Four weeks from now, the 86th NFL draft will begin on April 29 across iconic locations in downtown Cleveland, and every 2021 NFL draft analyst in the country is saying BYU quarterback Zach Wilson will hear his name called in the first round, perhaps as early as the No. 2 pick — to the New York Jets.
Another BYU player who completed his junior season last December when the Cougars rocked Central Florida 49-23 in the Boca Raton Bowl and then declared for the draft a few weeks later, uber-athletic left tackle Brady Christensen, is hoping to be selected on April 30, when the second and third rounds are held, but will probably go in rounds four or five on May 1, most experts say.
What about the other Cougars who are draft eligible? Eighteen other former Cougars participated in BYU’s pro day last week, and although Wilson and Christensen received the bulk of the attention and accolades — for good reason — guys such as Micah Simon, Matt Bushman, Khyiris Tonga, Chris Wilcox, Dax Milne, Chandon Herring and Tristen Hoge turned some heads as well.
Other participants included Zayne Anderson, Zac Dawe, Kavika Fonua, Isaiah Kaufusi and Cougars who, like Simon, exhausted their eligibility in 2019 but did not have a pro day last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Isaiah Armstrong, Aleva Hifo, Batchlor Johnson IV, Austin Lee and Beau Tanner.
Defensive tackle Bracken El-Bakri fell ill the night before the event and was only measured, checking in at 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, while safety Troy Warner, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, sustained a pectoral muscle injury while doing bench presses and was unable to continue.
After the proceedings, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said it was one of the most effectively planned and organized pro days he’s attended and applauded BYU for the effort. He was also impressed by the depth of this year’s departing class.
“I think (NFL teams) know when they get a BYU kid, they are getting a really tough kid,” Jeremiah said. “The best thing that can happen for a program, in my opinion, is when you have a marquee quarterback, because it just gives you so much exposure.”
Simon sticks to it
Simon, the receiver from Bishop Dunne High in Dallas, who went undrafted last year after catching 51 passes for 616 yards and two touchdowns for the Cougars in 2019, should probably buy Wilson dinner if their paths ever cross in the pros.
With Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer and offensive coordinator Joe Brady on hand to watch Wilson, presumably, Simon clocked a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, then ran routes and caught some of the 60 or so passes that Wilson threw a few minutes later.
On Tuesday, the Panthers signed Simon to a three-year, minimum contract. Simon’s agent, Harold Bicknell, confirmed the signing to the Deseret News on Wednesday.
Wilcox works his magic
Another player who showed blazing speed at BYU’s Indoor Practice Facility was cornerback Chris Wilcox, who opted out of the bowl game last December and obviously made the most of the extra training time. On the tall side for a corner — Wilcox is 6-2 and 198 pounds — the senior who graduated last April ran a day’s best 4.31 in the 40 and also posted a 37.5-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 6-inch broad jump, which was only bettered by Hifo (10 feet, 7 inches).
“That was the goal all along,” Wilcox said of his 40 time. “The fastest I had hit was like 4.40. I knew when I saw all the coaches in front of me and the adrenaline was pumping, that the goal (was attainable), for sure.”
Wilcox, who has signed with Athletes First and agent Andrew Kessler, said he has talked to “over half” of the 32 teams in the NFL since December when he decided he didn’t want to risk injury and play in the bowl game.
“Today was a day to get my name out there, and I knew I had to make a big statement today. I feel like I did,” Wilcox said. “We will just see how it goes from here. I talked to a couple scouts after and I feel like they liked the results. … I just wanted to show them that I am physical, that I can be a press man corner for a team. And that they are just going to get a dawg if they give me a chance.”
Tonga trims down, turns in 35 reps
Another defensive player who shined was Tonga, the nose tackle who probably would have been drafted last year but returned for his senior season and helped the Cougars hold opponents to 317.4 yards per game, 10th-best in the country. Having slimmed down to 325 pounds through some intense workouts in Florida the past few months, Tonga had 35 reps in the bench press to show he didn’t lose any strength.
“I went out to Florida at 335 and I got all the way down to 310,” he said. “But I didn’t feel comfortable at being that light. I tried to get my weight back in a healthy way, so I got back to 325 and I am pretty happy with this weight and the way I am moving. I feel good with it.”
The 35 reps at 225 pounds was the best of the day at BYU and ties Tonga for the fourth-most reps ever by a Cougar at an NFL combine or pro day. Fellow defensive lineman Dawe put up 33 reps, while Christensen had 30.
Tonga has signed with agent David Canter, who also represents Zayne Anderson and Kavika Fonua.
“I have talked to a good amount of teams,” Tonga said. “If I hear from (more) after pro day, I will be happy. That’s something I expect and I hope they were able to see how I was able to move today.”
Tonga ran a 5.02 40, a 7.82 in the 3-cone drill and a 4.6 in the 20-yard shuttle.
“Having Zach here definitely helped a lot,” Tonga said. “I think it helps everyone. Everyone had the opportunity to showcase their skills and guys under the radar that didn’t have the opportunity got the opportunity and everyone did well. I think today was a success for everyone.”
Don’t sleep on Matt Bushman
Bushman, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound tight end who missed the entire 2020 season with a ruptured Achilles was another Cougar with a lot to prove. He bypassed the 40 and the broad jump because he didn’t have time to work on those events while he rehabbed the past six months since surgery, but he put up a 32.5-inch vertical and did 23 bench presses.
He also ran routes and caught passes from Wilson, showing off the “honey hands” that marked his first three seasons at BYU when he was fully healthy.
“I think my film just speaks for itself and will help me out,” Bushman said. “The biggest question was, ‘What will he be able to do today? How will he look running routes, or doing position drills?’ I think being able to go out there and run routes and go through the script with Zach and the other receivers showed, ‘Hey, I am not that far off.’ And I am basically back. So that was super helpful.”
Bushman’s agent is Steve Feldman. Obviously, the injury hurts his draft status, after he was a probable mid-rounder last year before deciding to return.
“I have talked to plenty of teams, and they have said I have film from the past, and they know how to analyze film,” he said. “They know I can play. So the biggest question was my Achilles and I was able to show them I am back and I will be ready by training camp, preseason, whatever. I will be ready for it.”
Bushman is married to the daughter of former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis and has leaned on BYU’s associate athletic director for development to guide him through the draft training process.
“He is a great guy to lean on,” Bushman said.
Milne is Mr. Reliable
Another high-producing BYU pass-catcher who was part of Wilson’s script last week, the 6-foot, 193-pound Milne, didn’t show blazing speed in the 40 for a receiver, clocking in at 4.54 seconds, but was able to show off his precise route-running skills and dependable hands.
“I did have good times, but I wanted to do better,” he said. “My 40 was just about what everyone thought I would get, and I am proud of that. Overall, it was a pretty good day for me.”
Milne’s agent is Collin Roberts of REP 1 Sports.
“I think what will set me apart from other receivers coming into the league is my ability to pick up the playbook and be a fast learner,” said the former Bingham High product. “I did a good job with that coming into BYU and another physical thing that will set me apart is my ability to get separation and finish the play. Having reliability and good hands is what it is all about as a receiver in the league.”
Herring, Hoge helped themselves, too
Herring, the offensive lineman, checked in at 6-foot-6.6 and 307 pounds and posted a 4.94 time in the 40. He did 26 bench presses and has Orem-based Evan Brennan as an agent. Herring’s versatility is a strength, having played guard and tackle at BYU and having also shown the ability to play center, if needed.
Herring turned some heads at the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas, in January and at 25 is a bit older than the average college senior, having served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before his four seasons at BYU, but his physical and mental maturity could be seen as a strength, noted Dane Brugler of the Athletic.
Hoge is another senior from BYU’s outstanding O line in 2020 who would hear his name called in the later rounds of the draft, or go the undrafted free agent route. Battles with COVID-19 and pneumonia limited his playing time in 2020.