The 11th edition of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl is set to kick off on Saturday, January 28, from Pasadena’s famous Rose Bowl Stadium, and at least four former stars from the Mid-American Conference are set to take part in the festivities.
(Central Michigan tight end Joel Wilson, who was previously invited to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, has instead accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl.)
Tennessee State head coach Eddie George and Michigan Panthers head coach Jeff Fisher are expected to be the coaches for the exhibition game, with George set to take the reins of the National Team, while Fisher will lead the American Team for the second year in a row.
The NFLPA’s proprietary bowl game has dozens of graduates who are key contributors for their current squads, with the PA fastidiously keeping track of alumni performances throughout the season. Earlier this month, they also named their all-2022 alumni team, showing a great dedication to tracking former participants.
Here are the four players who hope to make similar impressions who hail from MAC schools:
- Zaire Barnes, Linebacker, WMU
Zaire Barnes chose to play football at Western Michigan over offers from five other MAC schools. The recruiting website 247Sports had him listed as an athlete from Mundelein Indiana in the 2018 class.
Barnes has been a leader for the Bronco defense from the linebacker position for the past two seasons. He led the team in tackles in 2021 and 2022 with 68 and 93 total tackles respectively. He has a nose for the ball and is active enough to make plays in the backfield. He created 11.5 negative plays and 3.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
In 2022, he broke up nine passes including one interception. The interception was returned for a touchdown, but the return was nullified by a penalty.
Zaire Barnes with a RIDICULOUS INT for Western Michigan! A penalty erased the touchdown, but WMU keeps the ball! pic.twitter.com/khVoRx6TeI— @ (@FTBeard7) November 10, 2022
(Nine passes broken up was also tied for the team lead with cornerback Dorian Jackson.)
His performance over the past two seasons was good enough to earn a spot on the All-MAC Second Team defense in 2021 and 2022.
Fair or not, a lot of NFL teams see size as a binary. Either a player has it or they don’t and Barnes is listed at six-foot-one, 227 pounds, which is right where an NFL linebacker needs to be. He can also deliver the hits just like he did against Buffalo in 2021.
- Nico Bolden, Safety, Kent State
Nico Bolden committed to New Mexico as the highest-rated player in their 2017 recruiting class. He had offers from three power five schools and a combined nine offers from G5 and FCS programs. He transferred to Kent State before the 2021 season.
He appeared in 23 games while at Kent State and logged 188 total tackles. He lead the team in 2022 with 103 total tackles and was named to the All-MAC Second Team Defense. His one sack came in a rivalry game against Akron in 2021 and it really shows his sure tackling.
Kent State made the MAC Championship game in 2021 and Bolden had one of his two interceptions that season right before halftime of that game. It was a huge play that kept Northern Illinois from extending its lead, although it ended up delaying the inevitable.
Kent State used him near the line of scrimmage despite him being listed as a safety. His six-foot-three, 213-pound frame make him an interesting prospect. He would be a big defensive back, which isn’t a bad thing, or could add weight and transition to be a linebacker. Bolden is a strong tackler in space which is the real skill that allows him to be flexible.
Being a big safety would allow him to better cover players that are harder matchups for smaller defensive backs like tight ends or physical slot receivers. As long as the lack of pass-defense stats is due to how he was used by Kent State and not because he gets lost in space, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team take a chance on him.
Everyone has something to advertise at these college all-star games, but he might have specific things to show scouts throughout the week.
- Christian Sims, Tight End, Bowling Green
Christian Sims is a tight end from Norcross, Georgia and was lightly recruited out of high school. His only other offer was from Division II Wingate, but Sims blossomed into an outstanding tight end in the MAC.
With 41 catches and 418 yards with two touchdowns, he made the All-MAC First Team Offense. This season, he improved on those numbers with four more catches and 40 more yards, yet was awarded a spot on the All-MAC second-team offense. There’s not a real argument to be had there. Brady Hunt from Ball State had a better statistical season in every major category.
Sims is good with the ball in space and Bowling Green would get him some screen passes like this long conversion in the Quick Lane Bowl.
He used his size to break a tackle and his speed to get this screen pass to the house against Buffalo last year.
SIMS 2⃣ the HOUSE‼️— BG Football (@BG_Football) October 30, 2021
A career-long 81-yard TD reception by Christian Sims. There was a HUGE broken tackle around the BGSU 25-yard line that springs the longest play from scrimmage this year for the Falcons.
BG leads three plays in, 7-0.
13:26 | 2 QT#AyZiggy pic.twitter.com/ESfVhHKf5D
Sims had the second-highest usage of all tight ends in the MAC this season, as he should have given his big play ability.
He’s a tall receiving target at six-foot-four, and isn’t going to be pushed around at 240 pounds. Bowling Green made went to a bowl game for the first time since 2015, and first under head coach Scot Loeffler. The Falcons haven’t been on anyone’s radar as a great team with great players for a while, so the NFLPA bowl is Sims’ best chance to get in front of NFL scouts.
- Sidy Sow, Guard, Eastern Michigan
Sidy Sow has played a lot of football for Eastern Michigan. Sow was recruited out of Bromont, Quebec as a raw talent with the size for Division I football. He was six-foot-five and 300 pounds, and his only offer was from Eastern Michigan for the 2017 class.
Sow redshirted his first season in Ypsilanti and then appeared in 56 games and started 54 of them. Sow has been an ultra-consistent, high performer for the Eagles for five seasons. He was pressed into action in 2018 at the left tackle spot but moved to left guard for the rest of his career.
Sow allowed only six sacks over 56 appearances.
He won his first post-season award in 2020 when he was elected to the All-MAC Third Team Offense. Sow was on the All-MAC first-team offense in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons. On fourth and one in the Idaho Potato Bowl, Samson Evans ran directly behind Sow to convert.
EMU (and Quebec’s) Sidy Sow has had a very strong first half in the Idaho Potato bowl, against a talented SJSU front.— Seven Rounds in Heaven (@7RoundsInHeaven) December 20, 2022
On a 4th and 1, he collapses the 1 Tech down, works to the second level and gets just enough of the linebacker, all to spring a nice hole for the first down. pic.twitter.com/RXD9W1SzO5
The Eastern Michigan running back was third in the MAC this season with 1166 yards and ran for a MAC-leading 15 touchdowns. Here he is with a couple of big blocks against WMU in 2021, starting off with a pancake against Ryan Selig of WMU. Selig has now transferred to Minnesota.
Every time I tune into a #EasternMichigan game on the #MACtion slate, #EMU LG Sidy Sow is clearing lanes for his backs to run through. On the first play, gets movement on dbl team, and shoves the linebacker out of the hole.— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) November 17, 2021
Later, executes a scoop block to pop a big run. pic.twitter.com/5kTc5o7ikL
He has the size to play at the next level and his track record of being one of the best linemen in the MAC should get him a look. A good weekend at the NFLPA Bowl would only help achieve that.
The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will kick off on Saturday, January 28, at 6 p.m. Eastern time, and is set to be aired on NFL Network.