In day one of the long day of practices for the talented Texas vs. Nation rosters, we have plenty of notes on the top talents of this week's games.
Today big winners were Justin Brown of Oklahoma, Armonty Bryant of East Central, DJ Grant from Texas, and Elvis Fisher of Missouri, but be sure to check all the updates from Monday's performers.
-In the first day of practices, timing and comfort within a new offensive system, with new coaches and new teammates ultimately makes for a difficult outing for all-star quarterbacks. As such, two small school quarterbacks, Matt Brown of Illinois State and Mitchell Gale of Abilene Christian were noticeably pressing versus the heightened competition.
-For Matt Brown, overall velocity control and ball placement was an issue throughout the Nation practice. Whether it was sailing play-action throws to the fullback in the flats, or simply missing on stick routes to the tight end, Brown was unable to find his rhythm. Brown needs a rebound day tomorrow with added reps and improved chemistry with his wideouts.
-Mitchell Gale on the other hand, began the day by taking snaps under center –something he rarely did at ACU. Adjusting to the footwork and flashing an unexpectedly strong arm in the wake of windy weather, Gale’s struggles seemed to be a product of him “choking” the ball during his release. Gripping the football too tightly and trying to drive every throw with back end velocity, Gale just needs to settle down and play within himself moving forward. At times Gale was able to get to the backside of his progression, but more often than not, Gale lacked a quick trigger, especially in team drills. Still, Gale’s throwing ability and well-built frame are intriguing, and he certainly appears to be an NFL-caliber player.
-The top two quarterbacks on the respective squads, Ryan Aplin of Arkansas State and Ryan Griffin of Tulane weren’t even given the opportunity to showcase their best talents. For Aplin, it was his decisiveness and anticipation in team drills that stood, not his athletic ability and movement skills. Aplin’s arm isn’t elite by any means, but he was crisp in his delivery and consistent in throwing his receivers away from coverage, before the route break. For a quarterback lacking in arm strength and size, Aplin showed the positional instincts and quick progressions to warrant a further look from NFL teams as a potential UDFA.
-With Ryan Griffin, and the rest of the Nation squad being moved indoors for a majority of practices today, he was not able to flex his arm strength and ability to fire the ball vertically. Griffin instead, was decisive underneath, quick to take his first option and able to fit the ball through tight windows. Clearly the top quarterback prospect here, it’ll be interesting to see how he develops throughout the week.
-Paying more attention to the Nation running backs than the Texas backs today, Jermaine Cook, George Wynn and Latavius Murray each showed unique NFL traits.
-Central Florida back Latavius Murray, one of the more impressive physical specimens at this event, is your prototypical height/weight/speed prospect. Long, but cut throughout, Murray can get to the edge consistently while also possessing enough burst and wiggle to get to and through between the tackles. Receiving skills will be important to look for out of Murray, but upside is there with the Florida product.
-Youngstown State’s running back Jermaine Cook also showed well in practice Monday but for a much different reason. Running angry and tough between the tackles, Cook stays centered and low to the ground in traffic, bouncing off would-be tacklers with spurts of suddenness. Cook’s effort and toughness consistently stood out, and he seems primed for an excellent week.
-The last of three backs viewed today, George Wynn of Cincinnati, also ran with a low center of gravity, while displaying the acceleration and first step speed to take advantage of the tightest of creases. Powerfully built with a thick lower body and stocky build, Wynn carries his weight very well and brings ideal quickness to the position.
-The top two receivers entering the event also left the first day on top, with Justin Brown of Oklahoma and T.J. Moe of Missouri performing at a high level in each of their respective practices. Having a chance to speak with both players, the two of these players are ready to contribute right away at the next level.
-Justin Brown didn’t show anything new, but confirmed tape evaluations of plus body control and elite concentration at the catch point. Not one to separate at the top of the route with explosiveness, Brown maximizes his length and wins by attacking the football at its highest point. Though better off the line with his release, I’d still like to see Brown be a bit more balanced and quick out of secondary breaks, specifically on double move routes. In speaking with him, Justin Brown had nothing but positive things to say about each of his previous two coaching staffs at Penn State, and more importantly came across as a humble, mature individual.
-For the Missouri Tiger receiver, T.J. Moe was, as expected, a great interview. From his conversion from being a high school quarterback, to playing in the SEC, to preparing for the combine, Moe was composed, yet supremely confident at the same time. In our talks, Moe emphasized to his efforts to develop as an outside receiver and it clearly showed in his first day of practices. Not wasting any movements off the line or in-route, Moe proved himself more than capable of winning outside and deep down the field, with consistent speed through his cuts and separation down the field. Capitalizing on a limited amount of targets, Moe made a number of excellent grabs, including a back shoulder adjustment deep down the left sideline. Moe also worked the middle of the field and in traffic, as he did so often at Missouri, and more than looked the part of a day one contributor.
-Among other receivers that stood out, Michael Smith of UConn maintained excellent physicality and balance through his route running. Unfazed by contact in-route, Smith separated by virtue of aggressive cornerback play. TCU’s Skye Dawson displayed patience as a route runner by varying his speed off the line and consistently accelerating through the break. Dawson is severely undersized and isn’t a consistent hands catcher (likely due to his small hands), but brings value in the return game and in the slot as a situational weapon.
-Shining brightly in the Texas practice, D.J. Grant looked more like a receiver than a tight end, separating with ease versus opposing linebackers and safeties. Catching the ball cleanly all day long, Grant had an outstanding first day as a receiver, but will need to be viewed more closely as a blocker.
-The next top tight end was former Minnesota quarterback and wide receiver, Marqueis Gray. Another player that sat down and spoke with me, Gray sounded committed to the position change when asked about it and looked natural running routes from an in-line position. Gray’s plus body type, natural catching skills and body control are clearly seen, but it’s his character and mental approach that could lead to a successful position change. Avoiding contact well off the line and through his crossing patterns, Gray pulled down reception after reception in team drills. I’ll be shifting my focus to Gray as the week progresses, as I saw a number of positive signs and attributes to his game on the first day.
-Oklahoma State’s Lane Taylor, another interviewee, backed up his mid-round tape with a dominant performance in the pit, as he stoned opposing defensive tackles with an athletic base, strong core and tight punch. Possessing the barrel chest and thick midsection that scouts look for with interior linemen, Taylor has an ideal body type at offensive guard, along with better than anticipated length. After practices, Taylor sounded confident in his pass sets, while also noticing his own struggles in the run game, particularly with down blocks and slanting.
-Another interior player that performed well, was Youngstown State’s Lamar Mady, who played with a wide base, bended at the hips and knees to absorb initial contact, and kept his punches tight for inside hand positioning. Quick to secure and athletic enough to sustain, Mady looked great in pass protection.
-Missouri offensive tackle Eric Fisher stole the show in the Nation’s indoor practice, dominating in one-on-one drills with an efficient kick slide, proper hand placement and improved core strength. Having the range and foot speed to cutoff the outside, Fisher’s movement skills eased doubts about his knee injuries, both of which I asked about in my talks with the 6th year senior. Fisher’s sprained his right MCL versus Georgia is fully healed (although he suggested he returned too early from the injury), and his surgically repaired, left patellar tendon is 100% recovered.
-Concluding this positional breakdown, Travis Bond of UNC had an up and down day on the right side. Struggling to quickly set his anchor on the edge, Bond was placed on skates on more than one occasion, which should not be the case for a man his size. Bond tends to be a bit grabby and overaggressive, but natural strength, length and movement skills are there to develop. He’s a project, but a project in possession of right tackle measurables to develop.
-A pair of small school ends, Armonty Bryant of East Oklahoma Central and Rufus Johnson of Tarleton State showcased their next level talents as explosive, violent edge rushers. Johnson winning more consistently to the inside and Bryant winning to the inside, both displayed the first step and violent hands to consistently factor in the pass rushing department.
-Armonty Bryant’s repertoire of arm-over moves to the outside, enabled him to consistently dip, bend and explode through the blocker’s outside shoulder for quarterback sacks and pressures. Nearly unstoppable in one-on-one’s, Bryant caught my eye in the first practice and will be one to watch throughout this event.
-Rufus Johnson was a player I’d seen in person earlier in the year, but the improved hand usage and overall violence at the point of attack surprised me to an extent. Firing out of his stance with speed to the outside and working back inside with heavy hands, Johnson beat blocker after blocker to the inside, during one-on-one drills. Still a factor in run support in the team phase of practice, Johnson may be working his way into a draft selection.
-I did not focus my scouting efforts at the linebacker position, but did notice one linebacker standout for the Nation squad, in small schooler Devan Walker out of Southeastern Louisiana. You would have never guessed Walker was transitioning from a traditional end position, but his run fits were sound and his instincts in coverage led to a nice interception. I’ll be watching this position more closely in tomorrow’s practice.
-Former Miami (FL) Hurricane safety Ray Ray Armstrong shook off the rust of a player that hadn’t played against top competition in quite some time, wasting motion in his pedal and lacking the game changing ability that made him a highly regarded draft prospect in years past. It’s early in the week, but Armstrong needs to improve his play moving forward.
-Small school safety Rontez Miles of Cal (PA) had himself an active, energetic and solid performance, barking out signals presnap, working into proper positioning and even baiting the quarterback into an interception. Miles is a good athlete with movement skills to feather in zone, and more importantly has an aggressive on-field persona.
-At cornerback, Devin Smith stood out as the top player at the position that despite having a short frame plays with great physicality to drive through the route and attack the football. Quick out of his breaks and tied to the hip of the receiver, Smith more than held his own in one-on-one’s and set the tone for the rest of the cornerbacks on the Texas roster.