Several pro prospects were on display at Reliant Stadium in the 2008 Texas Bowl, which the Rice Owls (10-3) won 38-14 over the Western Michigan Broncos (9-4). Both teams featured quarterbacks and receivers ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA, but Rice's playmakers stole the show in the Owls' romp as a handful of pro scouts watched the game from the press box.
An NFC scout I spoke with at halftime was most impressed by Rice receiver/tight end James Casey (6-4, 230), a 24-year-old sophomore who spent three years playing minor league baseball before enrolling at Rice. Casey came into the game ranked second in the NCAA with 104 receptions and eighth with 1,217 receiving yards.
By halftime, Casey already had five catches for 97 yards, including a spectacular one-handed 45-yard touchdown grab. He also returned punts for Rice and twice lined up as the Owls' quarterback in a Wildcat formation. He finished the game with seven catches for 112 yards and a touchdown along with three carries for 10 yards.
"You're looking at him for next year [because he's a sophomore], but it's hard not to notice him," the scout said. "He's the most impressive player on the football field."
The scout said Casey projects as an H-back or tight end in the NFL and described him as "very versatile" – an athletic player with great hands who could run after the catch.
"He's everything," the scout said.
The other two players that caught the scout's eye were Rice wide receiver Jarret Dillard (5-11, 185) and quarterback Chase Clement (6-1, 208), both seniors.
Dillard had eight catches for 86 yards and a touchdown and also threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Clement. He will graduate from Rice as the NCAA FBS record-holder with 60 career touchdown catches.
The scout was convinced that Dillard's small frame will not be an issue in the pros because of his sustained success on the collegiate level. Dillard's touchdown catch made him the first player in NCAA FBS history to have two 20-touchdown seasons.
"He has tremendous hands, great toughness," the scout said. "Everyone knows what he can do. The big thing is how fast he'll be [at the combine] and how physically strong."
Clement won Texas Bowl MVP honors by accounting for all five of the Owls' touchdowns – three passing, one rushing and one receiving. He went 30-of-44 for 307 yards and ran for 72 yards on 12 carries.
Clement finished his college career with 99 touchdown passes, tying former USC quarterback Matt Leinart for ninth on the NCAA career list.
The NFC scout said that Clement projects as a "slash" quarterback a la former Pittsburgh Steeler Kordell Stewart. Another league scout said before the game that Clement can make every throw and could end up with a pro team that wants to run the Wildcat formation.
In his magnificent bowl game performance, Clement showed poise in the pocket as a passer and the ability to make plays on his feet with his speed and agility.
"Tough kid, very competitive," the NFC scout I spoke to at halftime said. "Might be a hell of a special teams player. Could be a third quarterback or fourth quarterback."
Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas (6-0, 196), a first-team All-MAC selection, finished with a game-high 10 tackles. He will participate in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 24.
Broncos quarterback Tim Hiller (6-5, 228), a junior, came into the game ranked ninth in the NCAA with 3,527 passing yards this season. He had a disappointing outing at Reliant Stadium, going 19-of-42 with two interceptions, two touchdowns and only 198 passing yards, but will be a name ot keep an eye on next year. Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said after the game that Hiller was playing with a torn ACL and had been since a victory over Illinois on Nov. 8.