Big Sky Conference

Weber State trio, ISU OL Phillips top NFL prospects from Big Sky

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 In the summer of 2016, Jay Hill stood on a golf course north of Park City, Utah talking about the potential of one of his exception but oft-injured players.

“If he can stay healthy, McKay Murphy can be the best defensive lineman in the Big Sky Conference,” Weber State’s head coach said that day.

About 14 months later, Murphy showed his first flash of his prodigious yet pedigreed potential by dominating Cal’s offensive line with a sack and four tackles for loss in Weber State’s near-upset of the Golden Bears last season.

That performance proved to be more than a flash in the pan for the former Utah transfer. At long last, after returning from an LDS mission and recovering from a torn ACL, Murphy proved he was exactly what his head coach predicted: one of, if not the best, defensive lineman in the Big Sky for the league-champion Wildcats.

Murphy finished his final college football season with a Big Sky-best 14 tackles for loss, including four sacks, to earn first-team All-Big Sky accolades. But that was only the beginning of his hype as an NFL player.

“He’s a true big-time player in my mind,” Hill said in the midst of Weber State’s historic run to its fourth Big Sky title and a pair of wins in the FCS playoffs. “Last year, he was coming off an ACL injury and I don’t think people got a sense of what he is all about. Now he’s playing as good as the elite, elite d-tackles in the country. NFL scouts love him because of what he is, big and strong.”

Weber State defensive tackle McKay Murphy (90)/by WSU Athletics

Murphy, the seventh son in the line of former Major League Baseball MVP outfielder Dale Murphy’s eight children, showed just how big and strong on March 28 at Weber State’s Pro Day. In front of 30 scouts representing 26 NFL teams, Murphy blew away the observers with his explosion and power.

At 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, the 26-year-old ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.81 seconds. He notched a 31-inch vertical, a 9-foot, 6-inch broad jump, and ran 4.55 seconds in the 20-yard short shuttle. He also notched a time of 7.20 seconds in the 3-cone drill. His 40 time would’ve been fifth among all defensive tackles invited to the NFL combine while his vertical would’ve ranked 3rd, his broad jump 3rd and his short shuttle second. His 3-cone drill would have ranked third among all defensive linemen, including ends, at the combine.

Murphy has also done as many as 39 repetitions at 225 pounds on the bench press during his training regime according to his agent. He went for 40 on his Pro Day but stopped at 24 because of a strained pectoral muscle. Still, the performance caused his NFL stock to skyrocket.

“I hit 23 and I felt my chest tighten up a little bit,” Murphy told the Ogden Standard-Examiner following the Pro Day. “I did one more and I felt it. I knew that if I was going to keep going then it was just going to affect the rest of my day, which I’m glad it didn’t … A couple of weeks ago when we tested I did 39. I was hoping to hit 40 today.

“That’s just talk now. Unfortunately, I couldn’t prove it. If someone wants to see it that bad, I’ll send them a video on Instagram.”

Even without hitting his goal, Murphy still showed a combination of speed and strength exhibited by few interior defensive linemen in this year’s NFL Draft. The most comparable prospect is Florida’s Taven Bryan, the No. 29 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night.

Weber State defensive tackle McKay Murphy running the 40 at 2018 pro day/by WSU Athletics

If Murphy does see his NFL dreams become a reality, he will be the third of Dale Murphy’s sons to reach football’s highest level. McKay’s brother, Shawn, was drafted in the 4th round by the Miami Dolphins, where he spent two seasons as a guard before playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos before retiring in 2011. His brother, Jake, spent stints as a tight end on the practice squads for the Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals and Broncos in 2014 and 2015.

“I have seen what they have done and I go to them a lot for advice,” Murphy said in an interview with Skyline Sports in October. “They always come to me with tips and pointers to offer me. It’s a huge benefit to have that expert opinion outside of my coaches when I’m not at the stadium.

“The hard thing about seeing my brothers go through it, I know how hard the path is. The NFL is my dream and I’m optimistic about it but it’s something where even when you think you get it, in a day it can be gone. It’s what I’ve been shooting for, what I hope to achieve and what I hope to hang on to for a while.”

During his stellar 18-year career that began in 1976 with the Atlanta Braves and finished in 1993 during the inaugural season of the Colorado Rockies, Dale Murphy played in seven All-Star games and won the National League MVP in 1982 and 1983. He hit 398 home runs and drove in 1,266 runs, leading the league in each category twice while winning four Silver Slugger Awards. He is one of only 38 players to ever hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season.

“A lot of people ask if there was some pressure growing up his son but there wasn’t,” McKay Murphy said. “I have a few brothers who played college football and a couple of brothers who didn’t play sports and have gone different ways with their career paths. He’s been 100 percent supportive of whatever we’ve done. I quit baseball in 8th grade when he was my coach and he was 100 percent supportive. He just wanted us to do what we were interested in. That definitely helped me in wanting to play football. That made me realize that I really love the game.”

Big Sky Breakdown – Stars of the Big Sky, Week 5, 2017

TOP NFL PROSPECTS FROM THE BIG SKY

Weber State cornerback Taron Johnson (1)/ by Brooks Nuanez

Murphy took full advantage of impressing the scouts in attendance in Ogden but he was not the only attraction. Big Sky Defensive MVP Taron Johnson is widely considered one of if not the top NFL prospect in the conference this season. After a solid showing at the combine, the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder ran the short shuttle (4.20 seconds), the 3-cone drill (6.800 seconds) and the long shuttle (11.50 seconds), improving on each time from his combine marks.

“He’s our best player on our football team and he eliminates a big portion of the football field just by being able to go and cover the opponent’s best receiver,” Hill said before Weber’s first playoff game against Western Illinois.

“He’s the best player on the defense that was No. 1 in points, No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in rush defense, No. 1 in pass effiency defense. I don’t know how you don’t give (the BSC MVP) to that defense’s best player.”

At the combine, Johnson ran 4.50 in the 40, did 17 bench press reps, had a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. The three-time All-Big Sky selection and the 2017 FCS All-American is projected to go anywhere between the 4th and 7th rounds of this weekend’s draft.

“I’ve heard people saying anywhere between early second round to sixth round if he continues to perform well,” Hill said. “I’ve had some scouts tell me he’s the No. 1 corner in the West.”

Weber State tight end Andrew Vollert (87)/ by WSU athletics

Two-time All-American tight end Andrew Vollert also had a stellar pro day last month, building hype for himself as a potential late-round sleeper this weekend. The former San Jose State two-sport athlete — he played basketball briefly for the Spartans before spending the 2015 season at San Francisco City College — measured in at 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds.

With that height and fluid mobility, Vollert also showed his speed in front of the scouts. He ran 4.54 seconds in the 40, 4.09 in the short shuttle and 6.76 in the 3-cone drill. He also notched a 32.5-inch vertical and a 9-10 in the broad jump. Vollert’s 40 time would’ve tied him with Penn State stud Mike Gesicki for the fastest mark among tight ends at the Combine, as would his 3-cone drill. His shuttle time would’ve been the fastest among tight ends while his broad jump and vertical would’ve ranked fifth. Vollert, who caught 123 passes for 1,613 yards and 12 touchdowns in his two seasons at Weber, is projected by several prognosticators as a sixth or seventh-round draft pick.

“Jay Hill is the best coach I’ve ever been around and he helped me get to this point,” Vollert said in an interview with Skyline Sports last fall. “I fell in love with the guys and I kept wanting to play football and Weber was the right fit. I got lucky I found Weber State or I’m lucky they found me.”

The Los Angeles Rams in last year’s draft picked two Big Sky players — Eastern Washington record-setting wide receiver Cooper Kupp and EWU outside linebacker Samson Ebukam — the only two players in the league drafted. The Weber State trio along with Idaho State offensive guard Skyler Phillips, who worked out like Johnson at the NFL Combine, harbor the most realistic aspirations to hear their names called on Saturday.

Kupp, Ebukam 1st Big Sky players called in NFL Draft

Idaho State offensive lineman Skyler Phillips runs during a drill at the NFL football scouting combine on Friday, March 2, 2018 in Indianapolis. (Aaron M. Sprecher via AP)

The 6-foot-3, 318-pound Phillips broke into the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2013, then earned All-Big Sky honors on ISU’s eight-win team in 2014. He started nine games in 2015 while battling injuries, an issue that spilled in 2016 as he played just four contests as a junior before missing the rest of the season. He earned a medical redshirt and competed last season, earning first-team all-conference and first-team All-American honors as a senior.

 At the combine, the interior offensive lineman showed good agility for a man of his size, running 5.10 seconds in the 40, 4.69 in the short shuttle and 7.95 in the 3-cone drill. He has done as many as 31 reps at 225 pounds on the bench but did not participate in the test at the combine. Former Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer told Skyline Sports in Phillips’ sophomore year that he was the most talented offensive lineman the veteran coach had ever mentored.

“I always feel like I’m watching a bouncer when I watch him. He’s stronger than everyone around him and he can drop some of these guys with one shot. He’s the enforcer out there for sure,” one AFC East scout told NFL.com leading up to the draft.

ISU linebacker Mario Jenkins is also an NFL hopeful. The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder finished fourth in the Jerry Rice Award voting for the FCS’ top freshman in 2014. He missed the 2015 season with a torn ACL.He rebounded to earn All-Big Sky honors each of the last two seasons, totaling 204 tackles over that time period.

On his pro day, Jenkins ran 4.97 in the 40, jumped 30.5 inches in the vertical, 9-2 in the broad jump, 4.72 in the short shuttle and 7.65 in the 3-cone drill. He also did 25 bench press reps.

Idaho State’s Jenkins endures adversity during rise to stardom

The two other prospects from the Big Sky with outside chances to hear their names called during Saturday’s sixth or seventh rounds are Southern Utah outside linebacker Mike Needham and North Dakota strong safety Cole Reyes.

The 6-foot-4, 226-pound Needham is one of just 39 players in Big Sky history to earn first-team all-league honors three consecutive years. After returning from an LDS mission, the rangy, versatile outside linebacker played a key role on SUU’s 2015 Big Sky title team and helped take the Thunderbirds to the FCS playoffs three times. On his pro day, Needham ran 4.56 in the 40, hit a 35-inch vertical, broad jumped 10-6, clocked 4.42 in the short shuttle and banged out 20 reps on the bench.

Southern Utah linebacker Mike Needham (34) intercepts a pass vs Montana in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

His 40 time would’ve ranked in the top 5 among linebackers while his broad jump would’ve been third at the Combine. His vertical, bench and Short shuttle all would have ranked in the Top 14.

“I’m proud of what I was able to do today,” Needham told The Spectrum newspaper following his pro day. “Obviously there are some things I wish I could’ve done better, but overall I couldn’t be more proud of the work I put in and the results I had.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Reyes earned 2016 Big Sky Defensive MVP honors while leading UND to its first-ever league title and first-ever playoff berth as a Division I member. Reyes suffered a season-ending injury about a month into his senior season.

On his Pro Day, the hard-hitting safety with stellar ball skills showed his deceptive speed by running 4.53 seconds in the 40. He also had a 37-inch vertical, a 10-2 broad jump and ran 4.12 in the short shuttle.

 

Other Big Sky players with realistic chances to earn undrafted free agent contracts include:

  • Robert Torgerson, Southern Utah, defensive line: The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a junior after notchcing 12 tackles for los and five sacks. He struggled with injuries his senior year but has the mean streak and motor to get an NFL look. His notable Pro Day numbers include running 4.99 seconds in the 40 and notching 25 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press.

 

  • Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell (49)/by Brooks Nuanez

    Mac Bignell, Montana State, outside linebacker: The former walk-on from Drummond’s production has never been in question. He finished his Bobcat career with a school-record nine forced fumbles to go along with nearly 50 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He was a three-time All-Big Sky selection, including earning first-team all-league honors as a senior. But the 6-foot-1 Bignell fit the mold of a tweener because of his 210-pound frame. He showed up to his Pro Day at 230 pounds and pumped out 26 reps on the bench, proving he has a true position in the NFL. His 40 time and vertical were likely hindered by the extra weight but Bignell’s work ethic, relentless drive and ability to contribute on special teams will likely get him a call this weekend.

 

  • Chris Seisay, Portland State, cornerback: The former Oregon has size and length at 6-foot-1 and ran a solid 40 at 4.5 seconds. He has film from the FBS national championship game and the Rose Bowl from his time as a Duck. In two seasons at Portland State, he had 52 tackles and four interceptions but the Vikings did not win a game last fall.

 

  • Elijah Marks, Northern Arizona, wide receiver: The two-time All-Big Sky pass catcher earned first-team honors as a senior by catching 71 passes for 1,170 yards and six touchdowns. He finished his career with 150 catches for 2,360 yards and 19 touchdowns. The 6-1, 175-pounder neither helped nor hurt himself on his Pro Day, running 4.55 in the 40 while notching impressive marks in the vertical (36.5 inches) and the broad jump (9-10).

 

  • Portland State defensive end Davon Dade (90)/by Brooks Nuanez

    Davond Dade, Portland State, defensive end: The 6-foot-4, 260-pound end had a standout season as a pass rush specialist for the Vikings during their historic 2015 run to the FCS playoffs. He had six sacks and earned second-team All-Big Sky honors. In 2016, he started seven games and managed just 1.5 sacks. Last season, he had two sacks and six tackles for loss. Dade showed his impressive athleticism on his Pro Day by running a 4.74 in the 40, hitting 36.5 inches in the vertical and 10-8 in the broad jump while speeding to a 4.44 seconds in the short shuttle.

 

  • Bryson McCabe, Montana State, strong safety: The former Iowa Western transfer carved out a reputation as one of the most instinctual, hardest hitting safeties in the Big Sky, earning second-team all-conference honors as a junior and a senior in MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak’s scheme. He also helped himself out big time with an impressive Pro Day, running a 4.56 in the 40, 4.06 in the short shuttle, 6.75 in the 3-cone drill and leaping 39.5 inches on his vertical test. The 6-foot, 205-pounder could get into an NFL camp because of his production and surprising testing numbers.

Big Sky Breakdown: Big Sky NFL prospects, Griz pro day audio

  • Justin Strong, Montana, safety: The former Oregon State transfer has the pedigree and the ability to hit but his inconsistencies at times during his Griz career may hurt him. The younger brother of former Cowboys’ linebacker Vic Butler ran 4.53 in the 40, 4.29 on the short shuttle and pumped 17 reps on the bench press. He has a few outstanding pieces of film, namely a four-interception game with a cast on his hand in UM’s win over Portland State last season. But his size (5-9, 191) could cause NFL team to take pause.

 

  • Montana defensive end Tucker Schye (37)/by Brooks Nuanez

    Tucker Schye, Montana, outside linebacker: The former prep inside linebacker from Malta has played standing up and running down ball carriers sideline to sideline for longer than he has played on the defensive front, making his potential transition to linebacker at the NFL level slightly simpler. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder does not have the mass or length to play end in the league but has good instincts and ran decently well (4.75 40, 4.20 short shuttle, 7.06 3-cone) on his Pro Day. He also hit 21 reps on the bench, a welcome number that might get him a shot in an NFL camp.

 

  • Ryan McKinley, Montana, cornerback: McKinley waited his turn in Montana’s talented secondary, playing behind All-Big Sky corners like Nate Harris and Josh Denard before having a standout year as a senior last fall. He earned third-team All-Big Sky honors after leading the league in pass breakups (15) and snaring two inceptions, including one he returned 53 yards for a touchdown. McKinley’s 39.5-inch vertical and 10-10 broad jump help him but the 5-foot-11, 193-pounder’s 4.68 in the 40 hurts him.

 

  • David Reese, Montana, offensive tackle: The four-year starter has the size (6-7.5, 290) and the experience (46 straight starts) to garner a look. But his eight reps on the bench press on his Pro Day is a red flag. He showed good athleticism for his size with a 28.5-inch vertical, a 4.72 in the short shuttle and a 7.47 in the 3-cone but it’s no guarantee a team will take a chance on Reese as an undrafted free agent.

 

  • Eastern Washington senior Albert Havili spears Montana State sophomore quarterback Chris Murray last season/ by Blake Hempstead, for Skyline Sports

    Albert Havili, Eastern Washington, defensive end: The former linebacker had two straight standout seasons after moving to the defensive line, notching 61 tackles, five sacks and six tackles for loss as a junior and 51 tackles, seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss to earn second-team all-league honors. The 6-foot-2, 271-pounder did 29 reps on the bench, ran 4.82 in the 40, had a 9-3 broad jump and ran 4.59 in the short shuttle to solidify his NFL aspirations. He has said he is open to playing fullback at the next level.

 

  • Eric Rodriguez, Northern Arizona, offensive line: Nearly 17 months after retiring from football because of a devastating back injury, the 2015 All-Big Sky guard reemerged to work out on NAU’s Pro Day. The 6-foot-3, 295-pounder did 28 reps on the bench, had a 30-inch vertical, ran 4.72 in the short shuttle and 7.36 in the 3-cone. His previous injury history will cause NFL teams to take pause before giving him a training camp invite.

Photos attributed. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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