The Reese's Senior Bowl released its watch list of 2023 NFL Draft hopefuls on Wednesday, consisting of 485 prospects from 100-plus college programs.
It's no shock that powerhouse Alabama leads the way with 12 players on the list, followed by LSU with 11. But you might be a bit surprised by the SEC school that's tied for third overall (along with N.C. State) with 10 total prospects. Here are five things you need to know about this year's watch list for the annual all-star game, which will be held in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 4, 2023, and broadcast live on NFL Network (2:30 p.m. ET).
NOTE: The watch list does not include many third- or fourth-year juniors who could become eligible to play in the all-star game if they graduate by December 2022, per the Senior Bowl.
1) How about Kentucky?
Head coach Mark Stoops has done a tremendous job turning around the once-dormant Wildcats program that now has produced 17 draft picks over the past four cycles. That's the same number of draft picks the program produced from the 2006 draft all the way through the 2018 draft.
Leading the way for the 10 Wildcats on the list this year is QB Will Levis. Since transferring from Penn State prior to the 2021 season, Levis has improved markedly as a passer -- especially down the stretch last season -- and is considered one of the top players at his position.
Other Kentucky prospects of note include RB Chris Rodriguez Jr., who could become the school's all-time leading rusher this season, and WR Tayvion Robinson, a transfer from Virginia Tech.
But Levis is the Wildcats' showcase prospect this cycle, and UK's schedule will provide him plenty of opportunities to prove himself.
"We've spent a lot of time studying Will, and I've had the chance to see him throw live a couple times this summer," said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who saw Levis throw at both the Manning Passing Academy in July and at Kentucky's training camp in early August.
"Physically, he has everything NFL teams are looking for. More importantly, his coaches and former teammates can't say enough good things about his work ethic and competitiveness.
"I know he's exhausted himself in his preparation this season. We can't wait to see him play this fall."
2) QB depth shines
Levis isn't the only highly touted QB to make the list. It includes Virginia's Brennan Armstrong, Louisville's Malik Cunningham, Fresno State's Jake Haener, Tennessee's Hendon Hooker, Boston College's Phil Jurkovec, N.C. State's Devin Leary, Purdue's Aidan O'Connell, Utah's Cam Rising and Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders. Also, the list features the offensive MVP of Georgia's national title game win over Alabama, Stetson Bennett.
O'Connell is a former walk-on who threw for 536 yards versus Michigan State and 534 against Tennessee last season. Leary has improved his accuracy and registered a 35:5 TD-INT ratio a year ago.
Jurkovec, a former Notre Dame transfer, is tall (6-foot-5, per school measurements) and can be a bit freewheeling, from his delivery to the off-schedule plays he makes. He was limited after returning from a hand injury late last season but is healthy now.
The lefty Armstrong led a prolific Cavaliers offense a year ago and has most of his receivers returning. Hooker might have been at the 2022 Senior Bowl had he not opted to return to school to build off a successful 2021 season. Haener is a gritty competitor with a never-say-die approach.
"Last year's senior class probably had more definitive names at the top going in with guys like Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder and Malik Willis," Nagy said. "But this current group has significantly more depth in the middle to late rounds."
Typically, the Senior Bowl invites six or eight quarterbacks, either three or four per team roster. But Nagy suggested that there might be no shortage of candidates for the 2023 squad to fill those spots.
"There are 15 to 20 guys on our Senior Bowl board right now that have a realistic shot at being in Mobile," Nagy said. "It's going to be fun seeing which guys seize the opportunity as seniors."
3) Plenty of other skill-position talent available
The early word on the offensive line class is that it might not be quite as robust as the ones we've seen in recent seasons, at least heading into the season.
The skill-position talent, however, looks like it could pretty respectable.
Running back appears to be a strong group, especially thanks to one big name coming back to college and one reserve waiting his turn at a powerhouse program. Two of the more touted senior backs are UCLA's Zach Charbonnet, who surprised some by returning to the Bruins for the 2022 season, and Georgia's Kenny McIntosh, who has a mere 163 college touches but could be the Bulldogs' next star at the position.
Other talented senior backs include Kentucky's Rodriguez, Texas' Roschon Johnson, Oklahoma's Eric Gray, Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim, USC's Travis Dye, Appalachian State's Camerun Peoples and LSU's John Emery Jr.
Wide receivers also could be in strong supply in Mobile next winter -- and there's quite a bit of size at the position.
Some of the most intriguing senior wideouts include Stanford's Elijah Higgins, Maryland's Dontay Demus Jr., Wake Forest's A.T. Perry, Tennessee's Cedric Tillman, SMU's Rashee Rice and Michigan's Cornelius Johnson. All of them are 6-foot or taller, with all but Rice listed by their schools at 6-3 or taller.
Tight end could be a very solid group this year, even if the top options might end up including some underclassmen.
The top senior TE prospects on the list include the Michigan duo of Luke Schoonmaker and Erick All, Iowa's Sam LaPorta, Alabama's Cameron Latu, Oregon State's Luke Musgrave (nephew of former NFL QB and coach Bill Musgrave), Miami's Will Mallory, Old Dominion's Zack Kuntz, Cincinnati's Josh Whyle, Texas' Jahleel Billingsley and Utah's potent pair, Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe.
4) Let's not forget about the defense
If I had to identify an early strength for the 2023 NFL Draft, it might be in the defensive trenches. There are a few potential early draft picks who could end up in Mobile.
At edge rusher, Georgia's Nolan Smith, Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson, Army's Andre Carter II and Iowa State's Will McDonald IV lead the way. What Smith lacks in raw size and power, he makes up for in exciting athleticism. Wilson might be the highest-drafted Red Raiders defender in a few years, blessed with rare length and pop. Carter could be the highest-drafted Army player since the Glenn Davis-Doc Blanchard days of the mid-1940s.
On the interior, there is an intriguing blend of size and quickness. Texas' Keondre Coburn, Wisconsin's Keeanu Benton and Penn State's PJ Mustipher check off plenty of boxes in terms of mass. Quicker, more agile DTs include South Carolina's Zacch Pickens, Oregon's Brandon Dorlus, Oklahoma's Jalen Redmond, Missouri's Darius Robinson, Clemson's Tyler Davis and Alabama's DJ Dale and Byron Young.
Linebacker could feature two Senior Bowl prospects making shorter, in-state trips down I-65 to Mobile. Alabama's Henry To'o To'o and Auburn's Owen Pappoe are two of the best LB prospects in the senior class, both considered twitchy, athletic specimens befitting of a modern linebacker. Other top prospects at the position include Iowa standout Jack Campbell, Texas' DeMarvion Overshown, UCLA's Darius Muasau and TCU's Dee Winters.
Cornerback might end up another strong position in the senior class when it's all said and done, with the list highlighted by Ohio State's Cameron Brown, Miami's Tyrique Stevenson, Purdue's Cory Trice, Louisville's Kei'Trel Clark, Stanford's Kyu Blu Kelly, Iowa's Riley Moss, Texas A&M's Myles Jones and Illinois' Devon Witherspoon.
Safety standouts among the seniors includes some strength at the top, starting with Boise State's freakish JL Skinner, Alabama's Jordan Battle, Ohio State's Josh Proctor, Minnesota's Tyler Nubin, Houston's Gervarrius Owens, Georgia's Christopher Smith and Florida State's Jammie Robinson.
5) Prospects from outside the FBS to keep an eye on
The 2022 Senior Bowl featured 10 FCS players who were drafted, including first-round OLs Trevor Penning and Cole Strange, second-rounders Christian Watson and Troy Andersen and two players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (fourth-rounder Joshua Williams and seventh-rounder Ja'Tyre Carter).
Nagy said he and his staff are excited about the prospects from outside the FBS on the watch list. Asked to name a few players to keep tabs on this coming season, Nagy mentioned Shepherd QB Tyson Bagent, North Dakota State OT Cody Mauch, Quincy (Ill.) OL B.J. Wilson, Arkansas-Pine Bluff OL Mark Evans II, Chattanooga OL McClendon Curtis, Towson edge rusher Jesus Gibbs, Stephen F. Austin edge rusher BJ Thompson, Holy Cross LB Jacob Dobbs and Northern Iowa S Benny Sapp III.
Bagent, who was the 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy winner (top player in Division II), has already set school passing records and has earned a reputation as a late-game hero. He led Shepherd to a 30-28 win over Kutztown in the final seconds of their playoff game last year.
If Bagent is drafted next spring, he'd be the school's first draft pick since RB Wayne Wilson was chosen 324th overall (Round 12) in 1979 by the Houston Oilers.
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