Bruins and Trojans of today — and maybe NFL stars of tomorrow
Put down the leather ball. Pick up the crystal ball.
The showdown Saturday between UCLA and USC will give spectators a glimpse of at least a dozen future NFL players, and maybe more. The rosters are packed with prospects, and, in a departure from recent years, there may be more Bruins than Trojans who will wind up playing on Sundays.
In recent years, the NFL scales have tipped heavily in favor of USC, which boasts 85 draft picks since 2000, with 37 of those having been selected in the first or second rounds. During that period, UCLA has had 28 picks, nine of whom were chosen in the first two rounds.
To get a better feel for what type of budding pro talent will be on the Coliseum field, The Times asked three NFL team scouts to identify the dozen most intriguing prospects in the game, regardless of their class or draft eligibility. The scouts spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information.
It’s an academic exercise in fantasy football for a number of reasons.
First, scouts do not fully evaluate a player until he is a) eligible for the draft, b) has declared he’s leaving school early for the draft, or c) is likely to leave early for the draft. Partly as a courtesy to the NCAA, its de facto farm system, the NFL does not want its scouts to evaluate underclassmen. There will be ample time to study those players — and that typically involves watching every one of their college snaps — when they are eventually eligible. There’s no real advantage to getting an early jump.
A few of the players on this list are underclassmen and have not been put under the microscope. Their best qualities have caught the attention of scouts, but their game video has not been dissected to determine precisely what they can and cannot do on the field.
Second, this is not a projection of where these players will be selected. Teams place a higher value on certain positions — quarterback, of course, along with left tackle, pass rushers and cornerbacks.
Myles Jack, UCLA, linebacker and running back: Jack, a freshman, stands out on both sides of the ball. The evaluators called him the best pure player on the field, one with uncanny skills, particularly for someone a year removed from high school.
Scout 1: “I think he’s a better linebacker, but he’s been really impressive playing both ways. He just does things naturally on the football field as far as seeing things, reacting. He’s a very physical and explosive player. He seems to have all the attributes to be a very good football player in the NFL three or four years from now.”
Scout 2: “He just jumps out at you. So instinctive, and that’s just as a linebacker making plays all over the field. As a runner, he’s violent. He’s got really good power for his size, runs behind his pads and has really good speed. … True freshmen are still 18 years old. It’s really rare to see someone that polished.”
Scout 3: “He sells out on both sides of the ball. He makes a lot of plays in coverage, and for a true freshman that’s very rare. You can have a guy play for four years and not make plays in coverage.”
Anthony Barr, UCLA, linebacker: Barr switched to linebacker last season from offense and exploded onto the scene, leading the nation with 131/2 sacks and earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He was such a play-wrecker, his UCLA coaches once pulled him out of the lineup during practice so they could run their offense.
Scout 1: “He’s the most athletic guy out there, especially with his speed. You can see a few holes in his game, but he’s going to be a high pick, regardless. … People have to remember it’s only his second season at the position, and he’s only going to get better, get stronger, learn to play the blocks better. In terms of pure athletic ability and rush off the edge, he’s special.”
Scout 3: “Teams have really accounted for him better this year. Last year he snuck up on people. … I’m sure there have been games this year when he’s been really frustrated because teams have gone out of their way to eliminate him as their first priority.”
Marqise Lee, USC, receiver: After catching a Pac-12-record 118 passes last season, Lee has struggled through shoulder, knee and shin injuries this year. He’s a junior, and many people are expecting him to leave for the NFL after this season.
Scout 2: “He hasn’t had near the production he had last year, but he’s been hurt too. He’s a talented kid. He’s fast, good hands, not a big guy, but he’s got good enough size.”
Scout 3: “After the coaching change, and when things settled down at quarterback, you could see him come back to form. Still not where he has been in the past, and I don’t think he’ll get there this year, but obviously the guy has shown for several years what he can do. … I think he can be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but a step below that tier of top-end, Pro Bowl-type guys.”
Brett Hundley, UCLA, quarterback: Hundley caught everyone’s eye as a redshirt freshman last season and still seems to be only scratching the surface of his abilities. He set UCLA’s single-season record for passing yardage last season with 3,740 yards. Although Hundley could make himself available for the draft after this season, these scouts said that would be a mistake.
Scout 1: “I’d like to see him come back for another year. He needs more snaps. If he decides to come out, he’ll be a high pick because of his skill set. He can throw from the pocket. He can throw on the run. … He appears to be able to make most of the throws at this point. … There’s no rush to get to the NFL, because he’s not going to get those reps early on as a backup.”
Scout 2: “He’s got the arm and he’s athletic. The game’s still a little fast for him, this is only his second year starting. He needs to process a little faster and develop the vision, just typical stuff that young quarterbacks need to work through.”
Scout 3: “The things I’m looking for from him are standing in the pocket, finding second reads, and finishing throws rather than looking to make plays with his feet. It seems like he’s trying to break that comfort zone of always relying on his athleticism.”
Leonard Williams, USC, defensive line: A sophomore, Williams was voted Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year last season. He has played through a shoulder injury this season and has six sacks.
Scout 3: “He’s a premier player who can impact the game as much as any defensive lineman in the country. … He plays with a nonstop motor and can impact the game both as a pass rusher and run defender. A very complete player.”
Nelson Agholor, USC, receiver: A sophomore, Agholor has elevated his profile in Lee’s absence this season. Speedy, smart and a hard worker, this playmaker returned two punts for touchdowns against California.
Scout 1: “Lee has gotten all the attention, but No. 15 [Agholor] might be an even better receiver. He’s a very good player.”
Scout 3: “Usually the first thing guys can do when they’re this young and making plays is they can stretch the field. As they get older, they mature as a receiver in terms of route running, in terms of sight adjustment, as far as what they’re seeing from a defense. That’s when you see a guy develop that great trust with a quarterback. That will be his next step.”
Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA, offensive line: Su’a-Filo will turn 23 on Jan. 1, but he’s still a junior because, after playing his freshman season, he spent two years on a Mormon mission. He’s very agile and has been playing tackle because of injuries on the line, but he projects to be a guard in the pros.
Scout 3: “He’s a dominant guy and has a chance to be a good pro. He’s a pretty complete player. He can run-block, he’s got a lot of experience. He’s got good size, and there are very few holes in his game.”
Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA linebacker: Long and lean, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Zumwalt is built like a power forward and has great sideline-to-sideline range that complements his toughness.
Scout 1: “He’s aggressive and active, a little bit tight in the hips. That means he’s a little bit of a straight-line runner. I’d say he’d go somewhere around the fifth or sixth round. If he runs well [at the combine and/or pro day], somebody might get excited and take him higher. … He’ll be a good depth ‘backer for a team and a special teamer.”
Scout 3: “He’ll strike you, put his face on you. He’s a tough, hardworking linebacker that plays the game the right way. He’s got some limitations physically just in terms of top-end speed and suddenness. But he’s a guy that will work downhill, fill [holes], and he’ll strike.”
Devon Kennard, USC, linebacker: A team captain and two-time Pac-12 All-Academic selection, Kennard has eight sacks, second in the conference.
Scout 1: “He’s a great kid who is a leader, is tough and has been a productive player. He’ll be an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He’s not the fastest but has good instincts. The type of person who has enough talent to play, and the type of kid you want in your locker room.”
Cassius Marsh, UCLA, defensive line: Versatile and aggressive, Marsh has lined up at tight end and has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last two seasons. His father and brother, both named Curtis, played in the NFL.
Scout 1: “He’s a physically talented kid, but he’s a little bit of a tweener right now. We’re trying to figure out, is he a 3-4 outside linebacker? … A traditional 4-3 team would probably want him to bulk up a little more and be more of a left end. … He’s got some burst and explosiveness to him. It’s just that at 265 pounds, he’s right in between playing defensive end and outside ‘backer.”
Scout 3: “He plays with his hair on fire. Guy’s all over the place. He’s always on the verge of personal fouls. That can cause problems if a guy doesn’t know how to control himself, but you want a guy that’s relentless and is trying to make plays.”
Javorius Allen, USC, running back: A third-year sophomore, Allen was buried on the depth chart but got an opportunity after teammates suffered injuries and the Trojans changed coaches. In three of USC’s last four games, he’s had three three-touchdown outings.
Scout 3: “The guy’s been extremely productive, and that always jumps out at you. They’ve got so many guys who can touch it in that backfield. … You never get that one bell-cow guy there. The fact he’s been so productive in terms of touchdowns is a tribute to the kid, but we haven’t started really looking at him yet. Interesting guy moving forward.”
Xavier Grimble, USC, tight end: A fourth-year junior who has been slowed by injuries, Grimble has been getting more opportunities lately. He caught a season-high six passes at Colorado this month.
Scout 1: “Grimble is a big tight end who has a pretty good all-around game. He has had a few injuries which have caused him to miss time. He’s a decent blocker and receiver. He doesn’t jump out on tape and he will be an interesting guy to evaluate if he declares. He has a lot of hype, but it will be interesting to see how he holds up in regards to evaluating his blocking, receiving skills and speed. “
Among the other players the scouts expect to get NFL chances are UCLA defensive tackle Seali’i Epenesa, UCLA receiver Shaquelle Evans and USC linebacker Hayes Pullard.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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