, constantly drawing praise from both players and scouts alike.
LB Michael Ayers: 6-1 224, Ashland
Ayers has a unique background, having played multiple positions before settling in at linebacker. However, it may have been those experiences that helped him not only get to the NFLPA Bowl, but to also excel all week long. His pass defense was the most impressive, and he explained why in our chat Thursday.
LB Marte Mapu: 6-2 220, Sacramento State
Mapu was another small-college linebacker standout this week. Again, it was the coverage ability that stood out. Mapu showed he could cover backs and tight ends rather well. The football instincts in coverage were also prevalent during the 7-on-7 periods.
CB Keenan Isaac: 6-2 188, Alabama State
Isaac’s length, combined with his press skills, made him standout almost immediately this week, especially during 1-on-1s. The wing span and ball awareness helped keep passing windows closed for business during 7-on-7s. I thought he showcased a ton of polish this week.
Sets of teammates coming up roses
There’s nothing like going on a road trip with you buddy, and that’s what we saw on the American Team this week, as two sets of teammates really stood out with their efforts.
RB Chris Smith: 5-9 195, Louisiana
For Smith, it is about his ability to be a returner, core special teamer, complimentary back or downfield receiving threat. He enthusiastically showcased his versatility this week for scouts, and spoke extensively about that when I caught up with him after practice.
TE Johnny Lumpkin: 6-5 273, Louisiana
Lumpkin was physically imposing out there on the field, giving defenders fits on both ends of offense. He really surprised a lot of people with how well he moved as a route runner at 273 pounds. But it goes way further than that for him, and he spoke about why that is the case in our post-practice interview.
OL Harris LaChance: 6-6 304, BYU
LaChance was arguably the most patient offensive lineman during 1-on-1 drills. He didn’t allow any pressure, nor was he fooled by a variety of moves thrown at him by defensive linemen. His hands and feet were in unison, and I thought he played the piano well when working vs. stunts and twists.
CB Kaleb Hayes: 5-11 196, BYU
I really liked how Hayes attacked the ball at the catch point throughout the week. His coverage was impeccable, and if the ball came his way, it was either a pass breakup, an incomplete pass, or, at worst, a very difficult reception by the wide receiver. Hayes was terrific in 1-on-1s, 7-on-7s and in team periods.
Other American Team standouts
- RB SaRodorick Thompson, Texas Tech
- LB Durrell Johnson, Liberty
- OL Brandon Kipper, Oregon State
- DL Randy Charlton, Mississippi State
- WR Xavier Gipson, Stephen F. Austin
- WR Jason Brownlee, Southern Miss
- OL Tashawn Manning, Kentucky
- CB DJ Ivey, Miami
American Team WR/DB 1-on-1s
American Team OL/DL 1-on-1s
QB Malik Cunningham: 6-0 200, Louisville
Cunningham had himself a strong week in Pasadena. So much so, he earned an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl. During Wednesday’s practice, he was on fire during 7-on-7 drills. When I spoke with the former Louisville Cardinal, I asked him why he’s being mostly underrated. He gave a really good answer.
QB Todd Centeio: 5-11 227, James Madison
It’s easy to root for a guy like Centeio, as he’s always walking around with a smile on his face. It was great to see him parlay a week at the Tropical Bowl into an NFLPA Bowl invite. I asked him about having back-to-back strong weeks and what he brings to the table as a QB prospect in this class.
RB Owen Wright: 5-9 220, Monmouth
The all-star game setting is great for a player like Wright, who played in a reserve role for Monmouth. He got the opportunity to showcase his good, all-around game, especially as a pass catcher. If you’re looking for an under-the-radar back to keep an eye on this draft, it’s Wright.
WR Taylor Grimes: 5-10 188, Incarnate Word
There was one practice where it felt like Grimes had the Super Mario Star, because he was just moving at a different speed than the cornerback. Possessing quickness, top-notch acceleration and route-running ability, he was a problem all week long.
WR Jaray Jenkins: 6-1 206, LSU
Jenkins has legit wheat baskets for hands. They’re both large to snatch the ball out of the air or away from a defender, and heavy enough to make pressing him a bad choice by a defensive back, as he tossed away DBs more than once this week. Again, I was shocked that he only measured in at 6-1, 206, as he played much bigger than that (in a good way).
WR Keilahn Harris: 5-9 179, Oklahoma Baptist
All everyone could talk about all week was “the Oklahoma Baptist WR.” When you’re garnering that type of buzz with your play, you know you’re doing big things. Harris was a difficult receiver to cover throughout the practices and earned himself some money with his performance this week.
OL Joey Fisher: 6-4 292, Shepherd
One of the major questions Fisher had to answer this week was whether or not he can make the jump in competition, after dominating at Shepherd. Those questions went away rather quickly after the first practice, where his strength and technique were well up to par with his FBS counterparts.
DL Durell Nchami: 6-4 258, Maryland
Whether it was with power or speed, Nchami found his way into the opposing backfield. I thought he did a really good job of stacking positive days on top of one another, which is exactly what you want to do in an all-star game setting.
LB Micah Baskerville: 6-0 221, LSU
I thought Baskerville was tremendous all week long. He was incredible in coverage, picking off numerous passes during both team and 7-on-7 periods. He’s a fluid athlete when working through his zone drops and does a great job of anticipating where the QB is going with the ball, getting himself in position to make the play.
DB Isaiah Bolden: 6-2 201, Jackson State
Bolden was a star defender this week. He showed he could be a very good outside corner at the NFL level. We already knew his safety background at Jackson State, but playing on the perimeter this week was a chance to showcase his coverage skills. Also, his ability as a return specialist makes him even more attractive to pro scouts. I spoke with him earlier in the week about his ability to do more than one thing.
CB Steven Jones: 5-9 185, Appalachian State
Jones was excellent in 1-on-1s, both in the drill and during the full team period. He does not panic when the ball is in the air, maintains great position, and does a fabulous job of playing through the receiver’s hands.
CB Keidron Smith: 6-2 203, Kentucky
Smith had a quietly strong week out on the perimeter. He wasn’t loud or inconsistent; in fact, he was just the opposite: quiet and steady, showcasing fantastic coverage and recovery skills.
DB Anthony Johnson Jr.: 6-0 208, Iowa State
It’s always funny when you look up at practice and see a player who always has the ball in his hands — who doesn’t play offense. That was Johnson all week long. Whether it was driving on the ball and making the interception, catching one off of a tipped pass or flying up in run support, the former Cyclone was all over the field this week.
DB Darrious Gaines: 6-1 197, Western Colorado
You have to give it up for Gaines, as the former Mountaineer standout played almost exclusively at cornerback — a position he didn’t play in college — but stayed committed, didn’t get discouraged and started to figure things out as the week went on. He’s a safety at the professional level, but getting experience this week as an outside corner not only helped him out by showing he’s got potential growth there, but also showed that he was a very coachable player.
Other National Team standouts
- QB Adrian Martinez, Kansas State
- RB Ronnie Brown, Shepherd
- RB Emari Demercado, TCU
- TE Michael Ezeike, UCLA
- OL Jovaughn Gwyn, South Carolina
- DL Malik Hamm, Lafayette
- CB Ameer Speed, Michigan State
- S Jalen Green, Mississippi
Next stop: East-West Shrine Bowl (Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 in Las Vegas)