NFLPA Collegiate Bowl 2015: Highlights, Top Performers Who Boosted Draft Stock

Nate Loop@Nate_LoopFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2015

17 January 2015: Members of the National team celebrate after their victory at the NFL Collegiate Bowl on January 17, 2015 in Carson, Calif. (Ric Tapia/AP Images for NFL Players Association)
AP Images for NFLPA/Associated Press

The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl—essentially the infant sibling of post-postseason college football all-star games—went through a growing-pains game on Saturday. The fourth edition of this nascent event was a drab, dour 17-0 victory by Mike Martz's National Team over Mike Holmgren's American Team.

The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl lacks the prestige of the East-West Shrine Game, as a sampling of the smaller universities represented—Northwestern State, Prairie View A&M and Wisconsin-Whitewater, to name a few—might tell you. At the very least, it serves as a chance for those players from overlooked schools to see a different level of coaching and rub elbows with prospects from bigger programs. 

It was a tough event for anyone who was looking to make a name for himself in the passing game. As a quick example of the game's turgid output, Marshall's Rakeem Cato, one of the biggest names participating in the contest, managed to complete just five of 10 passes for 31 yards. Truly, it was a quiet day for skill players all around, and defense ruled much of the afternoon.

And yet, the disappointing scoreline is not only purely academic (the game itself is just one small part of the job interview, and winning is immaterial in this contest) but actually not that discouraging considering the 2015 Shrine game ended with a 19-3 East squad win.

The biggest passing play of the day was a 25-yarder to Georgia's Chris Conley, one of the higher-profile players in the event, per the game's official Twitter account: 

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The Collegiate Bowl @NFLPABowl

Big 25-yd gain on a throw from QB Brandon Bridge to WR Chris Conley. #NFLPABowl

The official Twitter account provided a look at some of the best photos from the first quarter, in which game MVP Terrell Watson—a running back out of Azusa Pacific—scored on a two-yard fumble pickup for his only score of the game:

The Collegiate Bowl @NFLPABowl

A few photos from #NFLPABowl first quarter... http://t.co/TgAvIO5RT5

NFLPA provided a link to a treasure trove of photos from the event:

Kevin A. Koski @kevinkoskiphoto

Miss today's game? Here are some highlights from today's @NFLPABowl. #CollegiateBowl https://t.co/XpAFwC0W6y

At least one play will serve as a lasting impact from this game.

Bleacher Report CFB noted Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley nearly blinked out of existence after this crushing blow from Southern Miss defensive back Emmanuel Johnson:

Bleacher Report NFL @BR_NFL

Emmanuel Johnson lays out Prince-Tyson Gulley at NFLPA Collegiate Bowl with huge hit. http://t.co/enrLSn8nqY http://t.co/ZyBTfT60BH

The frustrating play couldn't stop the National Team members from enjoying their trophy, per the game's official Twitter account: 

The Collegiate Bowl @NFLPABowl

#NFLPABowl National Team players enjoying the championship trophy. https://t.co/uyzJ4pawok

The highlights were few and far between in this contest—you can blame the quarterback play for much of the difficulties—but the game still has merit as a showcase for some of college football's fringe stars who might have a shot at the next level. 

ESPN's Chris Mortensen noted one recent NFLPA Collegiate Bowl participant who made good on a strong performance:

Chris Mortensen @mortreport

The @NFLPA game on ESPN2. Seahawks GM John Schneider attended practices; drafted TE Luke Wilson (Rice), who had TD catch in '13 NFLPA game

Every NFL team has to search far and wide to find that nugget of talent that other franchises might have passed over. This contest didn't provide too many fireworks, but it could turn out to be a beneficial investment for a couple of players who stood out above the rest on Saturday.

NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Top Performers

Marcus Rush, DE, Michigan State

AP Images for NFLPA/Associated Press

Some small-school players had a chance to shine on Saturday, but perhaps the best performance of the day came from a big program in Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush, who—get ready for this—excels on the pass rush.

Rush picked up 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2014, but teammate Shilique Calhoun, who could be a Day 1 draft pick, overshadowed him on the line. Rush dominated the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, starting with a sack of Clemson's Cole Stoudt early on, per SB Nation's Anthony Cosenza:

Anthony Cosenza @CJAnthonyCUI

MSU DE Marcus Rush with a nice play for a sack on Clemson QB Cole Stoudt. #NFLPABowl

He showed off a great motor throughout the contest and handled his assignments well. Rush is CBS Sports' No. 405-ranked prospect in this year's class, but NFL Draft Guide's Thomas Melton sees him as a viable contributor at the next level:

Washed Up Analyst @TMeltonScouting

Marcus Rush is going to be a nice rotational DE in the NFL. Not a freak athlete but uses his hands well, great motor.

Rush did well on Saturday to prove he knows what he does best and does it well. It's a great launching point for him heading into the remainder of the extended job interview that is the predraft circuit.

Zaire Anderson, OLB, Nebraska

Defense ruled the day in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, and no defender did more to patrol the field than Nebraska's Zaire Anderson, who finished with a game-high eight tackles:

The Collegiate Bowl @NFLPABowl

National Team LB Zaire Anderson (@Huskers) led both #NFLPABowl teams w/ 8 total tackles. http://t.co/spJeq6ZWnN

He was all over the field, penetrating into the backfield, chasing down ball-carriers and just generally creating a ruckus.

The practices leading up to the game, where many of these players get a first taste of NFL-style coaching, are often more important than the game itself. Anderson didn't disappoint there either, per Cosenza: 

Anthony Cosenza @CJAnthonyCUI

Pretty awful series for Bridge. Throws pick to Nebraska LB Zaire Anderson (who made a nice play for the INT).

CBS Sports currently has Anderson ranked as the 536th best overall prospect in the 2015 draft. That's a steep, K2 North Ridge of a slope to climb, but an extra 60 minutes of stellar game film can't hurt the Cornhusker.

Terrell Watson, RB, Azusa Pacific

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Watson didn't have to do much to win the game MVP award—all it took was a tidy 55 yards on nine carries and the aforementioned touchdown—but the event might have been a good investment of his time nonetheless.

"He belongs in the NFL," Martz said, via The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "I don't think there's any question in my mind after seeing him all week he belongs. Somebody in the league is going to get a terrific player."

Watson won't lack for highlight-reel plays from his Azusa Pacific days; the Oxnard High graduate racked up 2,212 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns on 319 carries in 2014. He's yet to develop a presence in the receiving game, but that's a common issue for collegiate running backs and shouldn't hold him back too much.

It's not easy to draw the attention of the NFL when coming out of a Division II school with little in the way of league pedigree, unless you're Christian Okoye aka The Nigerian Nightmare. But this performance, and the MVP award, will go a long way toward boosting Watson's Q rating heading into the draft. The former Kansas City Chiefs star even gave Watson a shoutout after the game:

Christian Okoye @ChristianOkoye

Terrell Watson, congrats on the MVP award for the game today, keep up the good work, you have a bright future ahead of you. God Bless!

A curious scout or two might be more inclined to go over his game tape after this performance. The game wasn't that special, but the chance to make a name for oneself and perhaps reach the NFL is—that's the dream, anyway.

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