Local players shine at Senior Bowl

NC State, UNC, App State, NC A&T all represented in Mobile, Ala.

UNC cornerback M.J. Stewart returns a kick against South Carolina cornerback JaMarcus King during the first quarter at the 2018 Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. (John David Mercer / USA TODAY Sports)

For the second straight week, an NC State defensive lineman not named Bradley Chubb stole the show at a college football all-star game.

This time it was tackle Justin Jones, who won the award for being the top defensive lineman during the week of practice leading up to the Senior Bowl. The 6-foot-2, 312-pound Georgia native stood out as a run-stopper and space-eater who impressed the NFL scouts in attendance with his agility for a man his size.

“From the beginning on Tuesday until the end, he stood out,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. “He was the one who emerged here.”

Jones was credited with two tackles while playing for the North team, which lost 45-16 to the South in Saturday’s game in Mobile, Ala. His now-former Wolfpack teammate, fellow defensive tackle B.J. Hill, also played in the game, making one tackle.

Like Jones, Hill enhanced his stock in the upcoming NFL draft with an impressive week of practice.

“How talented is this NC State defensive line? Bradley Chubb will be a top-five pick and his two linemates dominated all week,” wrote Matt Miller, Bleacher Report’s lead NFL draft analyst. “Justin Jones showed off the power and anchor skills while B.J. Hill was quick and explosive, knifing through the line. Both have a chance to hear their names called in the third round after a strong Senior Bowl.”

Jones wasn’t the only in-state player to be honored for his work in Mobile.

North Carolina cornerback M.J. Stewart was recognized by Savage as the week’s best defensive back. It was an award that validated his decision to pass up last year’s draft to return to the Tar Heels for his senior season — a campaign that didn’t go according to plan with his team stumbling to a 3-9 record.

“I don’t think I counted a single rep where M.J. Stewart lost in the one-on-ones,” draft analyst Jonah Tuls wrote.

Stewart was credited with two tackles and two pass breakups during Saturday’s game as a member of the winning South squad. He also returned three punts for 24 yards, with a long of 14.

“Oftentimes if you’re on a team that doesn’t win very much, they discount you a little bit,” Savage said. “Now you’re here as a stand-alone entity, now go show up. And he did in a big way.”

Other in-state players that made positive impressions were NC State hybrid back Jaylen Samuels, NC A&T offensive tackle Brandon Parker and Appalachian State offensive guard Colby Gossett.

Samuels, who is still uncertain about what position he’ll play in the NFL, saw action as both a running back and a moving tight end, rushing for 37 yards and catching both of his targets for 14 yards in the game.

“Jaylen Samuels looks so natural as a route runner and receiver,” wrote Eric Galko of OptimumScouting.com and The Sporting News. “At his size, with his body control, and his pass catching ability, he’s going to be really coveted as the process continues.”

Parker and Gossett anchored a line that helped the South side pile up 540 total yards. At 6-7, 303 pounds, Parker was the tallest player at the Senior Bowl, but it was more than just his size that wowed the scouts.

“You can see the potential he has,” wrote J.R. Willis of UnderdogDynasty.com, while making note of his “quick feet and great strength.”

Also of note, Raleigh native Braxton Berrios of Miami had one catch for four yards while returning five punts for 70 yards; former East Carolina quarterback Kurt Benkert, who finished his career at Virginia, completed 4 of 11 passes for 90 yards with one touchdown and one interception; and Fayetteville and Boston College defensive end Harold Landry pulled out of the game with an injury.