During the college football season, Eric Galko, the Shrine Bowl Director of Football Operations and Player Personnel, will give us his breakout performers from the previous week's action -- the names you should know ... because it's never too early to talk NFL Draft.
Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington
Penix began his college career at the University of Indiana, where he threw for 4,197 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions from 2018-21. Since transferring to Washington before the 2022 season, Penix has 5,973 yards, 43 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 16 games. And through three games this season, Penix has 12 touchdowns versus just one pick, and has set career bests in completion percentage (74.3) and yards per attempt (11.8). Not surprisingly, Penix has been a frequent topic of conversation this season on "With the First Pick," the NFL Draft Podcast I host with Rick Spielman.
.@TheMikePenix continues to showcase perimeter, downfield and on-time accuracy plus the ability to move off-script each week.— Eric Galko (@EricGalko) September 18, 2023
⁰His clear control and confidence in the offense jumps off the film. Another dominant performance by he and the Washington offense.#ShrineBowlWhosNext https://t.co/RNF5My6arg pic.twitter.com/OEReCaZx1U
Eric Galko: "Penix continues to display NFL accuracy down the field, on the perimeter, and within scoring distance. His placement and clear control and confidence of the offense jumps off the film each week, and another dominant performance against Michigan State only further pushed him into a higher tier of QBs in one of the strongest QB groups we've seen in a long time."
Ainias Smith, WR, Texas A&M
Smith combined for 90 catches, 1,073 yards and four touchdowns in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, but he only made four appearances last year before suffering a leg injury. He's back in 2023 picking up where he left off; he has 13 receptions for 194 yards through three games, with more than half those catches and 65% of the receiving yards coming last week vs. Louisiana-Monroe. Added bonus: he's also a threat in the return game.
Galko: "Ainias has developed into a complete, dynamic weapon this season. He's still showing the ability to finish in the short area and create big plays with speed and balance, but is now showing increased route development and nuance. His perimeter routes, digs, adjustments to a mobile QB, and hand usage have all taken another step this year, and his versatility as an offensive weapon should be valued highly by NFL coaches come draft time."
For more draft coverage, you can hear in-depth analysis twice a week on "With the First Pick" -- our year-round NFL Draft podcast that features former longtime Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. You can find "With the First Pick" wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, etc. Listen to the latest episode below!
Tory Horton, WR, Colorado State
Horton spent his first two seasons at the University of Nevada, where he totaled 72 catches for 995 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 14 games for Colorado State, he has 96 grabs for 1,345 yards and nine scores, and he's also made an impact as a punt returner. Horton ended the 2022 season, his first in Fort Collins, with five 100-yard receiving games, including a 196-yard effort vs. San Jose St. and another 131 yards vs. New Mexico.
Horton is no “sleeper” to NFL scouts, but for those who didn’t know him, he definitely made an impression.— Eric Galko (@EricGalko) September 18, 2023
Scouts covet WRs who can win with speed vertically, finish in mid-field/along sideline, and can elude in space.
He showed all of that in this game.#ShrineBowlWhosNext https://t.co/Ndbibawdtt pic.twitter.com/j7q2oDjU6E
Galko: "Even though it came in a loss, Horton made the most of his opportunity on a national stage. Despite being the focus of the defensive gameplan, Horton still had the catch of the night along the sideline and consistently made defenders miss when he got the opportunity. Players who can win with speed downfield, finish in tight/perimeter catches, and win as an elusive underneath route receiver are both hard to find and greatly valued in today's NFL."
Xavier Weaver, WR, Colorado
Weaver began his career at University of South Florida, where he racked up 116 catches for 1,735 yards and eight TDs over four seasons. In his first year for the Buffs, he already has 25 receptions for 386 yards and two scores.
Galko: "Xavier Weaver was a dynamic, impact receiver for South Florida last year, but his production and development as a receiver have taken a major jump since he arrived at Colorado, and it's showing within its offense. Along with being used on quick screens and short-area throws to leverage his elusiveness and burst, Weaver has shown outstanding downfield separation and route confidence, and it's clear why Shedeur Sanders has quickly made him his go-to receiver."
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Jack Nelson, OT, Wisconsin
Nelson has been a fixture along the offensive line since 2021, when he started 13 games at right guard. He moved to left tackle in 2022 and has made 15 starts there, including three this season.
Wisconsin LT Jack Nelson caves in the defensive line and RB Chez Mellusi takes advantage with a spectacular long touchdown.— Ian Cummings (@IC_Draft) September 2, 2023
Mellusi is arguably more versatile and more fluid laterally than his teammate Braelon Allen. That agility shows up here.
Galko: "Nelson is one of the 2024 NFL Draft's best offensive tackles who hasn't nearly gotten enough attention despite the incredible pedigree of Wisconsin offensive linemen in the NFL. Georgia Southern attacked defensively in many ways, going after Nelson and the entire offensive line with stunts, edge blitzes, delays, and multiple defensive looks, but Nelson showcased his high-end lateral movement, finishing power, and overall natural kick slide in this one. As Big Ten play ramps up, keep an eye on Nelson against some of the best pass rushers in the conference, as he'll show his NFL starter potential.
Jer'Zhan Newton, DL, Illinois
Last spring, the Illini defense had three players drafted in Rounds 1-3: cornerback Devon Witherspoon (fifth overall), cornerback Quan Martin (47th overall), and safety Sydney Brown (66th overall). Newton could end up being the best player from that unit; his motor is through the roof, he plays with heavy hands, he's incredibly athletic for his size, and his short-area burst shows up all over the tape. He's a great mix of power and speed who racked up 5.5 sacks in 2022 and already has two sacks in three games this season.
Galko: "Even though Penn State came out with the win, it's hard to watch that film and not be immediately impressed with Newton against one of the better offensive lines he'll face this year. He had seven pressures in the game, four of them coming against different offensive linemen, and one against Olu Fashanu, a future top-five pick in the draft. His active hands, balance as he moves forward, and ability to be explosive every step of his pursuit are rare and will be coveted during the draft process."
Steele Chambers, LB, Ohio State
Chambers began his Ohio State career as a running back, and in two seasons, averaged a gaudy 7.9 yards per carry on 28 touches, including a touchdown. But he moved to linebacker in 2021 and has started 17 consecutive games there.
Steele Chambers (@steeleC22) was outstanding against WKU. Complete, dominant performance.— Eric Galko (@EricGalko) September 18, 2023
He consistently shutdown the screen and perimeter run game, impacted in coverage drops mid-field, and made a perimeter interception that highlights his NFL versatility.#ShrineBowlWhosNext https://t.co/wH5VtPZ9tF pic.twitter.com/RFB1ty0BfR
Galko: "In one of the best defensive performances of the week, Steele Chambers dominated against Western Kentucky in the run game, as a penetrator in the run and pass rush game, and as a dynamic coverage linebacker with an interception on the perimeter. Chambers' movement, twitch and explosiveness when he attacks jumped off the film in this game, even alongside the many talented, future NFL players of Ohio State. Chambers can play multiple linebacker spots in the NFL, and this game highlighted all the different ways he can impact a defense."
Ben Bywater, LB, BYU
Bywater is coming off a stellar 2022 campaign during which he had four tackles for loss, a sack and three interceptions, including a pick-six. He flashed early in the 2023 season, too; he's been the team's leading tackler in four straight games, and after a nine-tackle performance against Sam Houston State, has 14 career games with nine-plus tackles.
Galko: "In a credit to the entire BYU defense, they held Arkansas to just seven second half points as the offense rallied them back to a win, and Ben Bywater's impact in the middle of the defense made a huge impact on their success. The stat line may not show it, but the offense wasn't able to run up the middle and struggled to create horizontal separation in the run/short-area passing game because of Bywater's vision, gap-filling and decisiveness, along with his athletic movement in space."