L.A. combine features stars, sleepers
Under Armour's stop in Southern California certainly turned out its fair share of stars, and created an exciting atmosphere for the event Saturday. But even famous rappers (Snoop Dogg) and legendary NFL players (Deion Sanders) couldn't overshadow the great talent on hand at the combine in Santa Monica, Calif. In total, five ESPN 150 Watch List prospects were in attendance, as well as a handful of others on the cusp. For the most part, all the hyped players who attended lived up to their "Prime Time" billing; the group rose to the level of competition, assisted by an energetic coaching staff that included several former NFL stars.
Interestingly, that number of Watch List prospects may increase after the performance Saturday and imminent film evaluation of a few under-the-radar prospects in attendance. Although it's always enjoyable to watch highly touted prospects compete against one another, the foundation of combines are built on exposing hardworking, unheralded sleepers, and this Under Armour event once again laid the groundwork for several prospects to break out onto the national scene, in our opinion.
In a combine packed with a lot of upper-tier talent, it may seem unusual to feature a little-known cornerback out of Texas near the top. Mar'Shawn Grays (Mesquite, Texas), however, is a tremendous talent. The speedster made the trip from Texas with his father to try to gain some exposure, and this high energy competitor did that and more.
Grays' outstanding speed (a 4.4 40-yard dash) and quickness (3.91 shuttle) were off the charts, but what impressed us more was how it translated onto the field. While he showed his inexperience at times in technique, his excellent recovery burst, feet and transitional quickness allowed him to mirror receivers very tightly in off-man coverages. On two occasions, he undercut routes illustrating the aforementioned attributes as well as great savvy and ball skills.
He needs to work on his footwork transitioning out of his pedal when running vertically, and we do question his ability to jam and play press against today's bigger college receivers (five reps of 185 pounds). However, this guy will compete and has confidence in his ability and size. Positional polish will come once he enters a full-time college weight-training program and gets individualized coaching year-round.
Expect Grays' recruiting to heat up when coaches are out on the road during spring evaluations. Grays' recruiting circumstances are similar to those of his teammate and fellow undersized corner at Mesquite last year Marcus Trice, who ended up at Oklahoma.
Grays wasn't the only sleeper in the defensive secondary; we thought corner Troy Hill (Ventura, Calif./Saint Bonaventure) consistently showed the skill set and natural ability to find and make plays on the ball. We anticipate his recruiting will pick up once more coaches see his film this spring; Hill currently has offers from Washington and Arizona. Hill's size (5-foot-11) and speed measurables (4.51 40) are good, but you can't measure his smooth footwork, sound anticipation skills and great makeup burst between the white lines he showed Saturday.
Notable top performers
The fact Chris Badger (Provo, Utah/Timpview) caught flight from Utah to L.A. for this combine says something about his competitive nature. After all, he already has a handful of BCS offers in his pocket and is committed to Stanford. The ESPNU 150 Watch List safety showed up in L.A. with his game face on and didn't disappoint.
Badger is a blue-collar type safety who excels more as a true hash, Cover 2 defender getting over the top of the football and breaking on the ball in front of him with excellent instincts and plant-and-drive burst. Matchup-wise, Badger could struggle playing down over quicker slots in space.
The well-built safety showed better range than testing speed (4.75 40) and impressed us with his 4.35 shuttle and solid footwork for a high-point safety during DB drills. The Stanford pledge benched 185 pounds 18 times and showed some of that upper-body strength getting physical with slots running up the seam and battling for position against outside receivers on deep routes. On film, you might not find a bigger hitter than Badger, which he couldn't show in this setting. Still, we did see some great intangibles and athleticism.
Expect quarterback Bryan Bennett's (Encino, Calif./Crespi Carmelite) recruiting stock to rise; a first Pac-10 offer could be in his future. Bennett has a lot of potential both physically and from a skill-set standpoint behind center. He showed very good zip on the football in his short-to-intermediate passes and got rid of the ball quickly. He's a quarterback who is going to be able to fit the ball into tight underneath windows at the next level. He will, however, need to watch his accuracy -- the ball got away from him at times Saturday. Overall, we liked his footwork and fundamentals as a drop-back passer. He has a high ceiling for upside and will start to turn some heads as he makes the college camp circuit this summer.
Wide receiver Kenneth Scott (Fontana, Calif./Colony) passed the eyeball test with his large frame and long wingspan; he pretty much backed up what we have seen on film. Scott's a big target with a large catch radius and great leaping skills (38.5 vertical). He can get open and is deceptively crisp out of his breaks, despite being long and lacking great quickness and speed. He showed improved lateral quicks (4.31 shuttle) Saturday, but we thought his hands were uncharacteristically inconsistent, and he struggled coming down with the difficult catch.
Offensive lineman Giovanni Di Poalo (Ventura, Calif./Saint Bonaventure) lacked the bulk (260 pounds) we thought he had on film and gave away the edge on the speed rush a few times during one-on-ones. However, we feel he will play guard at the next level and we like his toughness, motor and great athleticism (4.9 40, sub-4.5 shuttle). He will need to add some size, but showed good overall footwork Saturday. His ability to get to the second level should attract more attention on the recruiting trail.
Defensive line prospects dominate the trenches
Badger wasn't the only Utah native who got the hunger to play some football in late March. Defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli (Salt Lake City, Utah/Brighton) and end Bronson Kaufusi (Provo, Utah/Timpview) made sure their plane ride to California was worth it; they dominated up front in pass-rushing drills. In all, the defensive line unit Saturday was too big, strong and athletic for an adequate offensive line group to handle.
Heimuli, at 290 pounds, ran a 4.91 40 and posted a 27.5 inch vertical prior to dominating his one-on-one drills. He showed good quickness off the ball, explosive power and strong hands striking and ripping through the opposition. It was clear why this high-motored ESPNU 150 Watch List prospect has a list of solid BCS offers.
Powerhouse Timpview High School was certainly well represented; it had one of the more freakishly athletic prospects on the day in Kaufusi. Checking in at 6-8 and 242 pounds, this angular athlete ran in the 4.72 range, posted a 4.37 shuttle, which is very impressive for his long frame, and jumped 32.5 inches vertically. At tight end, he displayed great hands and is a major mismatch on smaller linebackers. Off the edge on defense, his speed-rush and quick inside counter were unblockable. He is being recruited at TE by BYU; everyone else sees an athletic, 280-pound end in the future. We actually could see all of the above and maybe even offensive tackle; a lot will be predicated on how this BYU commit's long body continues to physically develop.
Calvin Tonga (Riverside, Calif./Arlington), who we also like as an offensive guard prospect, was relentless during drills as a defensive tackle. He came off the ball quickly and showed good flashes of burst, short-area power and energy collapsing the pocket. Tonga did get stalemated a few times when he played high and opened his whole body when trying to use a swim.
George Uko (Chino, Calif./Don Antonio Lugo) is another intriguing prospect up front. He played some tight end as a junior and we were impressed with his athleticism on film. He backed it up Saturday, running a 4.93 40 and dominating one-on-one drills with a great blend of size, speed and an extremely strong and explosive upper body. Like Heimuli, Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers are hot on Uko and his blue-collar style.
• Linebacker Haynes Pullard (Los Angeles/Crenshaw) has a good frame and tested well in all the day's explosive events, backing up the good downhill burst we see on film when he's playing running back or filling as an inside linebacker. Pullard's 4.59 40 and lateral agility matching up with backs on passes helped his stock; speed and hip fluidity were weaker areas for Pullard in our eyes coming into the day. We are not surprised Nebraska just offered and feel his total offers of four will double shortly.
• Running back E.J. Schexnayder (Riverside, Calif./North) showed the speed, strength and wide shoulders needed to develop into a load-back at the next level. This under-the-radar back displayed good burst out of his cuts during drills and the makings of a productive downhill runner in college.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc.
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