Many of the upcoming bowl games will be filled with talented rosters for both teams. But one of the top exhibitions of NFL near-ready talent will be in Glendale on January 1st at this year’s Fiesta Bowl when the Baylor Bears of the Big-12 take on the University of Central Florida Knights of the American Athletic Conference.
Both programs have had their alumni make an impact in the NFL. Baylor graduates include standout wide receiver Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns, NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary and that guy who has become known simply as RG III. Notable graduates from UCF include former NFL quarterback Daunte Culpepper, as well as Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears and Asante Samuel of the Atlanta Falcons.
In assessing the NFL prospects in this year’s Fiesta Bowl match-up, we first look to the two starting quarterbacks, Bryce Petty of Baylor and Blake Bortels of UCF. Both are completing their junior year and each has at least one more year of college eligibility. Bryce Petty has thrown 28 touchdowns this season against only two interceptions. He averages nearly 325 yards passing per game and leads the country with an average of over 11 yards per attempted pass. Petty’s performance is even more noteworthy when you consider the fact that he had the pressure of following the legend that is RG III at Baylor.
Many believe that Petty will benefit from one more year of development and apparently he agrees, electing to return to Baylor for his senior year after being informed that he would not be a first round selection in 2014. Pundits are predicting that if his skills continue to develop at the current rate, he could be a top 5 pick in the 2015 draft.
Petty’s quarterbacking counterpart is UCF’s Blake Bortels, also a junior who has to decide whether to return for his senior year or enter the 2014 draft. Bortles has thrown for 3,280 yards, 22 TDs and seven interceptions, and he also has rushed for five scores. If Bortles forgoes his remaining elegibility, some speculate that he could go as high as late in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. If Bortles returns for his senior year, the sky is the limit as to the potential success of the Knights in 2014, who are 11-1 this year and will be returning 18 starters next year.
There is also notable running back talent. Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk earned a five-star high school prospect rating by Rivals.com and then left his native Texas to become an Oregon Duck. Following his freshman year at Oregon, he transferred to Baylor. Based upon size comparisons, speed, agility and vision on the field, Seastrunk reminds me a lot of Ray Rice. He is projected to be a late first or early second round draft pick in 2014, and is mentioned with the likes of Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, Washington’s Bishop Sankey and Auburn’s Tre Mason.
Baylor’s offensive guard Cyril Richardson is also talked about at or near the same ranking as Seastrunk for this coming draft. He is a Walter Camp All-American and is a beast at 6’5” and 340 pounds. When you are the best offensive lineman for one of the most potent offenses in the country, you are going to get attention and with Richardson, that attention has been earned.
The Knights can also brag about their running back, Storm Johnson. Similar to Seastrunk, Johnson started off elsewhere (Miami Hurricanes) and then transferred. His numbers have been impressive, running for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is presently projected to be a sixth round draft pick, but his performance at the Fiesta Bowl may allow Johnson’s stock to rise.
Keep your eyes on the defensive side of the ball as well. While Baylor is known for its explosive offense, strong safety Ahmad Dixon has been dubbed a “playmaker” despite not having yet fully tapped into his potential. He has good size (6’, 205 lbs.) and is quick (clocked near a 4.5 in the 40). He is expected to go in the third round but I would not be surprised to see him snatched up earlier by the time the NFL Draft rolls around.
Baylor’s 5’10” wide receiver, Devin Reese, will also garner the attention of NFL scouts. He has a decent number of receptions despite playing just more than half of this past season after he was sidelined following a dislocated wrist suffered against Oklahoma. He has averaged a remarkable 25 yards per reception but the question remains whether he has that level of breakaway potential or whether he is merely a creation of an explosive offense. We will get some insights on January 1st as Reese has been cleared to return to action following what was first thought to be a season-ending injury. Presently, Reese is projected to be a sixth or seventh round pick in the 2014 draft.
This year’s Fiesta Bowl does not feature the upper tier of college football programs but years from now, we will likely remember that the game was played by a number of guys that will gain upper tier respect playing on Sundays in the NFL.