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2009 Senior Bowl: Tuesday Practice Reports
MOBILE, Ala. -- Football fans can easily identify stars from Penn State or Southern California. Their uniform, helmet and jersey number provide a biographical catalog of sorts.
But what of the little guy, whose name rings hollow and helmet isn't easily identified, with everything to gain -- or lose -- at this week's Senior Bowl?
Lesser-known prospects are here every year, displaying their wares before potential employers gathered in Mobile. This January, however, is special because two of them line up behind center. Actually, quarterbacks Rhett Bomar (Sam Houston State) and Nathan Brown (Central Arkansas) haven't taken a lot of snaps from under center during their careers. That's just one of the adjustments they've had to make in these practice sessions.
Bomar's arm strength has been impressive, although it's no surprise given what he shows on film. His mobility is excellent, especially outside the pocket where he looks not unlike his two favorite players, John Elway and Brett Favre. Bomar has the tools to be the top senior quarterback drafted. Teams will need to hear his side of the well-documented departure from Oklahoma, a result of Bomar receiving payments from a car dealership for work he did not perform.
The first thing scouts notice about Brown is his below-average height. When he starts throwing the ball, however, his zip and accuracy are surprising. Even his 45- to 50-yard throws are tight spirals. And his ability to make plays from outside the pocket reminds some scouts of Tony Romo. Coaches will coach him up a little on his mechanics, though, as he likes to push the ball at times, throw off his back foot and even drop to a three-quarters delivery.
Another successful Football Championship Subdivision player, Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden, looks like he belongs on the field among more heralded players at his position. Physically, he dwarfs most receivers and cornerbacks at 6-foot-6, 228 pounds, and his production in football's second division (122 catches for 2,724 yards -- a 21.9-yard average -- and 36 touchdowns) the past two seasons was phenomenal. But on the field, Barden's long legs make him look slightly awkward and he has a hard time separating from better cornerbacks down the sideline. However, his hands have been solid and his feet are not slow; he can come out of his route relatively quickly.
Like Bomar, Liberty running back Rashad Jennings started at a major program -- Pittsburgh. Unlike Bomar, Jennings made the decision himself to move schools, going to the Lynchburg, Va., university to be closer to his ailing father. This week he has looked as good, and possibly better, than all of the other backs on the field. His combination of size (6-1, 234) and quickness really stand out, and he looks natural catching the ball in the flat.
Jackson State cornerback Domonique Johnson transferred from Missouri (where he was a sophomore starter before a knee injury) after coaches there questioned his dedication. There's no questioning his size and speed, however. And although his 6-1 1/2, 197-pound frame and quick feet remind some of 2008 first-round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Johnson's hips are not as fluid and his ball skills and physicality are not as advanced. Still, he's a fine mid-round prospect who deserves to be in Mobile. Two weeks in a row defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, from the FCS champion Richmond Spiders, has worked out in front of scouts. Last week he participated in the East-West Shrine Game and this week he's facing even better competition. He hasn't been a disappointment. He can use his ridiculously long arms (35 inches) to stay off blocks and get the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle to pressure the quarterback. He also showed during the Shrine Game that he can chase from behind very well. However, his lack of speed off the snap does not allow him to dominate at this level.
There are also players from "mid-major" FBS programs with a chance to make noise this week. San Jose State's Coye Francies has good hands and is the most physical cornerback in this game, although he will draw flags for being too forceful at times. Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas is starting to get some national attention, and has shown nice range and the willingness to make his presence known to receivers crossing his path. Two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year Larry English has played defensive end so far in practice -- as he did at Northern Illinois -- but his hand play and athleticism could land him a linebacker spot in a 3-4 defense at the next level. Troy defensive back Sherrod Martin intrigues scouts with his versatility, as does Troy Kropog -- a tough swing tackle from Tulane.
Much is made about the speed of the game increasing as you climb the football ladder from high school to college to the pros. That applies to the college ranks, too.
"The speed has increased a little bit, but it's not as drastic as I thought," said Brown. "Coming in you know that everyone from the defensive line to the defensive backs has speed, but that's just part of the game."
And he knows that his play here can "pave the path" for other FCS quarterbacks "just like Joe Flacco did for us."
MOBILE, Ala. -- The five players who helped themselves the most during Tuesday's practice at the Senior Bowl, the first time the North and South teams took the field at the same time:
CB Coye Francies, San Jose State: He played with more strength than you might expect from a 179-pound corner, putting a lick on wide receivers whenever possible. His smooth movement in drills was also noteworthy. His combination of fluid hips and toughness make him a fit in any defensive scheme.
DT Mitch King, Iowa: Yes, he's 275 pounds. But his ability to use his hands to free himself inside and his motor make King something to see. Former Hawkeye teammates Jonathan Babineaux, Tony Brown, Derek Landri and Rod Coleman all are undersized tackles who became starting-quality NFL players. King is headed that direction.
C/OG Alex Mack, Cal and Max Unger, Oregon: Unger did lose out a time or two in one-on-one drills, but scouts appreciate the feistiness he has showed against big defensive tackles. Mack's strength is impressive in the pivot. Both guys play nasty, which every offensive line coach loves.
TE Shawn Nelson, Southern Miss: So the guy is 240 pounds, but his 6-foot-5 frame, fluidity in his routes, very soft hands and willingness to block in-line and on the move makes him a legitimate top-75 selection (see Joe Klopfenstein, Tony Scheffler).
DT BJ Raji, Boston College: Darn near impossible to block one-on-one, Raji bull rushes his man into the backfield and can even destroy the fullback at the same time. He's not slow-footed -- it will take all of a running back's quickness to bounce away if the play is designed to go inside.
Five players who hurt themselves Tuesday:
DE Will Davis, Illinois: Davis shows no burst off the edge, something he needs to succeed at 6-2, 262. He was totally engulfed by tackles in one-on-one drills and his attempts to spin out of the blocks were slow and ineffective. Fellow Big Ten defensive end Tim Jamison (Michigan) also has been unimpressive this week.
QB Cullen Harper, Clemson: His draft stock plummeted throughout the season -- and continues its descent toward undrafted free agency. The ball comes out of his hand loose, with a tight spiral making only the occasional appearance. His accuracy is also lacking on short and long throws. Stiff wind gusts didn't help his cause, but his mechanics were mostly to blame.
WR Juaquin Iglesias, Oklahoma: Corners dominated Iglesias in press coverage drills, not allowing him to get into his routes. His hands were a bit stiff as well and, through two practices, he hasn't looked like a difference-maker on the field.
CB Sherrod Martin, Troy: Home cooking (Troy is only a couple of hours from Mobile) has not helped Martin as he transitions from safety to corner. He dropped at least three balls in drills and generally looked uncomfortable on the outside. During a scrimmage, he bit very hard on a Pat White pump fake, allowing his man to scoot on by for a big gain.
SS William Moore, Missouri: Looks like a linebacker, backpedals like a linebacker, struggles in man coverage like a linebacker. So what is he? Playing free safety seems out of the question based on what he's shown this week.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.
North Team Practice – Tuesday
For all of the attention heaped upon the skill position players, the most fascinating annual tradition at the Senior Bowl is the battle between offensive and defensive linemen in the pit. Squared off against one another in football’s version of trench warfare, the savage nature of the game is on full display for all to watch. For linemen, the stakes will never be higher. Those protected by teammates or scheme in college, are on their own here and the weak or slow-footed are quickly exposed.
Those doing the dominating, however, can become the stuff of legends and result in millions of dollars. Former USC standout Sedrick Ellis parlayed his strong effort in Mobile last year into being the 7th overall pick by New Orleans.
If Boston College and Mississippi defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Peria Jerry can continue the dominating performances they enjoyed Tuesday throughout the week, a similar rise is possible.
Regardless of who lined up in front of him Tuesday, Raji overpowered him. Built like a Coke machine and just as tough to move, Raji holds up well against the run. His burst off the snap is impressive, as well, allowing teams to project him at nose guard and defensive tackle. When not pushing his opponent into the backfield, Raji often was able to knife through the gaps and disrupt the timing of both running and passing plays during the North Team’s morning practice.
A few hours later it was Jerry doing the disrupting. The former Runnin’ Rebel lacks Raji’s girth and leg drive to anchor, but his quickness off the snap makes him a perfect fit as a penetrating three technique defensive tackle. Jerry’s quick hands and feet were too much for the South’s interior linemen during individual drills in the pit and during the afternoon scrimmage, as well. The South’s centers – Louisville’s Eric Wood and Alabama’s Antoine Caldwell – both known more for their strength and technique, are particularly ill-equipped to handle Jerry’s burst. Late in the practice, the Jacksonville coaching staff even put former Tennessee standout Anthony Parker inside at center, a position he hadn’t manned since 2005, but Jerry was too quick for him too. While Raji and Jerry were the most consistently dominant interior defensive linemen, a late addition to the North roster had scouts buzzing.
Purdue’s Alex Magee wasn’t here for Monday’s weigh-in or the initial North practice due to travel problems, but he quickly established himself as one to watch with a stellar practice Tuesday morning. Magee, 6-4, 292 pounds, had played defensive tackle throughout much of his career but moved outside to defensive end as a senior in an attempt to generate some pass rush for the Boilermakers. Blessed with quick feet and even quicker hands, Magee was consistently able to slap away pass blockers’ initial punch and redirect inside. Like Jerry, Magee projects nicely as a three technique tackle. With the North’s interior linemen struggling to handle Raji’s strength, the inclusion of the cat-quick Magee made practice that much more challenging.
The stellar play of Raji and Magee belies the fact that the North squad boasts rare talent on their offensive line – especially at the center position. Like Raji, Jerry and Magee, however, Oregon’s Max Unger and California’s Alex Mack, NFLDraftScout.com’s highest rated centers, project best in different schemes at the next level.
The two former Pac-10 stars alternated between center and left guard Tuesday. Unger is quite nimble on his feet, showcasing rare balance and agility for such a large man when blocking on the move. While he struggled anchoring against Raji, Unger’s ability to pull from the center position and effectively block at the second level is rare. Unger’s agility in space and balance in pass protection allows him to project nicely as either a center or guard in a zone blocking scheme. Mack, on the other hand, is the more physical of the two and has the better anchor in pass protection. He and Raji provided some classic battles on the inside Tuesday, with Mack being the only of the North’s interior lineman able to at least earn a stalemate on the day against Raji. While the elite talent lies inside on the North squad, the ones to watch on the South line of scrimmage play outside, with notable exception of Jerry, of course.
The most physically gifted player on either team remains Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher. While blessed with the strength and foot speed of an All-Pro, Oher’s grade is lower with scouts than his physical talents warrant. The concerns are almost completely personality-driven, as teams worry if the All-American has the will and toughness to ever maximize his jaw-dropping potential. If Tuesday’s practice was any indication, however, Oher is out to prove to his critics that he does, indeed, own the nastiness scouts are looking for. His initial match within the pit came against Hawaii’s David Veikune. Veikune, whose speed and quick hands gave pass blockers trouble, at times, Tuesday, allowed his hands to get too high and ripped Oher’s helmet off. Undeterred, Oher forcefully controlled Veikune on the play, shaking him like a rag doll well after the Jacksonville coaches were yelling to stop. Many of his remaining matchups in the pit went the same. On the first play of a later scrimmage, Oher, left uncovered, released off the line to snatch, lift, and drive an unfortunate outside linebacker in his path. The physicality and aggression did not go unnoticed by scouts.
Perhaps due to the colossal battles waged between Oher and Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers on Monday, the two were rarely matched up against each other for this second practice. After an eye-opening initial practice, Ayers struggled with lesser blockers early Tuesday. He picked up his play as the one on ones heated up, however, and finished practice playing with the fervor he’d shown a day earlier. His final snaps of the scrimmage Tuesday, in fact, were spent bull-rushing Tulane tackle Troy Kropog onto his back during one play and using a beautiful swim move to cleanly get past the Green Wave blocker and into the backfield on the next. Though neither made the eye-popping plays with regularity of their afore-mentioned peers, two other pass-rushers helped their causes Tuesday. Northern Illinois’ Larry English likely will be making the transition to rush linebacker in the NFL, and showed the speed off the edge during one on one drills to warrant this projection. He was simply too fast off the snap and flexible around the corner for the North tackles. English’s speed was impressive, considering that both Illinois’ Xavier Fulton and Connecticut’s William Beatty are NFL caliber athletes with multiple years of starting experience at left tackle.
USC’s Kyle Moore didn’t earn much recognition while at USC, but his play raised some eyebrows during the South practice Tuesday. He showed better initial burst off the snap, strong hands to slap away the punch, and redirection inside than given credit for and his hustle downfield in pursuit drew the appreciation of the Jacksonville coaching staff.
Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.