The 2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network as well as the NFL and NFL Network apps at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 18.
PASADENA, Calif. -- Will Sunderland had big plans at Oklahoma. Once the state's highest-rated recruit coming out of high school, he eyed his junior season as the year he would star at safety and help Baker Mayfield and the Sooners win the national title.
His team would reach the College Football Playoff semifinal, but Sunderland wasn't even on the sideline for it. He'd been suspended from the team for the entire year after being charged with second-degree burglary. A few weeks after the season ended, he reached a plea bargain and announced he was transferring to Troy University in Alabama.
It was maybe the best decision he'd ever made.
"Just being 30 minutes away from home and then going 12 hours away, I had to really grow up," Sunderland said.
This week Sunderland is in Southern California for just the second time in his life. The first was five years ago as a prep standout competing in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl. That was back when working out in front of dozens of NFL scouts didn't seem like a pipe dream for Sunderland.
But after three years in Norman, Oklahoma, Sunderland barely had any snaps on film. He showed up at Troy with an open mind and renewed attitude. He soon found himself playing a new position -- nickelback. He'd gotten a sample before he left Oklahoma, going up against eventual first-rounder Marquise Brown in practice.
Sunderland didn't earn a starting job right away but would record the game-winning interception in Troy's 2018 upset of Nebraska. Before his senior year, he switched positions again, this time to cornerback. Like he had already done at Troy, he quickly made himself at home.
While taking on Arkansas State's prolific passing attack, and fellow Collegiate Bowl participant Omar Bayless, Sunderland logged an INT and two pass breakups. He finished the season with four interceptions, and Pro Football Focus rated him one of the top Group of Five corners in the country. Last month he got the invite to Pasadena.
His objective has been to prove he's the most physical and athletic corner in attendance. The 6-foot-2 defensive back made his case Wednesday when he intercepted a pass near midfield and ran it back to inside the 5. Sunderland was so excited he continued running past the end zone and up the beginning of the Rose Bowl tunnel.
"I was feeling like Forrest Gump for a minute," he joked. "My legs were just running."
As he reflected afterward on his unexpected journey, it wasn't lost on Sunderland that he probably wouldn't be in this position, much less playing cornerback, had he remained at Oklahoma.
"I'm glad that God gave me a second chance," he said. "Without Him, I wouldn't be here right now."
Making a name for himself
Chauncy Haney remembers standing in line at a Chick-fil-A and another man observing him. Haney was used to it. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, he's stood out for years, especially when he's not on a football field.
He was in the midst of his final training camp at North Greenville University in South Carolina, where he held out hopes of playing in the NFL. He had no idea that summer day the guy sizing him up was going to help possibly turn his dream into a reality.
Von Hutchins, who'd just recently joined the scouting staff of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, visited the little-known Division II school specifically to see Haney. He just didn't know what he looked like. Shortly after their unknown encounter, Hutchins was talking to the Greenville coaches when Haney approached the group and recognized the familiar face.
It was the first time a pro scout had ever visited on his behalf.
"It definitely reassured me that I do have a chance," Haney said. "Before I was thinking I had a chance."
Hutchins had studied Haney's film and gave him a list of things to work on in his senior season while mentioning the possibility of a Collegiate Bowl invite. Haney responded by tallying 16 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and a team-leading 55.5 tackles, booking his trip to Pasadena by October. His versatility -- he's played 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker -- coupled with a high motor has put him on the radar of NFL scouts as a developmental prospect.
"Throw me in there around the edge somewhere and I'll be able to handle myself," Haney said.
He hasn't disappointed thus far in Collegiate Bowl practices. One particular sequence on Wednesday included a tackle for loss and a strip-sack. During the latter, he came oh-so-close to violating the cardinal sin of hitting the quarterback as he jarred the ball loose.
"I think my shoulder hit it out," he explained. "I tried not to but my arm slipped a little bit. It's a habit, just trying to get the football. It's pretty hard. You just got to pull it back.
"You got to protect the money, baby. You just got to learn how to pull it back."
Haney has put himself in that position countless times. He knows that this week might be his best opportunity to impress future employers. If he isn't asked to attend the NFL Scouting Combine, his next showcase will be alongside NFL hopefuls from fellow FCS schools Wofford and Furman for the latter's pro day.
Haney, of course, is one of a select few participants this week from outside Division I.
"There's a lot of guys who don't know who I am," he said. "When I leave, I want everyone out here to know my name."
At the very least, it's hard not to notice him.
National defensive line coach Frostee Rucker said Mississippi State's Chauncey Rivers has been one of the team's top defensive players.
Rivers hails from the same Georgia high school (Stephenson) as the Washington Redskins' Montez Sweat and the Green Bay Packers' Preston Smith. After being dismissed from Georgia, Rivers reestablished himself as one of the nation's best junior college defensive ends before landing in Starkville.
Rucker believes Rivers moves well enough to help out at strongside linebacker if needed.
"He's very explosive. He's leading the pack right now," Rucker said. "He's strong, he's smart, he's got good position, good lean, good bend."
Another prospect Rucker has had his eye on is Ron'Dell Carter. Despite carrying the frame of an edge (6-foot-3, 270 pounds), Carter played multiple spots for James Madison. Accordingly, Rucker has been giving him reps inside and outside this week.
"He's holding up, he's a very smart, intelligent kid, and smart and physical," Rucker said. "Sort of like me, he may be a guy that towards the end of his career if he gets a lengthy career, he can play inside. I played my first seven outside, then I went inside. He's a guy I could see in that same mold.
"The game of football is changing with all these RPOs and the dink and dunk. More guys are running. Offensive linemen aren't 350 anymore either, so these guys do have an opportunity to play inside and out. It's all about your matchups."