The Reese’s Senior Bowl takes place next week in Mobile, Ala. and yours truly and PewterReport.com’s Trevor Sikkema will be reporting live from the premier college all-star game and scouting some of the Bucs’ top prospects. There will be several big-name players at the Senior Bowl that could help Tampa Bay’s areas of need, including a couple of my favorites in San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny and UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport.
But I’ve written about them before and wanted to preview some under-the-radar prospects that are looking to raise their draft stock in Mobile. Here are five players I’ll be keeping a close eye on and I’m sure the Bucs will be scouting. (Note that there isn’t a defensive end on this list because Davenport is the only defensive end on the Senior Bowl roster that excites me as a pass rusher.)
Southern Miss RB Ito Smith – 5-9, 195
Penny and Oregon’s Royce Freeman are the bigger names as far as Senior Bowl running backs go, but keep an eye on Smith, who rushed for 4,536 yards and 42 touchdowns on 820 carries (5.5 avg.), including back-to-back seasons with at least 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns. Smith has good speed, tremendous balance and an uncanny start-stop ability with an impressive jump-cut that makes him one of the more elusive backs in the 2018 NFL Draft. He has 18 plays of 40 yards or more, including seven plays of 65 yards or more.
Smith had 23 100-yard games and played well against some good defenses, including Nebraska and Florida State. Where Smith adds value to NFL teams is his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Smith has 140 career catches for 1,446 yards (10.3 avg.) and seven touchdowns.
Look for Smith, who is a Mobile native, to put on a good show for his hometown friends and family. The Bucs will have some inside scoop on Smith as he was recruited to Southern Miss by Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Todd Monken and played two seasons for him, including his sophomore year where he rushed for 1,128 yards and 10 touchdowns on 171 carries (6.6 avg.) and caught a career-high 49 passes for 515 yards (10.5 avg.) and three touchdowns. Smith is projected to be a Day 3 draft pick.
South Alabama S Jeremy Reaves – 5-11, 205
Reaves will have some home-field advantage during the Senior Bowl, which is played at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, home of the South Alabama Jaguars. For four years, Reaves was the best player on the field for his school, and now he has a chance to become the first defensive player in South Alabama’s nine-year history to make an NFL roster.
Reaves recorded 301 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 22 pass breakups, nine forced fumbles, eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks over his Jaguars career, which included his first three seasons at cornerback and his senior year at safety. He set the school career record for pass breakups, forced fumbles and interceptions and is South Alabama’s all-time second-leading tackler.
Reaves, the 2017 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, successfully made the transition to safety where he recorded 104 tackles, eight pass breakups, seven tackles for loss, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks. His versatility will be attractive to teams like the Buccaneers who may be scouting the hard-hitting Reaves as a safety or a cornerback. He reminds me of former Louisiana Tech safety Xavier Woods, who was Dallas’ fifth-round pick last year.
“Jeremy Reaves is definitely among the best we’ve ever had,” South Alabama head coach Joey Jones said. “He’s great on the field. Leadership-wise, he’s become the epitome of what we want. That’s what makes me feel good. He’s always been good on the field, he’s developed and all that, but what he’s done off the field, he’s become a great leader – truly leading. People talk about leading, and sometimes they’re not leading like they should, but he’s a true, vocal leader who does it on the field, always in a great mood, definitely one of the most valuable people we’ve ever had in our football program.”
San Diego State CB Kameron Kelly – 6-1, 200
Kelly, who was Penny’s roommate at San Diego State, is the exact opposite of Reaves, where he spent his first three years at safety before switching to cornerback for his senior season. He recorded seven of his 10 career interceptions at safety, including five during his junior season, but was switched to cornerback to replace all-conference performer Damontae Kazee, who was drafted by Atlanta last year.
“I feel like I have all the confidence in the world,” Kelly said. “My confidence is getting to Rashaad’s level, and his confidence is crazy. … I have so much confidence in him that I tell him he can take a kickoff 9 yards in the end zone and turn it into a touchdown. I feel like having all that confidence in myself out there has helped me a lot. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m the best DB in the country. But I don’t think any receiver can catch a pass on me. That’s my mindset.”
At cornerback, Kelly recorded 67 tackles, seven pass breakups, five tackles for loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He finished his Aztecs career with 164 tackles, 15 pass breakups, 10 interceptions, eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two sacks. Kelly is a physical cornerback, who is solid in run support.
Although he’s a bigger corner than the Bucs typically deploy in the secondary, having a defensive back with Kelly’s length could be beneficial going up against big wide receivers in the NFC South like Atlanta’s Julio Jones, New Orleans’ Michael Thomas and Carolina’s Devin Funchess. Kelly is projected to be a third-round pick.
Texas A&M S Armani Watts – 5-11, 205
Watts played in the Texas A&M secondary with Justin Evans, who was Tampa Bay’s second-round pick last year, and it’s possible that the two former Aggies reunite with the Buccaneers. The muscular Watts is similarly built to Evans and plays like him, too. He’s a ball-hawking safety with great range, in addition to his ability to lay a lick on ballcarriers.
Watts, a four-year starter, finished his Texas A&M career with 324 tackles with 24 tackles for loss, 17 passes defensed, 10 interceptions, seven forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks. He recorded a career-high 126 tackles as a sophomore in 2015. Watts went out with a bang as a senior, recording 87 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five passes defensed, four interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and half a sack.
“I think he’s grown mentally and matured as a young man and as a player and blossomed into one of the better players in the league, even though the preseason SEC team didn’t reflect that — for any of the safeties,” Former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “He’s a guy that’s a tackler, he’s a guy that’s a pass defender, he’s a guy that’s a leader on our defense.”
Tampa Bay needs another safety to pair with Evans in the secondary for the long haul. Why not Watts, his former Texas A&M teammate? Watts is projected to be drafted in the second or third round.
Georgia G Isaiah Wynn – 6-2, 302
Wynn began his Bulldogs career at left guard before finishing the last five games at left tackle during the 2015 season. Then he moved back to guard the following season except for a return to left tackle in 2016. By the time he was a senior, Wynn was permanently moved to left tackle where he dominated as Georgia earned a berth in the National Championship Game.
Yet at 6-foot-2, 302 pounds, Wynn will be forced to move inside to guard due to his size. Evan at guard he won’t be mistaken for Nate Newton. Instead he’s closer in size to Tampa Bay offensive lineman Evan Smith, who is 6-foot-2, 308, or Baltimore’s Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who is 6-foot-3, 305 pounds.
Wynn is a tremendous athlete with great technique, a strong punch and quick feet. He’s adept at pulling and led the way for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to be the most productive running back duo in college football history during his Georgia career. The Bucs definitely need help at guard and Wynn, who is projected to be a second- or third-round pick, will show what he can do against some of the best defensive tackle prospects like Michigan’s Maurice Hurst.
Fort Hayes State DT Nathan Shepherd – 6-4, 300
Shepherd is a tremendous athlete with NFL size and strength that has the scouting community buzzing. He was first invited to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, which is lower in stature to the East-West Shrine Game before he was invited to the Senior Bowl where his skill set can best be evaluated against better talent.
Shepherd had a good career at Fort Hayes State where he recorded 168 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and two blocked kicks in his three-year career. Shepherd finished his senior campaign with 38 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Scouts will want to know why he didn’t produce more against a lower level of competition. He has great athleticism that jumps off the tape, but was it a lack of quality coaching? NFL scouts will also be curious as to why he didn’t transfer to a bigger school to play against better competition.
Tampa Bay could use a young tackle to develop next to Gerald McCoy and will likely draft one this year. Shepherd could generate some real buzz with a good showing in Mobile and is currently projected as a fourth or fifth-round draft pick.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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