The beginning of the college football season is finally upon us with 14 games taking place this evening. The most intriguing matchup from a scouting perspective happens to be the one on television, as Wisconsin hosts UNLV.
UNLV doesn't feature a great deal of prospects, but Wisconsin is loaded.
The Rebels' top prospect is senior receiver Phillip Payne, a standout for UNLV since the local prep star signed with the team four years ago. The 6-3, 207 pounder doesn't possess elite speed (estimated at 4.60), but has a knack for the big play. He enters his senior season within reach of the school's career touchdown receiving record (24) with 19 scores. A broken foot during the summer limited Payne throughout the fall camp so he may be a little rusty. If he can make a big play or two against a talented Wisconsin defense, however, he'll certainly earn some respect from pro scouts on hand or watching on television. Payne is currently NFLDraftScout.com's No. 37 rated receiver and viewed as a possible 6th-7th round pick.
Wisconsin has a talented receiver of their own in senior Nick Toon, Jr. The son of the former New York Jet great, Junior hasn't yet played with the consistency teams are looking for. However, he does possess very good athleticism for a 6-2, 220 pounder. Toon will be anxious to put his injury-marred junior season behind him and now has a quarterback in NC State-transfer Russell Wilson with the deep ball to flourish.
Wilson, at approximately 5-11 and 210 pounds, lacks the size scouts are looking for. As mentioned, he does possess plenty of arm strength and flashes good accuracy to all levels of the field. He's a terrific athlete for the position and can elude defenders when pressured. With a strong senior season, some team will give him a shot late or in free agency.
The Badgers routinely churn out top quality offensive linemen and this year is no different. The top senior is right guard Kevin Zeitler, who is now the Badgers' most experienced offensive lineman with Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt now playing for the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks, respectively.
The two players who used to play around him are actually the two prospects I'm most interested in scouting this evening. Redshirt junior Peter Konz is the best looking center prospect I've seen on tape this summer. Listed at 6-5, 315 pounds, he has a rare combination of size and agility for the position. Of course, he was flanked by Zeitler and Moffitt last year, so it will be interesting to see how Konz performs with more defenders focusing on him, rather than his peers -- especially with Zeitler missing significant time during the fall due to a sprained ankle.
Zeitler used to be flanked by right tackle Ricky Wagner, but the 6-6, 320 pound behemoth is flipping over to the left side now that Carimi is gone. Wagner has good athleticism to handle the move, though he might be moved right back to the strongside in the NFL. He has a tendency to come off the ball too high, which negates his strength, but uses his hands well to turn and control his opponent. He is a patient, technically sound pass blocker, who is surprisingly light on his feet. Wagner hasn't received the attention of Matt Kalil, Jonathan Martin or Riley Reiff... yet.
Though the Badgers lost a star in defensive end JJ Watt to the Houston Texans, one could make the argument that cornerback-turned-safety Aaron Henry was nearly as critical to the Badgers' success last season. In his first year at the position, Henry led the Badgers with three defensive touchdowns, scoring two on interception returns and another on blocked kick. I like the coverage skills he brings to the table and feel he can emerge as one of safety prospects of this senior class with a little more seasoning.
The game begins at 8 pm Eastern and will be televised by ESPN.