Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater has all of the requisite tools to suggest he can become an intriguing starting option for NFL teams. The 37-game Big Ten starter is light on his feet and finishes assignments with tenacity. Despite weighing in the 305-pound range, Slater plays a much bigger game on Saturday afternoons. The Clements High School (Tex.) product has shown an ability to play on either side of the offensive line.
How do you define impressive?
Is it recovering from an Achilles injury and multiple bicep tears to make it on the doorstep of professional football? Using your offseason to travel to Costa Rica and spend time with local youth imparting knowledge on sports and other life skills? Earning two degrees in six years?
All of the above. Most impressively, this is the resume of one person, Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard.
The beginning of the climb wasn’t as arduous for the Cincinnati native, who was a five-star recruit out of St. Xavier High School. ESPN ranked him the number one outside linebacker. He was also an Associated Press all-state selection and the publication’s Division I defensive player of the year in 2014.
However, a meniscus injury forced him to miss the 2015 U.S. Army All-American game and from there, the hits kept on coming.
During his first three seasons in Columbus, Hilliard suffered consecutive injuries to his bicep.
“I’ve had so many times where, like you said, I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to push through,” Hilliard told Spectrum News before the 2021 National Championship against Alabama. “The first three years here at Ohio State were probably the toughest because year after year I had a bicep tear in my left, a bicep tear in my right and then a bicep tear in my left again.”
During his first three seasons, Hilliard only played in 17 games total and compiled 18 tackles.
Long road back
Things started to look up in 2018 when he recovered from the biceps injuries and began to contribute as a backup and a special teamer. But like his fortunes up to that point, he dealt with another tough blow.
During spring practices in 2019, the former five-star recruit suffered another blow to morale when he tore his Achilles.
“The first thing that went through my head is that was probably my last practice and the last rep I’ll ever play football,” said Hilliard, when he reminisced about the injury.
“Climbing the hill”
If not for his father and a conversation with head coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Hilliard would’ve put away his cleats… but he pressed on and as fate would have it, he would get another chance.
“It was some hard times, but we made it, we made it. There was times where Justin had to lift me up. There was a lot of times when I had to lift Justin up,” Carl Hilliard, Justin’s father said according to an article in Cleveland.com. “But when we look back at it overall — only thing I can say is, ‘God is Good.’ No weapon formed shall prosper.”
Despite the grueling rehab, Hilliard returned six months later and played 12 games in the 2019 season.
After the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility to Hilliard, it looked like he would be relegated to being a backup and a special teamer because the starting linebacker corps was manned by fellow NFL prospects Tuf Borland, Pete Werner and Baron Browning.
But once again, life had other plans. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Browning and Borland to miss time and Hilliard turned in career performances with his newfound opportunity.
Against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game, he had nine total tackles, two for loss, one interception and a fumble recovery. His interception stopped the Wildcats from taking a double digit lead in the third quarter and showed off the athleticism that helped him as a youth baseball player.
The storybook ending would not conclude there. Hilliard had back-to-back eight tackle games in the College Football Playoff semifinal and final, against Alabama and Ohio State.
“A lot of people hit me up, almost surprised that I can still play at that level,” He said. “I promised myself after I tore my Achilles that if I wasn’t feeling like I can still play at the level I wanted and achieve those high expectations (I set) for myself, I wasn’t going to keep playing.”
In the two combined contests, he finished with 16 tackles, three for loss and a fumble recovery.
And a month later, he put an exclamation point on his collegiate career. Hilliard had a standout performance during Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama.
On the field, Hilliard catches the attention of scouts with his ability to contribute on special teams. They will also like that he played snaps at each linebacker position in college.
But the real value of Hilliard will be his ability to climb the hill and conquer adversity head on. A hill can have bumps and be rocky, but the former Buckeye is a walking testimony that reaching the top comes with appreciation and gratification.
“This whole journey, man, it’s been tough but it’s been such a blessing at the same time,” said Hilliard.
— Troy Jefferson, DraftNasty staff reports
26 Jaret Patterson
5’6 1/2″ 195 RB- Junior
Running with the Bull: Jaret Patterson Buffalo RB
The junior Buffalo Bull running back has made a mark with his elusive yet powerful running style. He currently ranks as the 212th best player on our Big Board.
What makes this player NASTY…(Strengths): Built well. Outstanding boxer-like feet. Can tap dance in the hole and make safeties miss (Wade, 1st QTR/14:48, Penn State ’19). Sticks his foot on inside spins to find room on the edges and will look to not go out of bounds. Spins on first contact instinctively (3rd QTR, Bahamas ’19). Four-or-five-yard runs turn into highlight film runs. Shifty stop-and-start quickness is aided by acceleration (42-yd TD, Rutgers ’18). Sticks his right foot in the ground, drops his right shoulder into tackler and leans forward for three or four yards (1st QTR, Penn State ’19). Displays energy on his stiff-arms when bouncing runs (EMU ’18). On gap-schemed runs to the right, he flashes quick burst. On goal line runs, he lowers his pad level and runs through LBs with a low center of gravity (TD, Bahamas ’19). Takes a hip away from LBs in the open field. Lead blocks for fellow RBs with vengeance. Translates speed-to-power along the sidelines vs. CBs who come up to tackle (runs over Castro-Fields, 2nd QTR, Penn State ’19). He’s an instinctive open field runner in the screen game.
Weaknesses: Lacks a true home run gear once he gets into the open field. Eighth men in the box surprise him at times and his reactions have been less than stellar (3rd QTR/8:01, Liberty ’19). Can he get himself out of a mess (3rd QTR/6:33, big hit along sidelines, Liberty ’19)? Speed begins to die out at the 25-yard mark. Struggled with injuries down the final back half of his junior campaign. Injured his right leg in the 2020 MAC Championship game, left the game and came back with a brace on the leg. Struggled in that game and did not play in the team’s bowl game. Zero receptions in 2020.
Other Notes: Attended Saint-Vincent Pallotti HS (Md.) and rushed for 2,045 yards and 23 TDs as a senior • Accounted for 558 all-purpose yards in one high school contest (Riverdale Baptist) • Twin brother, James, plays football for Buffalo • 2018 (14 gms, 6 sts, 2nd Team All-MAC, MAC Freshman of the Year): 183 carries for 1,013 yards (5.5 YPC) and 14 TDs; 7 receptions for 62 yards • 2018: Started 11 games at RT • Rushed for 298 yards and 6 TDs vs. Bowling Green on 11/29/19 • 2019 (1st Team All-MAC): 312 carries for 1,799 yards (5.8 YPC) and 19 TDs; 13 receptions for 209 yards (16.1 YPR) and TD • 31 carries for 301 yards and 4 TDs vs. Bowling Green on 11/17/20 • 36 carries for 409 yards and 8 TDs vs. Kent State on 11/28/20 • 2020 (6 gms, 1st Team All-MAC): 141 carries for 1,072 yards (7.6 YPC) and 19 TDs • Career Stats: 636 rushes for 3,884 yards (6.1 YPC) and 52 TDs; 20 receptions for 271 yards (13.6 YPR) and one TD • 2021 Buffalo Pro Day: 9 1/4″ hands, 28 3/4″ arms, 68 3/4″ wingspan, 19 reps-25 lbs, 4.57 40-yd, 30″ VJ, 9’9″ BJ, 7.03 3-cone, 4.35 20-yd SS
Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): One of the big things that Patterson has improved on is ball security. After fumbling the football four times in 2018, he has put the ball on the ground just once the last two seasons. He didn’t finish the 2020 season as strong as he did in 2019, when he finished the season with six straight 100-yard rushing games. He plays low, balanced and contains excellent vision to find cutback lanes. While he doesn’t have blinding speed, Patterson gets to his top speed in a hurry and surprises opponents with his low center of gravity. On top of that, he actually shows better receiving skills than one would imagine from a running back with zero receptions in 2020. Much like former Buffalo running back Branden Oliver (Chargers), the wear-and-tear of so many carries began to add up for Patterson. Backup running back Kevin Marks, arguably as good of an NFL prospect, carried the load for the Bulls much of the postseason in 2020.
Running with the Bull: Jaret Patterson Buffalo RB
Grade: 5.33 (4th Round)
DraftNasty Big Board Rank: 212
Former FIU center Shane McGough traveled from Tampa’s Gaither High School down the road to Miami, Florida following in the footsteps of his brother Alex, currently a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. McGough learned some tips from his brother, quarterbacked the Panthers offensive line and found time to start at all three interior line positions in school. We sat down with McGough this offseason to talk about some of his goals as he embarks on a potential NFL career.
DN: In terms of the workout process for the draft, where are you training for the draft?
McGough: I’m actually in my hometown of Tampa, Florida training with The Trench Academy, trying to get all these times ready for Pro Day. And I think it’s going really well.
DN: What are some of your goals, ‘let’s just say it might be the 20-yard short shuttle or maybe the 3-cone or maybe the bench press?’ Any specific goals that you’ve earmarked with your trainer?
McGough: Yeah, we’ve all got some times that we’re really trying to hit. In my short shuttle, I put down a time the other day that I’m really trying to stay around. I ran a 4.56 in the short shuttle (did 4.58 on Pro Day), so that’s pretty fast for an offensive lineman. So if I can keep it right there, then that’s a good number. The 10-yard split is really important for an offensive lineman, showing explosiveness off the line. If I can keep that under a 1.7, that’s what we’re shooting for (On McGough’s Pro Day in late March, he ran in the 5.1-to-5.2 range in the 40-yard dash).
DN: You were at the College Gridiron Showcase and also at the Tropical Bowl. You weighed in at 304 pounds right at 6-foot-2, and you pretty good hand size at 9 3/8”. Those measurements are favorable for you, projecting to the center spot, correct?
McGough: Yes sir.
DN: Who were some of the guys that were there before you (at FIU) that kind of paved the way for you?
McGough: Neal (Mars) was a guy that I played under, as I was his backup. He was always there to teach me and we competed for the spot. Having a guy like that who was willing to help you and show you the ropes, knowing that I was competing against him was really good. Jordan Budwig was an older guy that was actually there when my brother was there. Missed a couple of years due to injury but him being an older guy and having a lot of experience; he was able to teach me the game as a younger player. Understanding different defenses and being able to pick things up.
DN: Rich Skrosky (offensive coordinator) kind of brought NFL-type principles to the program. In terms of line calls, talk about how being in somewhat of a pro-style scheme the last couple of years can help your progression.
McGough: It helps a lot with the way we did our stuff with Skrosky. In the NFL, a lot of it is put on the center to make a lot of those calls, protection calls and stuff like that. That’s exactly how we did it. We did get help from the quarterback but they did rely on the center a lot to make adjustments right there on the line. Tell the quarterback what you see and let him change it. Make sure everyone is on the same page. Skrosky always said, ‘As long as all five of us are wrong together, you’re still right.’ Being able to be in the middle as the quarterback of the offenslve line, make all the line calls, get the protection, get the slide where we need to be and pick up all the different blitzes is really going to show out on my film. Maybe some of those NFL scouts that are looking for those centers who are able to slide over, pass off twists and pass all the way off to an edge blitzer.
DN: We regarded you as the best bender on your offensive line in some of the matchups viewed. Talk about the guys that you went against from Western Kentucky, as that was a multiple defensive front. How did that contest challenge you intellectually?
McGough: Their defensive line was an experienced defensive line, they had a lot of older guys. Their nose guard and shades that I was going against I had played multiple times. We’ve seen each other, kind of got a few tricks under our sleeves. They ran a few different formations and just competing against those guys was fun. It gets boring if you’re not playing against good competition.
DN: You used some different techniques after you’ve snapped the ball. You used some of these against FAU, the game in which you guided and mirrored their nose guard on the inside zone touchdown. Talk a little about some of your run blocking techniques, particularly when you wall-and-steer defenders to turn them out.
McGough: It’s something that you kind of read the defender on that, depending on how he plays the flow in the backfield. It kind of changes how you react to what he does. On a lot of the ones you’re talking about when I’m walling off and mirroring him, he’s not really giving me a defined read I’m just trying to stay in front of them. And don’t let the running back see color (defender), because if he sees color he’s gotta cutback. You’re not making the decision for the running back. When I tear him over, ‘you called it a hip toss,’ it’s a lot of times on an A-gap zone where they’re coming right off my butt. And being able to tear them (DL) past the read spot of the ball opens up that lane. It’s usually when I feel the defender going that way, I just use his momentum against him and take him where he wants to go and run him past the ball.
DN: You started nine games at guard in 2018 (right guard) and started three games at guard (left) in 2019. The ability to play all three interior line positions after measuring in at 6’2, 304. You put NFL offensive line coaches in a better spot there, right?
McGough: Yeah, that’s one thing that’s super important. Especially nowadays in the NFL is being able to swing. All it does is put more stuff on your resume’. You can’t really say I only play one position unless you’re that veteran in the league. A rookie coming in you’ve got to have multiple positional abilities. I can say I only play center but there’s a guy behind me who plays right guard but also plays center. Well that opens up another spot on the roster if I’m not on it.
DN: The toughest opponent you went against in school?
McGough: I’d have to say the University of Miami (Fla.).
DN: Best football player you’ve played with?
DN: Come on Shane we’ve got to give you some tough questions…
McGough: It’s probably messed up if I didn’t say it was my brother (Alex).
DN: What’s the best thing you learned from him?
McGough: He’s shown me a lot about defenses. How to pick up or read if its four-down, three-down (defensive fronts). In high school, that was a little complicated to me.
DN: The number one center you’ve studied in the NFL.
McGough: I’ve watched a lot of Jason Kelce (Eagles) film. Cause he’s kind of got the same measurables as I do.
DN: What about A.Q. Shipley?
McGough: Yeah, I’ve watched him. We talk about him a lot with my agent and trainer. He’s another guy whose kind of got the same measurables. It’s always good to watch a guy tat’s similar to you because he uses similar technique you need to use to do your job effectively.
DN: Your number one goal a year from now, what would it be?
McGough: Just to get an opportunity to play. That’s all I can ask for. You want to shoot high but at the end of the day it only takes one team to take a chance on you, whether that’s getting drafted, getting an invite or signing free agency. Just to be on a team and getting the opportunity to play again.
DN: Really enjoyed getting a chance to catch up with you.
McGough: Absolutely. Appreciate it.
DN: Have a safe rest of the year and good luck in the 2021 NFL Draft.
McGough: Thanks, you too.
This group has largely proven to be a hit-or-miss proposition for many of the schools who were certain they were getting home runs at each position. Some of them carried the dreaded All-Purpose label, meaning that there was no guarantee they could carry the full-time load at the collegiate level. Others ran into a litany of issues and have found their footing at different schools.
Zamir White RB-Junior Georgia: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, Rivals, & ESPN
White redshirted in 2018 after suffering a knee injury in preseason practices. However, in 2019 he made 13 appearances with 78 total touches, displaying some of his highly-touted potential. He started all ten games for the Bulldogs this past year, finishing with three 100-yard rushing outings and 11 touchdowns. The rising junior made the most of the opportunity, displaying his abilities as a true workhouse back. If the devasting injuries are behind him, odds are he’ll be taken in the first two rounds of next year’s draft.
Lorenzo Lingard RB-Junior Miami (Fla.): Ranked #2 by 247Sports & Rivals, #4 by ESPN
Lingard spent his first two seasons playing for Miami (Fla.), and appeared in six games as a freshman before a leg injury ended his season. Following his sophomore season, he transferred to the University of Florida. Lingard is known for a good mix of extreme lateral quickness, explosiveness, and bruising running power. He’ll look to expand on only five rushing attempts for the Gators last year as he heads into the 2021 season.
Ricky Slade APB Penn State: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, #2 by Rivals, & #2 by ESPN
Slade was a highly touted five-star recruit coming out of high school. However, he saw limited playing time with the Nittany Lions, grabbing 92 total touches in two seasons. He transferred to Old Dominion following his sophomore season, but it has been reported this year that he is no longer with that program either. Slade dealt with some off the field issues last year and will need to land somewhere and produce mightily on the field to re-establish his football career, if that’s what he still wants.
Jaelen Gill APB-R-Soph Ohio State: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #3 by Rivals, & #4 by ESPN
Gill appears to have played primarily receiver while on the collegiate level. He redshirted for the Buckeyes in 2019 and had just seven receptions through two seasons. Following the year, Jaelen transferred to Boston College seeking more playing time. He logged 29 receptions for 435 yards and one touchdown, returned seven punts and had four kickoff returns this past season with the Eagles.
James Cook APB-Senior Georgia: Ranked #3 by 247Sports, #1 by Rivals, & #3 by ESPN
Cook followed top-ranked running back recruit Zamir White to Georgia after an early commitment to Florida State in 2016. He’s amassed 117 carries for 775 yards and seven touchdowns in three years as White’s primary backup. Cook has also shown capabilities out of the backfield with 40 receptions for 446 yards and two touchdowns in his career.
Brian Snead RB-R-Soph Ohio State: Ranked #3 by 247Sports, #4 by Rivals, & #12 by ESPN
Brian was dismissed six months after enrolling at OSU due to an investigation (https://saturdaytradition.com/ohio-state-football/report-ex-buckeye-rb-brian-sneads-2018-suspension-stems-from-sexual-assault-accusation/). He appeared in two games with 11 rushing attempts prior to his dismissal. After spending 2019 at a community college, he transferred to Austin Peay State University. He is currently playing for the Governors as they are in midseason. Snead looks to be trying to put his unfortunate situation behind him, coming off a 227-yard, three-touchdown performance last weekend.
T.J. Pledger APB-Junior Oklahoma: Ranked #4 by 247Sports, #5 by Rivals, & #6 by ESPN
Through three seasons with the Sooners, Pledger has had opportunities to display some of his dynamic playmaking ability. After playing in more of a reserve role his first two years, he had 95 rushes for 451 yards and five touchdowns last season. He put up big games against Texas and TCU, rushing for over 100 yards in both contests while also scoring at least one rushing touchdown. Despite a broader role in 2020, Pledger decided to transfer following the season and is now a member of the Utah Utes football team.
Ricky Person RB-Senior NC State: Ranked #4 247Sports & Rivals, & #20 by ESPN
Person has had a productive career since joining the Wolfpack, despite dealing with injuries his first two years. He rushed for 112 carries as a true freshman, and then an ankle injury limited him to only 61 rushes in 2019. Person had 147 carries last season (643 yards, 4 TDs) while starting every game. He’ll look to remain healthy and have a solid senior season. If so, it could land him on some draft boards for next year.
Harold Joiner RB-Junior Auburn: Ranked #5 by 247Sports, # 24 by Rivals, & #10 by ESPN
Joiner saw limited action in two seasons suiting up for the Tigers, posting only 15 carries through two seasons. It led him to enter the transfer portal last year. He is now committed to Michigan State and looks to compete for a starting role with two years of eligibility remaining.
Keaontay Ingram RB-Senior Texas: Ranked #4 by 247Sports, #7 by Rivals, & ESPN
Ingram totaled over 140 carries in each of his first two seasons for the Longhorns. However, this past year (with the emergence of two underclassmen in the backfield), his carries dwindled drastically. Ingram recently announced his transfer to the USC Trojans, where he looks to regain a starting role in his senior campaign.
NOTE: All positional designations were marked according to their projections coming out of high school (see APB-All-purpose back). In addition, we included the class of each player per the NCAA not counting this season as a used year of eligibility. If a player transferred (see Snead), we listed the original school who signed the recruit.
Tyre Gaines takes a look back at the top offensive line recruits from the 2018 class and how they’ve progressed thus far. Who’s surpassed expectations and who may still have work to do.
Jamaree Salyer OG-Junior Georgia: Ranked #1 by 247Sports and Rivals, and #2 by ESPN
Played in a reserve role in 2018, appearing in 13 of 14 games and he then played in 13 contests during the 2019 campaign. This past season, he started the first nine games at left tackle before moving to guard for the 2021 Peach Bowl. Playing in 92% of all offensive snaps for the Bulldogs last season, he showed some promise. Right now, Salyer is slated as a mid-round draft prospect in 2022.
Nicholas Petit-Frere OT-Junior Ohio State: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN
Played in all 14 games in 2019 but didn’t start. Off the field, however, he achieved Academic All-Big Ten honors. He is currently the starting right tackle at Ohio State. Petit-Frere’s intriguing reach, length and athleticism make him a legitimate prospect for either the 2022 or 2023 NFL Drafts.
Brey Walker OT-Junior Oklahoma: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #4 by Rivals, #5 by ESPN
Walker played in 13 of 14 contests during the 2019 campaign, with two of those appearances being starts at the right guard spot. He appeared in three games in 2020, backing up projected 2021 NFL Draft pick Adrian Ealy at right tackle. Walker will compete for a starting job in 2021.
Rasheed Walker OT Penn State Ranked #3 by 247Sports, #7 by Rivals, & #13 by ESPN:
Walker appeared in four games as a freshman and then became a starter as a redshirt sophomore. In 2019, he started 13 games at the left tackle spot. He again started all nine games for the Nittany Lions in 2020. Walker is already considered to be a surefire tackle at the next level, as he has appeared in 26 games with 22 starts, all at left tackle.
Cade Mays OT-Junior Georgia: Ranked #3 by 247Sports, Rivals, & ESPN
Mays received Freshman All-American honors in 2018, playing in 11 of 14 games with seven starts at Georgia. He saw action at every offensive line position during the 2019 season, when he started 11 of 14 contests. He decided to transfer to Tennessee prior to the 2020 season, as he is from Knoxville. Mays started all seven games for the Vols and was projected as a potential early round pick before deciding to return for the 2021 season.
Justin Dedich OC-R-Soph USC Trojans: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #1 by Rivals, & #3 by ESPN
Dedich saw brief action as a redshirt in 2018 and was the team’s backup center in 2019 before starting the last two games. He’ll have work to do to solidify his draft position with only eight appearances thus far in his career.
Jackson Carman OT-Junior Clemson Ranked #2 by 247, Rivals, & ESPN
Carman saw action with 209 snaps in 13 games in 2018. Earned third team All-ACC honors in 2019. He started all 12 games at left tackle in 2020, collecting second-team All-American honors and second-team All-ACC accolades. Carman declared for the 2021 NFL draft and is projected to be a starting guard at the next level.
Matthew Jones OC-R-Soph Ohio State: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, #7 by Rivals, & #1 by ESPN
Redshirted in 2018 and backed up All-Big Ten guard Jonah Jackson for most of 2019. Started the 2021 CFP national championship game against Alabama as a redshirt sophomore after helping fill gaps during an unorthodox Big Ten season. With continued reps and progression, Jones could be a prospect in either the 2022 or 2023 NFL Drafts.
William Barnes OT-Junior UNC: Ranked #5 by 247Sports, #2 by Rivals, & #4 by ESPN
Barnes made appearances in 12 games in each of the last two seasons. Known for quick instincts off the line and solid pass protection coming out of high school, he should look to both establish and improve his draft position in 2021. As of now, all five of the starting spots along the UNC offensive front are filled by returning lettermen.
Penei Sewell OG-Junior Oregon: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #5 by Rivals, & #6 by ESPN
He was the first offensive lineman in Oregon history to earn all-conference honors as a true freshman. Earned various awards and honors during his two seasons with Ducks. Sewell was the first sophomore and Oregon Duck to win the Outland Trophy. Opted out of the 2020 season to focus on the draft, and he is projected as a consensus top five pick in this year’s upcoming draft.
NOTE: All positional designations were marked according to their projections coming out of high school (see Sewell). In addition, we included the class of each player per the NCAA not counting this season as a used year of eligibility. If a player transferred (see Mays), we listed the original school who signed the recruit.
Boise State return man Avery Williams went from a walk-on to an indispensable force for the Broncos. In 2019, he was voted the Mountain West Conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise after notching weekly honors five times during his career. He also set the NCAA all-time record for punt and kickoff return touchdowns (nine).
But that’s not all…
Williams can make plays at cornerback. For his career, he had 152 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, four interceptions and 22 pass breakups. At cornerback, he is quick-footed and can mirror opposing receivers. How does he do it as a return man? The Pasadena, California native possesses the ability to dart, slide and break tackles on a regular basis. The former high school running back impresses on film with his balance.
For a full scouting report on Williams, purchase Corey Chavous’ 2021 NFL Draft Guide this spring.
Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell had already left his mark with the Cardinals in just two seasons on campus. The speedy 5-foot-9 wideout is perhaps the ACC’s toughest one-on-one tackle in the open field. The former Miami Northwestern High School (Fla.) Miami-Dade County Player of the Year starred as a quarterback at the prep level. His on-field savvy is present when diagnosing either zone or man coverage. Atwell led the ACC in receiving yards in 2019 (1,276) and finished second in receiving touchdowns (12). While he didn’t repeat the success in 2020, he stills ranks as one of the more electrifying players in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Three-sport athletes that stand 6’5″ 260-plus pounds aren’t your “average Joes.” Washington Huskies edge rusher Joe Tryon looks the part and has a strong build. He matches the physical gifts with an ability to line up as both a defensive end and as an outside linebacker in a two-point stance.
Despite the athletic gifts, he still has room to work on his technique. He only had one year of high-level production in 2019, and it came after he posted one quarterback sack and 4.5 tackles for losses in 2018. Tryon opted out of the 2020 season but still projects as a prospect with the chops to get after the quarterback. Scheme-fit may determine if the former baseball, basketball and football standout out of Washington state’s Hazen High School translates seamlessly to the NFL.
Is he extraordinary or just an average “Joe”?
McCarthy, a four-year contributor for the Owls, feasted on opposing quarterbacks throughout his career. As a pass rusher, he demonstrated the ability to work around C-USA’s best offensive tackles with regularity in 2020. It was a season befitting of his overall consistency.
Former FAU defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin said back in 2017 of McCarthy, “He allows us to be multiple.” Even in that year as a 210-to-215-pound outside linebacker, the former Owl played bigger than his size. He ran the hoop to post a strip-sack versus North Texas and finished off Western Kentucky with a fourth quarter take down of quarterback Mike White. But it was his ability to play defensive end, outside linebacker and drop into coverage that Kiffin was referring to in describing McCarthy.
For much of the 2020 season, the FAU defense (led by defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt) was the engine behind the Owls’ path through C-USA opposition. Although the team finished the season 24th in total defense nationally, they ranked ninth in scoring defense (17.4 PPG). McCarthy’s workmanlike approach caught the eyes of Florida Atlantic first-year head coach Willie Taggart.
“He’s serious about his business when here,” Taggart said prior to a scheduled game against MTSU in late November 2020.
The second-team All-C-USA performer has not always been efficient holding the edge at the point of attack (see Southern Miss ’20), but his versatility and width (78 5/8″ wingspan) give him a chance to make it as an off the ball linebacker. McCarthy (6’2, 223) has shown some aptitude in man-to-man coverage. He can drop into zone coverage and exhibit fluidity versus bootlegs when aligned on the edge. In addition, he has lined up as a hold-up guy on the punt return unit and at the left wing on the punt team. Perhaps more importantly, the team referenced that he did not miss a practice all year.
The former Owl contains many of the bird’s characteristics. He hunts his prey in a stealth manner, often surprising opponents with his quick burst to close. McCarthy has flown silently under the radar for most outside of Conference USA, but his upside could be unearthed by NFL teams operating in a nocturnal manner.