PASADENA, Calif. -- Every year the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl brings some of the best draft-eligible prospects to the Rose Bowl looking to show they have what it takes to play at the next level.
It's every college player's dream to take the field at the iconic Pasadena stadium, right? This week, the venue hosts participants competing to impress NFL coaches and scouts in advance of the 2023 NFL Draft. Here are six of the most intriguing players from practices, which lead up to Saturday's game.
The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will air exclusively on NFL Network at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 28.
Sean Clifford, QB, Penn State
Clifford, who's playing for the American team led by former NFL head coach Jeff Fisher this week, helped Penn State to a win over Utah at the Rose Bowl just a few weeks ago. He finished that game with 279 yards passing and two touchdowns, earning Offensive MVP honors.
In the first few days of practice, Clifford has already impressed his coach.
"There's a great deal of talent there," Fisher said of the quarterback. "When you talk about a starting quarterback at Penn State University, you talk about their experience and just to watch him here handle himself for the first couple of days of practice."
One scout told me, "Clifford's played a lot of ball. You can tell that Clifford is probably the most operationally sound. He's the most polished. He knows what he's doing."
Clifford is one of just two players who were four-time team captains during their careers at Penn State. He posted a career-high 24 passing touchdowns in 13 starts in his final season with the Nittany Lions.
Malik Cunningham, QB, Louisville
Another quarterback to watch is Cunningham, who is no stranger to being compared to one of his predecessors at Louisville, the Ravens' Lamar Jackson.
Cunningham, who spent five seasons with the Cardinals compared to Jackson's three, finished with 120 career touchdowns at Louisville, one more than Jackson. At just under six feet and 187 pounds Cunningham is a tad shorter and slighter than the 2019 NFL MVP. At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, Jackson measured 6-2 and 216 pounds.
"Lamar is a player not from this earth. He's very different," Cunningham said this week. "We have a lot of similar things. I enjoy the comparisons. I love that but we're both our own player. I do play my game behind him. It's a blessing to be able to be in the same category as him. He's where I want to get at. I'm blessed to have him in my corner."
Said one scout of Cunningham: "(He) probably looked the best, the most talented [of the quarterbacks]. He has a ton of tape at Louisville. He's played a lot of ball. We kind of know what to expect. He's a good athlete."
The Reese's Senior Bowl seemed to agree with that assessment, as it announced on Wednesday that Cunningham has accepted an invitation to participate in the game (Feb. 4 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network), with practices beginning next week in Mobile, Alabama (live practice coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET on NFL+ from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2).
Emari Demercado, RB, TCU
Less than three weeks after playing in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Demercado is back in his home state looking to show he can provide more games like his performance in the CFP semifinal versus Michigan, when he rushed for a career-high 150 yards.
The Inglewood, California, native finished the 2022 season with a career-best 681 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
An incredible month became even more memorable for Demercado this week. He hopped on a plane from Los Angeles back to Texas on Monday night just in time for the birth of his first child. His son, Elijah, was born on Tuesday and shortly after, Demercado returned to Pasadena in time to make it for practice that day.
Demercado caught a nice pass down the sideline during one-on-one drills on Wednesday. He's been working on his pass protection at the beginning of practice, taking extra time to focus on his technique and footwork.
According to one scout in attendance, Demercado had one of the better practices of the day.
"I like the way he's built," the scout said. "I think he's a thick, sturdy (running back), low to the ground. He's short, which is good for a back. He's fumbled one time in his career. He had good hands in practice earlier. He's very, very smart and he's polished. You get him and you know exactly what you're getting."
Joseph Ngata, WR, Clemson
Ngata was a five-star recruit out of high school. There were high expectations for him at Clemson, but he struggled to reach them during an injury-plagued career.
He had his healthiest year in his final season with the Tigers, posting a career-high 526 yards in 14 starts, including a career-best eight catches in his final collegiate game.
Ngata had a diving catch over the middle during Tuesday's practice and showed off his athleticism on some downfield passes Wednesday.
At 6-3, 220 pounds, Ngata looks the part of an NFL wide receiver.
Jason Taylor II, S, Oklahoma State
Taylor has said his decision to attend Oklahoma State was inspired by his father, who was an Oklahoma State fan. Tragically, his father was shot and killed outside an Oklahoma City convenience store when Jason was 8 years old.
Despite the adversity he faced at such a young age, Taylor became one of the top players in the Big 12, earning first-team all-conference honors in 2022. He led Oklahoma State in tackles (99) and interceptions (6) this past season. He's already turning heads this week on the practice field in Pasadena.
"He's physical," said one scout. "He had a lot of on-ball production. He's a good player."
Steven Jones Jr., CB, Appalachian State
Jones finished the 2022 season leading the Mountaineers with 15 pass breakups and is already making a name for himself on the field at the Rose Bowl.
"His movement was good," said one scout of Jones, who measured just under 5-10 and 185 pounds.
"He's a little undersized for most teams but he's a player," another scout said. "I'm pretty sure a lot of teams are going to see that and say (he) can play. There's always room for undersized (players). He's going to be an epitome of that being the undersized guy that is really showing what he can do."
As for what he's done well so far during practice, "He sticks with his man," one scout said. "He's what they call a sticky player. He's always there. He's close to get his hand on the ball and I think that's what you have to be. You don't have the extra length but he stays with guys. Both days he's excelled getting his hands on them."
Jones had an interception in practice on Wednesday that would have been a pick-six in a game setting. Jones finished his collegiate career with four pick-sixes.