With the college football season wrapped up for the year, draft season is now officially upon us. First up on the docket is senior showcase games, starting with the College Gridiron Showcase and Tropical Bowl this week, then moving onto the NFLPA Bowl and East-West Shrine Game next weekend, with the grand finale being the Reese’s Senior Bowl the last weekend of the month in Mobile, Alabama.
These senior showcases can be vital to providing a boost in a prospect’s draft stock, especially for those players who are coming from smaller schools and now get a chance to shine against the best of the best. Over 80 Senior Bowl attendees have been selected in each of the last three drafts, including six first-round picks last year alone.
This week, I’ll be taking a position by position look at all of the defensive players to earn invites to this year’s rendition of the Senior Bowl. Starting today with defensive linemen and finishing up Sunday with the safeties that we’ll be covering from Mobile. Stay tuned here to Dynasty Football Factory for all the best draft coverage you need.
Senior Bowl Invitees
Of the seven defensive linemen that are currently on the Senior Bowl roster, the player currently highest on my board is Miami’s Gerald Willis III. Willis, the younger brother of Giants safety Landon Collins, started his collegiate career with the University of Florida in 2014. After playing one season with the Gators, Willis transferred to Miami where he finally has come into his own as a redshirt senior this year. Willis totaled 18 TFL this season en route to Second-Team All-ACC honors.
A player who could use a bump to their draft stock at the Senior Bowl is Isaiah Buggs of Alabama. While Buggs did show flashes this season, his tape is also marred by inconsistencies of effort, which is a concern. Buggs has the talent to be a Day 2 pick in the draft, but an impressive week in Mobile is needed after falling flat in the championship against Clemson.
Senior Bowl week can be most beneficial for smaller school players who now have the opportunity to shine against talent from the largest conferences in the country. This year, eight players from FCS schools and two athletes from Division II have invites to Mobile. In the trenches, Khalen Saunders from Western Illinois is as an intriguing prospect as they come. After tearing through the FCS circuit this year with 13 TFL and 6.5 sacks, Saunders will face a talented group of interior offensive lineman in Mobile that will include Wisconsin duo Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, Oklahoma duo Ben Powers and Dru Samia, as well as SEC centers Elgton Jenkins, Ross Pierschbacher, and Erik McCoy.
Two more SEC players that will be at the Senior Bowl are Auburn’s Dontavius Russell and Texas A&M’s Kingsley Keke. Of the two, I’m more interested in viewing Keke’s performance during the week, but both players can be useful assets at the next level. After a solid redshirt junior year, Russell decided to return to Auburn for his fifth and final season. Playing next to teammate and possible 2020 first-rounder Derrick Brown left Russell with plenty of plus matchups one-on-one, but he only recorded one sack and six TFLs in his fourth season starting for Auburn.
Rounding out this year’s linemen in Mobile will be two representatives from the PAC-12, Greg Gaines of Washington and Renell Wren from Arizona State. Gaines, a four-year starter in the trenches for the Huskies, was able to improve his play this season after the departure of teammate Vita Vea. Gaines was awarded the Morris Trophy this year, awarded to the top defensive lineman in the PAC-12. The Washington lineman can be a brute force in the run game, but his pass rushing skills will be tested at the Senior Bowl, scouts will surely be watching that aspect of his game. Sundevil Renell Wren will have a lot to prove during his week in Mobile regarding rushing the passer. Wren has shown great burst off the line of scrimmage throughout the last two years, but just lacks a solid plan of attack once contact is made with an opposing lineman. Under the right direction, Wren can develop into a physical force at the next level.
Names To Watch
Even though Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy has already said that rosters are complete, there will be players slated to play that sit out due to injury concerns among other reasons. Every year there are late additions to the game, so here are a few guys to keep an eye on in case they are in Mobile the last week of January.
Fresh off an amazing performance in their victory over Alabama in the National Championship game, Clemson lineman Christian Wilkins would be a great addition to the Senior Bowl. Wilkins, a probable first-round selection, surprised many when returning to Clemson for his senior season. The move paid off this year as he turned in stellar performances week after week culminating in the redemption of last year’s defeat in the College Football Playoff.
Staying in the ACC, Virginia Tech’s Ricky Walker and Florida State’s Demarcus Christmas are two prospects who will garner attention this spring in the draft cycle. Walker earned Second-Team All-ACC honors this year while Christmas was on the All-ACC Third-Team. I currently see Walker as a Day 2 selection with Christmas hearing his name called on Day 3 of the draft.
Clemson’s opponent in this year’s semifinal, Notre Dame, was led on the defensive line by senior Jerry Tillery, who was invited to Mobile but has not yet accepted. Tillery posted a career high in sacks this season, seven, while setting the tone in the trenches during the Irish’s undefeated regular season. The Notre Dame lineman has Day 1 potential and would be a huge addition the this group’s talent.
Rounding out a few more notable possibilities include fourth-year junior Dre’Mont Jones of Ohio State, who graduated in December, Terry Beckner Jr. of Missouri, and Daylon Mack from Texas A&M. Jones, the most talented of the trio, was a force for the Buckeyes this year, accumulating 8.5 sacks and returning an interception for a touchdown. NFL teams will have injury concerns about Beckner, who tore the ACLs in both of his knees his freshman and sophomore seasons. He did earn Second-Team All-SEC honors in a talented conference this year though. Daylon Mack was a five-star recruit in 2015, ranked by many as the top recruit coming out of the state of Texas that year. While his college production hasn’t lived up to that hype, Mack would make a great addition to the Senior Bowl playing in the trenches next to his teammate Kingsley Keke.
That’s it for today’s coverage featuring the defensive linemen that you need to know about come the final weekend of the month. Make sure to return to DFF Devy throughout the spring for all your draft needs, both here on the site and on Twitter @DFF_Devy. If you have any questions, comments, or recommendations about what topics I should write about next, contact me on Twitter @BrumleyNFL. As always, appreciate you reading, and happy Draft Season!