This week marked the beginning of college Pro Days, which showcase a college’s top prospects aiming to achieve careers in the NFL.
Without an in-person Scouting Combine to display workouts and testing, Pro Days hold an even greater importance in this COVID-affected season. Whether a player be a proven commodity like Clemson running back Travis Etienne or a stud with a small sample size like North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, this year’s Pro Days have the chance to be extremely beneficial.
I’ve had the chance to hop around from virtual Pro Day to virtual Pro Day this week, speaking to some of the top NFL Draft prospects in the nation. After previously finding out that Northwestern offensive lineman Rashawn Slater has met with the Bears, I decided to keep searching for information and get to know some of college football’s best on a personal level.
Here are some of my takeaways from the Clemson, Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota State Pro Days this week.
With their historic run over the past few seasons, it’s no surprise Clemson has as many talented draft prospects as it does this year.
“The level of competition that Clemson plays at every year,” star offensive tackle Jackson Carman — who is projected widely as a Day 2 pick — explained. “And just the in-game experience that we have as a program, I feel like it really just pours into my knowledge and the different things I’m able to do on the football field. I feel like transitioning to the NFL, that’s something that definitely separates me from others, and I feel like something that I’m glad I had the opportunity from Clemson to be able to do.”
Over the course of the last five seasons, the Tigers have lost just five regular season games, winning two championships and appearing in four in that span. A large part of that success has came as a result of the team’s quarterback play, with Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson both catapulting Clemson into blue-blood territory, as well as CFLer Kelly Bryant.
It’s far from just a one man show, though. This year’s team was propelled heavily by its offense. Travis Etienne exploded with yet another monster season out of the backfield. Receivers like Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell stepped up in a huge way with Tee Higgins’ departure to the NFL and Justyn Ross’ season-ending injury. Their offensive line, anchored by the aforementioned Carman, also did a good job of helping keep Lawrence upright in 2020.
Etienne is considered by many to be the top running back in the 2021 class. Entering fall camp at 199 pounds, the two-time consensus All-American has been looking to add weight to his frame to withstand the physicality of the NFL. His weight gain has not appeared to affect his blazing speed, as he ran an unofficial 4.40 40-yard dash.
“It was a big deal, a big priority,” Etienne said on his bulk-up. “199 in the league, you really won’t thrive at the running back position. You really won’t be able to play that position for long. I definitely wanted to get my body right but get it right the right way. I’ve been on a meal plan. I’ve been working out every day Monday through Saturday... speed training in the morning and lifting in the afternoon. I’ve been doing that since early January and that really got me to this point.”
Powell held down the boundary for Clemson this year to the tune of 882 yards and 7 touchdowns on 53 catches after playing a reserve role for most of his collegiate career, earning a Senior Bowl invitation in the process.
“Being here at Clemson, I learned how to play [boundary, field-side, and slot]” Powell said. “I’m pretty versatile, and I know that’ll help at the next level. Obviously, I love being in the boundary. Being in the boundary means you’re going against the best cornerback on the opposite team, and it allows you to elevate your game. You get a lot of one-on-one matchups; you got to make those 50-50 balls 80-20, so I feel like being on the boundary really allows me to showcase my talent and allows me to be a difference-maker on the field.”
Rodgers also broke out with a heightened workload, finishing with 1,020 yards and 7 touchdowns on 77 catches. His big year also earned him a Senior Bowl invitation, along with his teammate Powell. Though playing primarily out of the slot, Rodgers has shown plenty of versatility as a receiver.
“It’s definitely different,” Rodgers said on running routes out of the slot, as opposed to being out wide. “You have a lot more space, usually, so you can work and be more patient than outside, when most of the time you’re pressed up, so you got to get into your route. That’s something that I love: having space and being able to work different releases out of the slot. Just having more space, as well: it’s a lot farther to the sidelines. For post-corners, out routes, you have a lot of space to work with out there, so you can do a lot of different things as far as running that route.
“You get safeties lined up on you, as well, so that might be a speed mismatch, so that’s something that I like, as well. But all in all, it doesn’t matter where I go. I’m pretty confident in myself, and I’m pretty confident in that matchup with me versus anybody. That’s really been my mindset since I’ve gotten to college, from a confidence standpoint, just knowing that when I line up with somebody, I’m confident [I’ll beat them].”
New Bears offensive analyst and former Texas head coach Tom Herman certainly made an impact on his players.
“Coach Herman, his football IQ is off the charts,” Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger told Windy City Gridiron. “Incredibly smart guy. He knows everything about the X’s and O’s, so he’s going to do a great job being able to break down defenses and offenses. He knows the game at an extremely high level.”
“He knows the game so well on both sides,” offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi said of his former coach. “But as an offensive mind, he’s like a genius. I’m really happy he’s gotten with the Bears. I haven’t had the chance to talk to them yet, but hopefully going forward, I will.”
Cosmi in particular projects as an intriguing target for the Bears, given their need at offensive tackle and the value selecting him would provide with the No. 20 overall pick. His athleticism was on full display at his Pro Day on Thursday, tallying a perfect Relative Athletic Score, according to Kent Lee Platte. Among his most notable testing numbers was an unofficial 4.85 40-yard dash, 36 bench press reps, an elite 4.39 shuttle time, and an impressive 7.35 three-cone drill.
Ehlinger is seen widely as a Day 3 prospect in the 2021 draft, and arguably hasn’t gotten enough attention in draft circles, despite being a three-year full-time starter who also started six games in his freshman year. With his accuracy and toughness, he could very well stick around the NFL for quite some time if all goes well for him.
Texas also features numerous intriguing draft prospects, including defenders like defensive lineman T.Q. Graham, safety Caden Sterns, and wide receivers Brennan Eagles and Tarik Black.
Perhaps the Longhorn projected to be selected the highest, though, is edge rusher Joseph Ossai. He put together elite numbers in on-field testing, including a 4.63 40-yard dash and phenomenal explosion numbers — at 256 pounds, he had a 41.5-inch vertical and a 10-foot-11 broad jump. With 10.5 sacks and 29 tackles for a loss in his last two seasons at Texas, Ossai is more than just a raw athlete.
“Definitely a stab-club-rip,” Ossai said to Windy City Gridiron when asked about his go-to pass-rushing move. “It’s worked a bunch for me and my game. It’s very effective because there are a lot of things you can work off of it and counter moves you can go by. You can work on lifting the outside arm of the tackle; you can do a bunch of things with it, so stab-club-rip or stab-club-over/reach.”
Sterns is another intriguing prospect who could very well out-perform his eventual draft status. A rangy safety with 5 interceptions in three seasons, he brings enough fluidity and instincts in coverage needed to serve as a centerfielder on a defense.
“[I have that value in single-high shells] that not a lot of players have because I do have range,” Sterns said. “So it allows me to play a little more aggressive and to help cover [my teammates] up some. I want to my make everybody else around me, too. I think putting me on the top allows other players to make plays, as well. I can cover sideline-to-sideline, if need be, and I’m still going to make plays on the ball. I can go get the ball, as well, want me to be that robber, I can do everything.”
Generally seen as an offensive powerhouse, Oklahoma finds itself with quality players on both sides of the ball this year.
Arguably the most notable of the bunch is center Creed Humphrey, a powerful and technically-sound interior blocker whom some had athleticism concerns about heading into Friday. When he took part in athletic testing, he absolutely shattered everyone’s expectations of him.
According to Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score, Humphrey finished with a perfect 10 out of 10, finishing with great-to-elite athletic testing in every single size, strength, explosion, speed and agility measurement. Among Humphrey’s most notable results was a 4.50 shuttle drill, which would have been the best time among offensive linemen in last year’s Scouting Combine.
“It’s pretty unique,” Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley said of Humphrey. “Being in there, it’s been one of the more impressive individual pro day workouts that I’ve seen.”
“I was excited about it,” Humphrey commented about his tremendous Pro Day outing. “At Oklahoma, I’m not asked to do a ton athletically. We’re a heavy gap-scheme team — I’m blocking back a ton — so it was good for me to go out there and show my athleticism. I was pretty happy with how I did today. There were a couple things I could have done better, but I was pretty happy overall.”
Oklahoma also boasts edge rusher Ronnie Perkins, who had 16.5 sacks over his three collegiate seasons. He put forth fairly disappointing testing numbers due to a strained hamstring he battled with after his first 40-yard dash attempt, but his tape looks the part of a true Day 2 prospect.
The Sooners have two draftable defensive backs in Tre Norwood and Tre Brown, as well as running back Rhamondre Stevenson. The latter of whom spoke on his weight loss on Friday, having ran at 235 pounds but losing seven to eight pounds in order to add a little bit more quickness to his game.
North Dakota State
All eyes were on Trey Lance when he stepped onto the field for his Pro Day on Friday.
The highly-touted quarterback prospect got the chance to throw on a national stage for the first time since his lone 2020 showcase game against Central Arkansas back in October. He flashed many of the tools that have him projected as a top-10 pick in April’s draft, showing off a strong arm and deep-ball accuracy, albeit in a casual setting.
“Whatever situation I’m put into, I’m going to get prepared as possible to be ready to go, whenever the coaches see fit,” Lance said to Windy City Gridiron. “But I’m just looking for an opportunity anywhere, at this point. I don’t pick where I go, but I’d be super grateful to go anywhere.”
Lance spoke on his work with famed quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson this offseason, raving about both his coach and his mentor. The Bison alumnus has been on the receiving end of comparisons to Watson which he takes great pride in.
“I think both of those are obviously great people to be compared to,” Lance said when asked about comparisons to Watson and the late Steve McNair. “Obviously, they’ve both done what I want to do in the National Football League, and Deshaun is still doing what I want to do, so just the type of people they were, especially Deshaun, the way he carries himself off the field, he’s a mentor for me.”
Lance wasn’t the only big-name prospect at North Dakota State’s Pro Day, though. Offensive tackle Dillon Radunz is widely projected as a Day 2 pick, especially after his dominant performance at the Senior Bowl.
“Because of these circumstances, I’d have to say it was fun,” Radunz said to Windy City Gridiron about his experience in Mobile, Alabama. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a while, just being able to play football after only playing one game in however many months — I think it was 10 months, being able to play one game since that championship — to practice and play against all those really good players, those high-caliber players, all those guys are going to get drafted. Being able to compete, show my skill that way, it was just a fun time down there.
“I got to experience Alabama — I’d never been there before — got to go out to eat in some restaurants there. It just overall was a fun time, doing what I love: playing football. I had a blast.”
Given the fact that Lance and Radunz only had one 2020 game to go off of — defensive back Marquise Bridges, a 2020 draft declaree whose Pro Day was cancelled last year, also participated — Friday’s performance was especially key for those who played.