Leonard Williams, DT, USC (6-4, 299): After starting as a true freshman and earning All-American honors as a sophomore and junior, there wasn’t much more to accomplish for Williams. So, it’s off to the NFL for Williams, who is the No. 1 overall player in this year’s draft, according to the league’s own scouting department. As a junior, he tallied 80 tackles, including 9.5 for losses and seven sacks. It’s been a long road to the NFL for Williams, who grew up Daytona Beach, Fla., and was a Gators fan but followed his heart to the West Coast. As the story linked above reads, “Williams, 20, has a 2-year-old daughter, Leana. Leonard is the middle of Aviva Russek’s five children. For much of the past decade, she has had to take care of them largely on her own. Williams’ father, Clenon, is an inmate at the Marion Work Camp in Lowell, Fla. He is serving time for multiple offenses, including robbery with a deadly weapon, according to the Florida Department of Corrections database. His current release date is Oct. 2, 2019.” His older brother, a hulking 6-foot-5, 300-pounder named Nate, became Williams’ father figure. Nate’s advice: Don’t make the same mistakes I did. “My big brother had to step up and make sure I stayed off of that type of stuff,” Leonard said. “He knew I had scholarships and didn’t want me to get hurt. He was really strict.”
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama (6-0, 205): As a scout put it, Cooper was the “first, second and third read” for quarterback Blake Sims. And for good reason. As a junior in 2014, Cooper set Alabama and SEC records with 124 receptions while finishing second in SEC history with 1,727 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver and was one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy. Quiet confidence lies beneath the veneer of shyness. “He’s always been quiet and kind of shy,” said Michelle Green, the proud mother of Alabama’s next All-America wide receiver. Where did this reserved, calm and seemingly bashful superstar gain his self-assuredness? “Me, of course,” she said with a hearty chuckle. “I’m confident.” Cooper is the seventh All-American receiver in school history, with the legendary Don Hutson being the first. One of those All-Americans compared Cooper to Jerry Rice, with Dennis Homan saying, ““He was a great receiver no doubt and a great player. But I’m telling you that Amari Cooper is the best athlete I’ve ever seen, bar none.”
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska (6-5, 255): After one season at Arizona Western Community College, Gregory arrived in Lincoln in 2013 to near-instant stardom. In 13 games (10 starts) he tallied 66 tackles, including a Big Ten-high 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses. As a junior in 2014, he played in 11 games (10 starts) and registered 54 tackles, with seven sacks and 10 for losses. Despite missing two games and large parts of two others with injuries, he was named a third-team All-American and first-team all-Big Ten. He paid through pain throughout the season. His 17.5 sacks in two seasons rank ninth in school history. He wants to be more than just a pass rusher.
Danny Shelton, NT, Washington (6-1, 327): Shelton is the best nose tackle prospect in years. Just how rare is he? He was the only player in the nation to be named a first-team All-American and first-team Academic All-American. He is a rarity in the middle of a defense as a playmaker, not just a two-gapping behemoth to keep the linebackers’ jerseys clean. As a senior, he led the nation in fumble recoveries with five, ranked 14th with 16.5 tackles for losses and 19th with 9.0 sacks. He was an Academic All-American as a junior, too, though not nearly as productive on the field with 3.5 TFLs. He credits his dogs for tempering his anger issues after his older brother was shot and killed in 2011. “I like to put a lot of responsibility on my back. So right after practice, I know they’re at home waiting for me so I have to hurry up, get dressed and get back home because they can’t eat without me. When other guys go out or things like that, I go home and I’m with my dogs and my girlfriend.” Among his other passions are his Samoan heritage, anthropology studies and teaching — he taught a freshman orientation class at Washington. “I have a chance to change their lives and also change mine in the process.”
Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa (6-5, 320): As a senior, Scherff was a consensus All-American, the Rimington-Pace award-winner as the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman and the Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top lineman (offense or defense). He started all 26 games at left tackle in 2013 and 2014. He also started at left tackle in 2012, before his season ended with a broken leg and dislocated ankle, and left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2011. In high school, Scherff was a state champion in the shot put and played quarterback as a 250-pound sophomore. He projects to right tackle or guard in the NFL, according to the league’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas, but he’s athletic enough to play left tackle, considering he fields punts with ease at practice and plays tennis. For a school that produced Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff under coach Kirk Ferentz, Scherff is pretty special. “Not many have the athletic ability that he has,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “He moves very well. You want to see guys who play with their feet. You want guys who play with their eyes. You can’t do anything if you don’t have good eyes.”
Shane Ray, DE, Missouri (6-3, 247): In his first season as a starter, Ray produced a monster season while replacing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. As a redshirt junior, Ray was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year while earning consensus first-team All-America status after leading the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. His 14.5 sacks set a school record and ranked third nationally. His 22.5 tackles for loss also ranked third nationally. It’s been quite a journey from a ZIP code dubbed “The Murder Factory.” Football would become his salvation from crime, divorce and the heartbreak of having a cousin murdered “That was a crushing moment in my life,” he said. “When that happened, I started stepping outside my box and doing things that I didn’t have any idea why I was doing. I was getting in fights but also chilling with a lot of friends who were gang-banging and had guns. That’s all I grew up around.”
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (6-4, 217): All Mariota did was win games. And score touchdowns. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner led the Ducks to 36 wins in his three seasons. A starter in all three of his seasons, Mariota set an NCAA record by passing for a touchdown in all 41 career starts. He became the first player in Pac-12 history to account for 5,000 yards of total offense in a single season, reaching 5,224 in the loss to Ohio State in the national championship game, and he became the first player in FBS history to finish a season with a plus-50 in touchdowns (58) to turnovers (seven). His 58 total touchdowns destroyed the conference record of 41 held by former USC star Matt Barkley, and his 348 points accounted for were 40 more than for any other player. Mariota became the sixth player in FBS history to pass for more than 9,000 yards and run for more than 2,000 yards in a career, and he owns school records for career total offense (13,089), passing yards (10,801), touchdown passes (105), rushing yards by a quarterback (2,237), completion percentage (66.8), total touchdowns (135). His total yards also broke Barkley’s old conference record. In 2014, he led the nation in passing efficiency (181.7), yards per pass attempt (10.17) and points responsible for (348), in addition to ranking third in passing touchdowns (42), third in passing yards (4,454), fifth in total offense (348.3 per game), fifth in completion percentage (68.3), seventh in passing yards per completion (14.7). Mariota tossed 42 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He did all of that while earning his degree (general science) in less than four years with a 3.22 GPA, handing CLIF bars and bottles of water to those in need and weekly stops at the Boys and Girls Club. Unlike last year’s Heisman winner and the man he might be battling to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Mariota’s “done absolutely everything right since he got here,” in the words of his offensive coordinator, Scott Frost.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State (6-3, 228): Winston had a brilliant two-year career at Florida State, leading the Seminoles to the national championship while winning the Heisman Trophy in 2013 and getting the Seminoles to the four-team playoff this season. He was the youngest Heisman winner and the first to do so as a freshman. He was an incredible 26-1 as a starter, with the lone loss coming to Oregon in this year’s national semifinal game. Despite playing just two seasons, Winston ranks third in school history in passing yards (7,964), second in touchdown passes (65) and sixth in completions (562). His 14 300-yard passing games are tied with Chris Weinke for most in school history. A star from the get-go, he completed his first 11 passes and went 25-of-27 against Pittsburgh in his first collegiate game. He came through in the clutch again and again, highlighted by his game-winning touchdown drive that beat Auburn in last year’s championship game and four second-half comeback wins in 2014. In Spring 2014, he had a 1.08 ERA with seven saves while allowing just 18 hits in 33.1 innings. While Mariota is one of the game’s good guys, trouble followed Winston. Or perhaps Winston followed trouble. The NFL’s official biography on Winston, provided to Packer Report, includes more words on Winston’s off-the-field issues than his accolades at FSU. This from the New York Times sums a lot of it up.
Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington (6-2, 231): The winner of the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player, typically goes to a skill-position player and returner. This year, it went to Thompson, the All-American junior linebacker. How’s this for a stat line for the “running backer”: 81 tackles, five passes defensed, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries on defense, and 61 rushes for 456 yards (7.5 average) on offense. Thompson scored six touchdowns, two as a running back and four on defense (one interception return and three fumble returns). He rushed for 98 yards against Arizona State, 174 yards against Colorado and 100 yards vs. UCLA. Oh, and he also played baseball in Boston’s minor league system. While he couldn’t hit a curveball during an 0-for-39 stretch at the plate that included a mind-boggling 37 strikeouts, he was a hit on the football field for the Huskies.
Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Florida (6-3, 266): Fowler was a shining light for the downtrodden Gators. He leaves following a junior season of 60 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for losses. In the three games after announcing he would turn pro, he tallied four sacks and five tackles for losses. Fowler gave up Big Macs in hopes of producing a big 2014 season. "I'm trying to find ways to be a dominant player," he said. "Dominant players take the film room seriously; dominant players practice hard; and dominant players are consistent in every game. Those are the three things I want to be consistent in."email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.