They grow up so dang fast.
The college stars we've marveled over the past three to four years—some even less—have officially transitioned from college football to the NFL with the NFL Scouting Combine in the rearview mirror.
This strange, over-the-top analysis of straight-line speed, barbell moving and awkward drills also serves as a graduation of sorts. Instead of walking across a large room to grab their diploma, however, they’re sprinting while overreactions—both positive and negative—pour in from all directions.
Yes, the combine is a harsh reminder that these players are no longer ours. They won’t be going far, of course, but they’ll be leaving our strange little realm to get fairly compensated for the sport they play.
That’s good for them—very good for them, actually—and bad for us. As for the players we’ll miss the most—the truly distinctive talents who dazzled us (or didn’t dazzle us long enough)—here are a few standouts.
His podium session at the combine says it all, really. I’ll add more to this, but you can learn a lot about Louis Nix by watching him talk about his improved sexiness in front of a crowded room of potential employers.
I’m not sure how I can possibly follow that act, but I will attempt to. More significant than the hilarity of the former Notre Dame defensive tackle’s consistent quotes is his natural ability to be himself at all times. That’s actually very difficult to do, let alone during the biggest job interview of your life.
More than just a sound bite, Nix was an integral piece of the Notre Dame defense over the past two seasons. Even in the BCS National Championship Game in 2012—a cringe-inducing evening for all Irish fans—Nix played extraordinarily well against Alabama's offensive line, the nation's best.
Productive, entertaining and immensely talented, Nix will provide an NFL franchise a character and, more importantly, a tremendous piece to its defensive line much later than he should be available.
Kyle Van Noy
He never quite got the attention he deserved, although former BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy was one of college football’s most electric players. Typically, the word “electric” is reserved for the offensive skill players with a little shake and the quarterback capable of making hopeful tacklers look unwise for trying.
But Van Noy was an exception at the college level, oftentimes putting himself in position to deliver spectacular plays. Always around the ball, Van Noy had a knack for being in your picture play after play.
His 2012 Poinsettia Bowl performance was one of the best defensive games in recent memory, putting him on the national map. Playing against San Diego State, he finished with a blocked punt, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and two touchdowns.
He was everywhere.
He wasn’t just a one-trick, one-game pony, though. Van Noy was a consistent machine for the BYU defense, playing a variety of roles and moving all over the field. Although he’ll slide in the draft past the point he should, he’ll continue to be everywhere—just not at this level, unfortunately.
He doesn't carry the same star power as some in the sport, but Henry Josey epitomized passion, skill and relentless resolve.
When you consider what he had to do to battle back from one of the more serious knee injuries the sport has ever seen, it puts the rest in perspective. The former Missouri running back tore his ACL, MCL patellar tendon and both his lateral and medial meniscus, which required three surgeries to fix.
He missed the entire 2012 season while rehabbing, and there were doubts over whether he would play again. He returned for the 2013 season, however, and proved to provide much more than just a morale boost.
Josey finished the season with 1,166 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns. His opening game, in which he ran for 113 yards and a score, was accompanied with this postgame locker room moment.
Watching Gary Pinkel deliver the game ball—a ritual he usually doesn’t partake in—turned out to be one of the highlights of the season.
Josey’s decision to go pro with one year of eligibility left is bittersweet. It would’ve been great to see him at the college level for one more year. But given everything he’s gone through and all the work he's put in to get healthy, it’s almost a no-brainer to get paid to play football.
We’ll miss him dearly.
This year’s wide receiver class is absolutely ridiculous. If you’re an NFL team and need someone to catch passes, this is a good time to realize such deficiencies. And while there will be wideouts taken before former Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews hears his name called on draft day, few players delivered the sort of casual domination on a consistent basis.
There were also numbers of note. In fact, his production over the past three seasons was incredible: 247 catches, 3,578 yards and 20 receiving touchdowns.
It’s much more than that, though. Matthews was an integral part of Vanderbilt’s rise in the SEC, and he did so without nearly enough appreciation. His football performance was business-like, with his hands the most dependable in the country.
My favorite Matthews moment came in the first game of the 2013 season against Ole Miss. After vomiting on the field—a combination of a hard hit and IV fluids circulating through his system—Matthews delivered a 42-yard catch on 4th-and-18 with his team down.
After scoring the go-ahead touchdown, Vanderbilt later lost the game on a late Ole Miss score. Matthews finished the game with 10 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown, just one of many double-digit-reception games he delivered.
Tough, durable, reliable and fun to watch, Matthews—like others on this list—will be an enormous pickup for a team looking for production.
It’s the most obvious answer, but it’s also a necessary answer. As scouts try to determine how former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will fit in the league, we’re still savoring the moments—all of them, and it’s a robust list to sort through.
That’s what made Manziel so spectacular. While the names included above all had more than just a handful of memorable plays, Manziel’s greatness came in his ability to go off-script without warning. There was an obligation to tune in.
You knew if you waited long enough—and it didn’t usually take very long—you would see something you’ve never seen before. Like when Manziel dazzled us in his final collegiate performance against Duke, mustering up an enormous comeback and a touchdown pass that still doesn’t make much sense months later.
There are more videos, of course. You can search for him on YouTube and get lost. But you’ve already seen them, and you know just how spectacular Manziel was in his two years as the starter for the Aggies. There is simply no replacing what he provided.
He made Nick Saban’s defenses look helpless, he destroyed stat sheets and SEC records—many of them his already—and he provided the natural flair on a regular basis. Manziel is the most exciting college football player of our lifetime. It is why the simplest of nicknames, Johnny Football, was so fitting. It said everything without saying anything at all.