Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Ochaun Mathis Starts NFL Combine Week for Trio of Former Huskers With Draft Hopes

March 02, 2023

Three former Nebraska football standouts received invitations to this week’s NFL Combine. This gives NFL Draft hopefuls Trey Palmer, Ochaun Mathis and Travis Vokolek a platform to prove themselves valuable in front of NFL scouts.

Other former Huskers who entered the NFL Draft—Garrett Nelson, Chancellor Brewington and Caleb Tannor—did not receive combine invitations. They’ll instead rely on workouts and Nebraska’s Pro Day, on March 22, to raise their profiles.

Combine events started with media meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Measurements and workouts, however, start with defensive linemen and linebackers on Thursday. Those workouts will air at 2 p.m. on NFL Network. Mathis will be the first former Husker stepping into the Indianapolis spotlight.

The Manor, Texas, native transferred to Nebraska following a few standout seasons at TCU. Mathis accrued 179 tackles in the last four years, 48 of them came last season at Nebraska with an even split between unassisted and assisted (24-24). He’s tallied 19 sacks in his career, including nine in the COVID season of 2020.

NFL Draft specialists recognize Mathis’ talents in the open field and his exceptional athleticism. His stock, however, has dipped since he declared for the NFL Draft. Multiple analysts pointed to his doubtful strength on the line as points of concern. Mathis played on the interior defensive line during the East-West Shrine Game and still showed his skills in the open field. He pressured the quarterback and stayed persistent in ball carrier pursuit. His most feasible path toward an NFL future involves the open space and not in the trenches. Draft analysts are in consensus that Mathis is best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 or as an edge rusher in a 4-3 defense.

“If a team can get him to become a more skilled and attack-oriented rusher, it might find a prospect who outplays his draft slotting as a 3-4 rush linebacker,” NFL’s Lance Zierlein said.

Mathis’ pre-combine draft projects list him as a potential seventh-round pick. Mock drafts most often associate him with the Pittsburgh Steelers. NFL writer Jeremy Betz has the Steelers picking Mathis as early as the fourth round in his projections.

Wideouts and tight ends workout and will get measured on Saturday. The NFL Network broadcast of those events begin at noon. Husker fans can stay glued to their screens for both Palmer and Vokolek that day.

Palmer is the most highly projected former Husker involved in the NFL Combine. He comes off a career season when he set Nebraska single-season records in yards (1,043) and receptions by a receiver (71). Palmer exhibited his speed on five carries for 75 yards, including a 60-yard sprint. Those stats were all career highs for Palmer, who took on a bigger workload at Nebraska than he had in a loaded receivers room at LSU. Palmer participated in the Senior Bowl, where he turned heads for his route running and speed. Scouts knew of his speed but in-person confirmation underlined their excitement for his 40 time this week. Palmer didn’t play in the Senior Bowl to capitalize off an impressive practice week.

Production and speed are two attractive traits for Palmer. NFL scouts still have doubts about his separation creation when going against other NFL-caliber defensive backs. They also have uncertainties about his size and how he can withstand more physical defensive backs. Focus drops are also an issue. Palmer, at times, struggled with drops at Nebraska. Assuring his sure-handedness this week would likely boost his stock.

“Speed kills and raw athleticism is highly coveted by NFL decision-makers,” Pro Football Network’s James Fragoza summarized. “Still, Palmer doesn’t create separation at an elite level at the top of routes. Patient and physical DBs give him trouble, which will only be exacerbated in the league. Nevertheless, the tools, versatility, and — in 2022 — the production are there to bank on.”

Palmer’s draft projections, before the Combine, vary wildly. Mock drafts list him going as early as the second round to the Chicago Bears (filed by Pro Football Network’s Ian Cummings) and a couple list him going in the seventh round to the Bears and Arizona Cardinals. On a composite, draft analysts list him going in the middle rounds, possibly a solid second-day selection.

Vokolek likely has the most to prove among the three former Huskers at the Combine. Most evaluations of him pre-Combine project him as an undrafted free agent. Across five seasons between both Rutgers and Nebraska, Vokolek made 57 catches—31 in the last two seasons at Nebraska. He tallied 240 receiving yards and two touchdowns this past season while battling injuries at times. He garnered praise for being the best tight end in practice during the East-West Shrine Game for his team. Still, Vokolek wasn’t targeted in that game aside from a 60-yard heave at halftime that fell incomplete. Last year’s only offensive team captain doesn’t show up on any mock drafts and is regularly listed beyond the top 450 draft prospects.

“Obviously proving that he’s a better athlete than he showed on tape would help,” Zierlein told Hail Varsity this week, “but his bread will be buttered with his run blocking so I’m not sure that the combine can do anything for him in that regard.”

Vokolek, if he wishes, will bench press on Sunday while offensive linemen and running backs workout and get measured. Whatever he, and the other two, don’t prove this week could be improved upon and demonstrated at Nebraska’s Pro Day.

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