After an undefeated 2019 season that saw them win the national championship, LSU fell back down to Earth in 2020. However, their class entering the 2021 NFL Draft certainly isn’t short on talent.
The headlining prospect is wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, a first-round lock and a prospect seen by many as a top-10 player in the draft. Though he opted out of the 2020 season, his Biletnikoff Award-winning 2019 campaign has him firmly entrenched as one of, if not the best receiver in the class. Chase, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash and had a 41-inch vertical at his Pro Day on Wednesday, mentioned that he has been working on his athleticism and his burst while having opted out of his junior year.
“When I opted out, I was working on a lot of my speed stuff,” Chase told Windy City Gridiron. “After a while, I started working on my routes again; getting used to dropping my weight again, getting used to my fills and my feet again. It was me just trying to feel comfortable again.”
Chase’s decision opened up more opportunities for other wide receivers on LSU’s roster, such as Terrace Marshall Jr. and Racey McMath. Marshall finds himself projected as an early Day 2, fringe first-round prospect after breaking out with 731 yards and 10 touchdowns on 48 receptions in just seven games. He elaborated on his process as a route runner, an aspect of his game in which he improved from 2019 to 2020.
“If I’m on the outside, I’m immediately looking at the cornerback in front of me,” Marshall explained. “Looking at his leverage, seeing how he’s playing me. When you’re in the slot, you basically got to look at the safety. The safety will tell you what type of defense they’re playing. The only thing on my mind when I’m on that line [of scrimmage] is to eat. That ball comes my way, [I] get ready to make a play.”
McMath didn’t have the production of Marshall, but his physical attributes indicate he can be a better NFL receiver than he was the collegiate level. A 6-foot-2, 217-pound weapon who ran a 4.34 at his Pro Day, McMath’s combination of size and speed is apparent in how he plays the game on tape. With his size comes a bit of a hurdle to climb as a route runner, but he doesn’t find himself struggling with any issues related to sinking his hips.
“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage,” said McMath of any barriers his height might create as a route runner. “We have to work a little bit harder, though I don’t think we have a disadvantage. Guys I model my game after like Julio Jones, he gets in and out of his routes as good as a smaller receiver.”
LSU also features a handful of talented defenders for the 2021 NFL Draft, and among them is defensive back Kary Vincent Jr. He played a big role on the team’s defense in 2019, tallying 4 interceptions and 8 pass deflections in 15 games. Though he opted out of the 2020 season, his draft value is still high due to the athleticism and versatility he showcased with the Tigers.
Vincent mentions that ability to play just about anywhere on the field helps separate him from the rest of the 2021 draft class.
“Simple: versatility,” Vincent responded when asked about his defining trait. “I literally played every position in the secondary here at LSU at the best conference in the country. Cornerback, safety, slot corner, outside corner, I’ve been in the box, I’ve been a middle-of-the-field safety; I do it all. When you get me, you don’t just get a corner: you get a safety, you get a corner, you get all of them in one.”
Florida put together one of the best offenses in the nation in 2020, so it’s no surprise that they have numerous intriguing talents on that side of the ball this year.
Arguably the Gators’ top prospect is tight end Kyle Pitts, a player many tout as the best tight end prospect to enter the draft in many years. The 6-foot-6, 248-pounder posted an explosive 4.44 40-yard dash, and his 83 3/8-inch wingspan gives him the largest wingspan of any wide receiver or tight end to enter the draft in over 20 years. Not only is his athleticism apparent on tape, but his massive frame makes him an absolute mismatch for the opposition.
“I feel like [my wingspan] gives me an advantage [against] DBs,” Pitts explained on the advantages his size and remarkable wingspan gives him against defenders. “People who maybe have shorter arms. That gives me the chance to make a make-or-break play.”
In addition to Pitts, Florida also boasted wide receiver Kadarius Toney, their shifty playmaker who is viewed as one of the most athletic weapons in the nation. He finished with a 4.41 40-yard-dash, complementing his quick time with an impressive 11-foot-4 broad jump and a 41-inch vertical jump.
“I feel like I came in and handled business like I was really supposed to,” Toney said of his Pro Day interactions with teams. “The teams got a better feel for the kind of person I am and the kind of skills I bring to the table.”
Not to be overlooked is the quarterback throwing Pitts and Toney the ball: Kyle Trask. The FBS leader in passing touchdowns broke out with a full season as Florida’s starter in 2020, and his season saw him finish as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. In preparation for this year’s draft, Trask has been working with quarterback trainers who have an interesting tie to the Bears’ current projected starter.
“I’ve been out in California for roughly two, three and a half months working with 3DQB,” Trask mentioned. “They work with a lot of older guys like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Andy Dalton, guys like that. They take that knowledge from them and are able to apply it to our games, give us little nuggets for us to hold onto as we prepare to take this next step.”
Another physical specimen the Gators feature in their group of weapons is wide receiver Trevon Grimes. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder played a brand of bully ball down in Gainesville to the tune of 9 touchdowns in 2020. He proved that he is more than just size with his 40-yard dash on Wednesday, clocking in at 4.49. Grimes also had the chance to showcase those skills at this year’s Senior Bowl, an experience he claims was extremely beneficial.
“The experience was once-in-a-lifetime,” said Grimes to Windy City Gridiron. “Like I said, I played with Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland — both of them played at the Senior Bowl — and they both told me to go out there and treat it like it’s the biggest job interview of your life, and that’s what I did. I went up there and just learned a lot of things. I learned that, whatever you do, somebody’s always watching. Whether you’re talking to a janitor or you’re talking to a general manager, somebody’s always watching how you communicate to people. I also learn how NFL teams run their offenses and how they run their practices, so just being able to get that first-hand before actually getting drafted to a team helps me out a lot because I kind of know what to expect when it comes time to actually have an NFL practice.”
Florida’s offensive standouts aren’t just featured in their group of weapons; they have an intriguing athlete along the offensive line in tackle Stone Forsythe. At 6-foot-8 and 307 pounds, the big man has tremendous length and showcases impressive power at the point of attack on film. He states that his massive frame gives him an advantage when going up against defenders, many of whom being much smaller than he is.
“One of the biggest advantages [my size] brings me is creating that distance and using my length to my advantage,” Forsythe detailed. “One of the things we’re working on now is using my length and creating distance in my stance. I feel like I have a decent punch already, but it can always be worked on. [I’ve been working on] keeping those guys at the end of my reach and use that to my advantage, get them locked out and get them off my pads.”
The two prospects Minnesota had available to the media on Wednesday have both helped get each other to where they are today.
When wide receiver Rashod Bateman and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste would go up against each other in practice, it was a true case of “iron sharpens iron”: two gifted football players going up against each other and testing each other to their adversary’s limits.
As a result of his practices — as well as his own individual work and physical gifts — Bateman has developed into one of the top wide receivers in the 2021 draft. The 6-foot-2, 209-pounder is not only one of the more physical weapons in the class, but he’s also a crafty route runner. He mentions that his work ethic in practice and in the film room has allowed him to exploit opposing defenders the way he does.
“It just comes with a lot of practice, to be honest,” Bateman said to Windy City Gridiron. “Playing under [Minnesota head coach P.J.] Fleck and having [wide receivers coach Matt] Simon there in my corner coming into college, I learned a lot from them. It also comes with studying NFL receivers and continuing to work on your craft. When I go out to play, everything depends on what the DB’s doing. It depends on how I’ve seen them in film, what they’re doing in previous games, and then I take it to the field. I take what I learn in practice and I take what I learn from my coaches staff and just apply it in the game.”
St-Juste has had an incredibly busy year. From appearing on CNN for his work with social justice and lobbying for improved COVID protocols, playing in a shortened season to taking part in the Senior Bowl in January, he has had very few chances to work individually. After a stand-out performance in Mobile, he has worked to further enhance his game and make himself a more well-rounded player.
“Just overall, I’ve improved everywhere,” St-Juste explained. “This was really my first time to perfect my craft in the weight room, speed-wise and all that stuff. I’ve always had a limited offseason with COVID, and the year before, transferring from Michigan to [Minnesota], so my offseason’s kind of been cut short. So this time, from January all the way to here, I’ve had time to work on everything. [I’ve been] working on my details, working on getting bigger, stronger, faster, so I feel really good, overall.”
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