The 2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network as well as the NFL and NFL Network apps at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 18.
PASADENA, Calif. — Jake Luton has been playing football since he was five years old. He played six years of college football alone. There’s no questioning that he loves the game. What he didn’t always know the past few years was how much longer he’d have the privilege to play it.
The one thing that remained constant was Luton’s self confidence. But a past riddled with injuries eventually left the quarterback wondering if he’d even have the chance to perform in front of scouts, much less dozens of them, as he did Monday at the Rose Bowl for the first day of practice for Saturday’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
"You got to make every day count, every interview count, every rep in practice count," he said.
A long and winding road led Luton from the University of Idaho to Ventura College to Oregon State within a span of two years. He won the starting job in Corvallis, only to suffer a thoracic spine fracture four games into the 2017 season. He returned the following fall but was sidelined after the first series of the season opener with a head injury. Two weeks later, he sprained his ankle and sat out the next four games.
"It was just like, I can’t do anything right. What am I doing wrong?" Luton said he wondered. "There was definitely some frustration and mentally it was tough, but what kept me going is my drive to keep playing football."
While the 2018 injuries weren’t as physically taxing as the spine fracture, Luton said they were tougher to deal with mentally because of all the playing time he’d already missed out on. He also didn’t know at the time that he would be granted a sixth year of eligibility.
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"There was never a doubt in my mind of wanting to play football," he said. "Again, I always wanted to. But there was some concern about, I’m running out of time. If I don’t get on the field and show what I can do, it’s not going to matter if I want to play football, because no one’s going to know it."
If they didn’t know it in 2018, they found out in 2019. Luton was one of the nation’s better passers as he posted a sterling 28-3 TD:INT ratio. That production combined with his perseverance made him one of three players to take home the Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award last month. Before that, Washington’s Jimmy Lake called Luton "an NFL quarterback that nobody is talking about. This guy will be playing on Sundays."
That’s obviously his objective. Standing 6-foot-6 and strapped with a big arm, Luton is an intriguing prospect. He said he’s spent the early part of the offseason working in San Diego with former NFL offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard.
Like any of the 100-or-so participants in the Collegiate Bowl, Luton would love to hear his name called in April’s draft. But his primary focus is on working to prove he belongs on a team, regardless of whether he’s selected.
"Every kid dreams to hear their name called," Luton said. "For me, I just want an opportunity. I battled through some different things in college for six years. I’m confident that if I just get an opportunity to show people what I can do, I’ll stick. However that comes — drafted, free agent, whatever it is, I just want an opportunity to get my foot in the door.
"I’m a big believer in I control what I can control, and I’m not going to be worried about where I’m going to be drafted because I don’t think that helps you at all. There’s so many things that I have to take care of before that time comes that whatever happens, I just hope that I can get into camp and show people what I can do."
He’s always made those opportunities count.
Small school, big game
Arkansas State’s Omar Bayless woke up Monday as the nation’s leading receiver for the 2019 season. But he knew as he walked off the practice field that afternoon that his status was tenuous at best. LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, who won the Biletnikoff Award, trailed Bayless by 94 yards and would be competing in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Both players averaged well over 100 per game. Sure enough, Chase surpassed Bayless before halftime of LSU’s victory.
"It’s all good," Bayless said. "I wasn’t fortunate enough to play as many games as him. He’s a great player. Hats off to him."
Bayless, though, is grateful to have another game to play this weekend, even if the stats won’t count toward his magnificent season.
"It’s a great opportunity to compete with people outside my conference, give myself another chance to show people what I can do," Bayless added. "I’ve been doubted a whole lot. I just want to change people’s point of view."
Bayless began that process some time ago. After putting up modest numbers over the previous two seasons, Bayless returned for a fifth season and caught 93 passes for 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns. That put him on the radar of several scouts and paved the way for his participation in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Like many who took the field Monday, Bayless is hoping a big week in Pasadena will prompt an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
"Nothing’s promised," Bayless said. "I can’t say that I’m going to get that invite. The only thing I can do is work every day."
At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, Bayless said he models his game after Michael Thomas and Davante Adams. He noted how neither are known for being the fastest receivers, but they have great hands and know how to get open. As for that speed, Bayless is aiming to run the 40 in under 4.5 seconds.
"If anything, right at 4.5," Bayless said. "I don’t want to run anything higher than that and give them something to say, he’s not fast enough."
How he performs this week could determine whether Bayless runs that 40 at the combine or at his pro day.
The respective coaching staffs for the Collegiate Bowl are stacked with NFL alums. Marvin Lewis leads the National team. He’s joined by Pro Football Hall of Famers Kevin Mawae, Rod Woodson and Jackie Slater, as well as Jeff Blake, Carnell Lake and Chad Brown. Hue Jackson heads the American team. Dennis Thurman, Steve Wisniewski, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and Joshua Cribbs are among his assistants.
This past season was Jackson’s first out of coaching since he became a graduate assistant as Pacific University in 1987. He’d been in the NFL every year dating back to 2001, including as a head coach or offensive coordinator for half that time. While a leading role might not materialize within the league this offseason, Jackson made it clear he’s not retired from the profession.
"I want to coach," he said. "We’ll see what’s in the cards and go from there. I know I love coaching football. I want to get back out there on the grass and get back to coaching. … I’m just going to look and see what’s out there for me to do and go from there."
Jackson had his American team run about twice as many 11-on-11 reps as his National counterpart Lewis on Monday.
"We’re a little different," Jackson laughed. "I love Marvin. We’re a little different."
The extra plays also included a couple bad snaps and pre-snap penalties. Additionally, a number of passes from both teams were tipped by receivers or slightly out of reach as everyone was feeling one another out and perhaps knocking off some rust.
"We’ll work those kinks out," Jackson said. "But this is where you start it. You got to come out here and do real football things and then they’ll start acclimating themselves to it."
Both teams will be in full pads for the first time Tuesday.
One of Luton’s early throws was a deep ball to Wake Forest’s Kendall Hinton in 1-on-1s that saw the wideout slow up in the middle of the route and then watch as the ball sailed over his head. Luton went back to Hilton in 7-on-7s and hit him on a sail route for a 20-yard gain.
"We’ve never thrown together before," Luton said. "It feels really good, when you get that timing and its in the right spot, I’d say that was probably the best throw for me of the day."
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