PASADENA, Calif. -- The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl is one of the top annual all-star showcases for draft-eligible prospects. In addition to the game itself, the week-long experience allows players a chance to make an impression on NFL coaches and scouts ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft. Here are five takeaways from Wednesday's practice at the Rose Bowl.
The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will air exclusively on NFL Network at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.
1) Bright lights and a bit of perspective
National Team safety Markquese Bell of Florida A&M has seen his fair share of TV cameras in recent months. The redshirt senior spent a chunk of his last collegiate season as the subject of an ESPN documentary profiling the Rattlers' season, which aired in October. Bell balled out for FAMU all fall en route to earning an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, per Florida A&M. On Wednesday, Bell was the last of his teammates to make it to the locker room after again being met by cameras and interviewers as soon as practice ended. The humble standout said he's not letting the extra attention get to him, though, choosing instead to keep his conversations with his former pro-football-playing coaches about the game and not the noise around it.
"What changed when they got to the league? How did they transition from college athletes to professional athletes? Like, things that they looked at, things that they worked on, their preparation before the games," he explained. "Just little things that, as a college athlete, you don't really pay attention to, but as a professional, like, these are grown men and you're coming in there to take their job, so you have to be on your Ps and Qs every day."
Making it to the next level is not a goal unique to any prospect in any sport, but having the right approach is what separates the dreamers from the doers. Bell has a chance to become both in the months ahead, a challenge he is not taking lightly as a representative of one of the country's Historically Black Colleges and Universities. A strong showing this week and in future workouts could help Bell become the first HBCU draft pick since 2020.
"It means a lot that I could be probably one of the first players to be drafted from an HBCU in a long time," he said. "Me and a couple other guys that are here from HBCUs, we're trying to do something big, so we're trying to bring the spotlight to HBCUs to just show, like, just because we're this level, we have that Black college football name attached to us, that doesn't mean we can't compete with some of the best in the country."
2) Iron sharpens iron
Having the opportunity to cover a multi-time Pro Bowler, an All-Pro and an NFL legend in one offseason would be a dream come true for any college defensive back. Meet American Team defensive back and Jackson State alum CJ Holmes, who will be able to tell scouts, coaches and his grandkids about his experience covering Jarvis Landry, Stefon Diggs and Terrell Owens before the 2021 fall season.
"Exhilarating, man," said Holmes of the chance to line up across from T.O. "A whole bunch of adrenaline running -- that's a real legend right there. Just lining up against him, having that confidence to even tell him to line up and do it, that was very fun for me. I thank him for even taking on that challenge of facing me and doing a couple reps with me."
Their face-off may seem unbelievable to those who saw Holmes walk on as a freshman at JSU and eventually become an all-conference level talent. But it shouldn't. The 6-foot-1 DB's inclination to be a "people person," traits instilled in him through his church upbringing, and desire to improve mentally and physically have prepared him for this moment. The challenge of facing guys like Diggs and Landry gave him yet another valuable, up-close learning experience.
"Jarvis and Stefon helped me a lot," he said. "We were doing shadow drills and one-on-ones. They were just helping me realize what pro receivers like to do, not to be so quick at the line to lunge or jam, because those guys know, they're coming to the line with a plan. Most college receivers, they just come up and react; most guys in the pros, they come out with a plan. So just learning from them was very valuable for me, in my opinion. I appreciate them, for real."
After the spring 2021 season was shortened due to COVID-19, the star-studded drills served as an exciting warmup for Holmes' senior season: an 11-2 SWAC title-winning campaign under second-year head coach Deion Sanders. Known in the college ranks as "Coach Prime," the Pro Football Hall of Famer's arrival at the Mississippi-based HBCU in 2020 had a ripple effect that continues to be felt well beyond the campus' limits. Holmes plans to apply what he learned from one of the game's most accomplished and charismatic figures toward his own dream of playing in prime time.
"Always be where your feet are," he said, recalling Sanders' advice. "Don't ever look outside the box -- just keep that tunnel vision on your goal and make sure you focus on that goal and not get distracted by outside activities or anything like that. Just keeping the main thing the main thing. And always being focused and being ready for your moment 'cause you never know when it's gonna come. So, opportunity is something that you got to take advantage of."
3) Eyes on the prize
To be a quarterback, it takes a lot of confidence. That's something South Dakota State's Chris Oladokun certainly doesn't lack. The graduate student played for Samford and South Florida before finishing up at SDSU for a total of six years in college. Despite the winding road, Oladokun said he managed to look past the naysayers by developing a tough skin at a young age.
"As a kid growing up, I was really, really skinny, lanky," Oladokun said. "Something that always sticks in my mind when I was little, playing pee-wee football, (my) coach told me that I would never play quarterback, told me that I'd be a running back -- and that was when I was 9 years old. And I remember that to this day. He's probably watching and is like, Man, I was wrong."
The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will be Oladokun's chance to prove his talent to more people than his former Pop Warner coach. It was clear during practice that his team appreciates him, as a call of, "Good job, 6," could be heard at various times. Standing at 6-2, Oladokun showed nice mechanics during his reps, finding his target in the end zone on a designed rollout to his left during 7-on-7 and lofting a nice deep ball on a go route down the left sideline during 11-on-11.
4) TE makes play of the day
Nebraska's Austin Allen turned heads during the American Team's practice session. With Cal QB Chase Garbers lined up under center, Allen released off the line and ran a route up the middle of the field. After a few moments of surveying, Garbers fired a rocket that appeared slightly out of Allen's reach, but the former Cornhusker snagged the ball out of the air with one hand before securing it as he hit the ground. The dynamic catch drew a loud "Oh!" from both sidelines. Allen, the 2021 Big Ten Tight End of the Year, jogged back to the huddle with players from both teams giving him his props. Allen and Garbers are two names to keep an eye on for Saturday's game. Here's hoping the two connect for another highlight-reel play, although American Team head coach Jeff Fisher would likely prefer a touchdown instead.
5) The Burfict Effect
It should probably come as no surprise that a group of talented linebackers led by NFLPA Collegiate Bowl assistant coach Vontaze Burfict stood out in a crowd of all-stars. Burfict enters Saturday's game as a position coach on a National Team staff helmed by Marvin Lewis, his head coach for seven seasons with the Bengals. The former Pro Bowler energetically tested each player's reaction time, footwork and agility through a variety of drills, stamping every rep with its own signature feedback. Michigan's Joshua Ross and Rutgers' Olakunle Fatukasi were among those who matched Burfict's energy during the individual portion, while San Diego State's Segun Olubi earned the group a game ball with a fumble recovery during 11-on-11s. The unit's pinnacle moment came in a blocking competition pitting tight ends versus linebackers, with Burfict's group winning most of the one-on-ones and walking away with bragging rights.