Throughout the college football season, Shrine Bowl Director of Football Operations and Player Personnel Eric Galko will introduce us to his top performers from the previous week’s action – the names you should know…because he n t’s never too early to talk about the NFL Draft. .
Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington
Penix began his college career at Indiana University, where he totaled 4,197 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions from 2018 to 2021. Since transferring to Washington before the 2022 season, Penix has totaled 5,973 yards, 43 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 16 games. And through three games this season, Penix has 12 touchdowns against just one pick and has set career records in completion percentage (74.3) and yards per attempt (11.8). Unsurprisingly, Penix has been a frequent topic of conversation this season on “With the First Pick,” the NFL Draft podcast I host with Rick Spielman.
Eric Galko: “Penix continues to display NFL precision on the field, on the perimeter and in field goal range. His placement, clear control and confidence on offense shine through on film every week, and another dominant performance against Michigan State only pushed him further into a higher tier of QB in one of the strongest QB groups we’ve seen in a long time.”
Ainias Smith, WR, Texas A&M
Smith combined for 90 catches, 1,073 yards and four touchdowns in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, but he only made four appearances last year before suffering a leg injury. He’s back in 2023, picking up where he left off; he has 13 receptions for 194 yards in three games, with more than half and 65% of the receiving yards coming last week against Louisiana-Monroe. Added bonus: he also poses a threat in the second leg.
Galko: “Ainias has become a complete and dynamic weapon this season. He still shows the ability to finish in the short zone and create big plays with speed and balance, but is now showing increased route development and nuance. His perimeter routes, his digs, adjustments to a mobile QB, and hand usage have all taken a step further this year, and his versatility as an offensive weapon should be highly regarded by NFL coaches come draft time.
For more coverage of the project, you can hear in-depth analysis twice a week on “With the first choice” — our year-round NFL Draft podcast that features former longtime Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. You can find “With First Choice” wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Youtubeetc. Listen to the latest episode below!
Tory Horton, WR, Colorado State
Horton spent his first two seasons at the University of Nevada, where he totaled 72 catches for 995 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 14 games with Colorado State, he had 96 catches for 1,345 yards and nine scores, and he also made an impact as a punt returner. Horton finished the 2022 season, his first in Fort Collins, with five 100-yard receiving games, including a 196-yard effort against San Jose St. and another 131 yards against New Mexico.
Galko: “Even though it was a loss, Horton took advantage of his opportunity on the national stage. Despite being the center of the defensive game plan, Horton still had the take of the night along the line sideline and constantly made defenders miss when he got the score.” Players who can win with speed down the field, finish with tight/perimeter catches, and win as an elusive receiver under the route are both difficult to find and greatly appreciated in today’s NFL. “
Xavier Weaver, WR, Colorado
Weaver began his career at the University of South Florida, where he accumulated 116 catches for 1,735 yards and eight touchdowns in four seasons. In his first year with the Buffs, he already had 25 receptions for 386 yards and two scores.
Galko: “Xavier Weaver was a dynamic impact receiver for South Florida last year, but his production and development as a receiver has taken a major leap since arriving at Colorado, and it shows within his attack. In addition to being used on quick screens and short-zone throws to take advantage of his elusiveness and burst, Weaver displayed exceptional downfield separation and route confidence, and it’s clear why Shedeur Sanders quickly made him his go-to receiver.
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Jack Nelson, occupational therapist, Wisconsin
Nelson has been on the offensive line since 2021, when he started 13 games at right guard. He moved to left tackle in 2022 and has made 15 starts there, including three this season.
Galko: “Nelson is one of the best offensive tackles in the 2024 NFL Draft who hasn’t nearly gotten enough attention despite the incredible pedigree of Wisconsin offensive linemen in the NFL. Georgia Southern has attacked defensively with several manners, tackling Nelson and the entire offensive line with stunts, edge blitzes, delays and multiple defensive looks, but Nelson showed off his high-end lateral movement, finishing power and natural slide overall in this one. As Big Ten play heats up, keep an eye on Nelson against some of the best pass rushers in the conference, as he will show his potential as a starter in the NFL.
Jer’Zhan Newton, DL, Illinois
Last spring, the Illini defense had three players drafted in Rounds 1-3: cornerback Devon Witherspoon (fifth overall), cornerback Quan Martin (47th overall) and safety Sydney Brown (66th in total). Newton could end up being the best player on this unit; his motor is through the roof, he plays with heavy hands, he’s incredibly athletic for his size and his short-area burst shows up all over the tape. He’s a great blend of power and speed who has racked up 5.5 sacks in 2022 and already has two sacks in three games this season.
Galko: “Even though Penn State came away with the victory, it’s hard to watch this film and not be immediately impressed with Newton against one of the best offensive lines he’ll face this year. He had seven pressures in the game, including four coming against different offensive linemen, and one against Olu Fashanu, a future top-five draft pick. His active hands, his balance as he advances and his ability to be explosive at every stage of his pursuit are rare and will be coveted during the draft process.”
Steele Chambers, LB, Ohio State
Chambers began his career at Ohio State as a running back, and in two seasons he averaged 7.9 yards per carry on 28 touches, including one touchdown. But he moved to linebacker in 2021 and started 17 consecutive games there.
Galko: “In one of the best defensive performances of the week, Steele Chambers dominated against Western Kentucky in the run game, as a penetrator in the run and pass game, and as a dynamic coverage linebacker with an interception on the perimeter. Chambers’ movement, twitch and explosiveness when attacking jumped off the film in this game, even alongside Ohio State’s many talented future NFL players. Chambers can play multiple positions linebacker in the NFL, and this play highlighted all the different ways he can impact a defense.”
Ben Bywater, LB, BYU
Bywater is coming off an excellent 2022 campaign in which he had four tackles for loss, a sack and three interceptions, including a pick-six. He also flashed at the start of the 2023 season; he has been the team’s leading tackler in four straight games, and after a nine-tackle performance against Sam Houston State, he has 14 career games with more than nine tackles.
Galko: “It’s a credit to the entire BYU defense, they held Arkansas to just seven points in the second half as the offense led them back to victory, and the impact of Ben Bywater in the middle of defense had a huge impact on their success. The stat line may not show it, but the offense was unable to run up the middle and struggled to create separation horizontal in the running/short zone passing game due to Bywater’s vision, gap-filling, and determination, as well as his athletic movement in space.”