— By Dane Brugler, The Sports Xchange —
For one week every January, the NFL invades Mobile, Ala., for the annual Reese’s Senior Bowl. The all-star exhibition features the top senior college prospects for an audition in front of hundreds of NFL scouts, coaches and evaluators.
The Senior Bowl is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 27 at 2:30 p.m. ET at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and will be aired on NFL Network. What really matters, though, to the NFL evaluators are the daily practices leading up to the game.
Her are 10 storylines to track during Senior Bowl week:
10. Marcus Davenport’s chance to prove he is first-round material
There is plenty of buzz surrounding Texas-San Antonio senior pass rusher Marcus Davenport, who appears in the top 15 of my most recent mock draft. He totaled 17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a senior, although that was against lesser talent in Conference USA. During Senior Bowl practices, he will face an uptick in talent and will be expected to perform at a high level.
Davenport, with a basketball background, is an impressive athlete and will test well at the Scouting Combine. But during practice, scouts will be focused on his hand use, rush moves and body rhythm. With technical improvements during the week, Davenport will cement his status as an early first-round pick.
9. A spotlight on Desmond Harrison
A former high-profile junior college recruit, Desmond Harrison started his career as one of the gems of Texas’ 2013 recruiting class. Due to multiple failed drug tests and other issues, he left the program and bounced around before resurfacing at Division II West Georgia for the 2017 season.
Harrison started at left tackle for the Wolves and impressed with his sweet feet and natural athleticism, easily shutting down the corner in pass protection. His technique and awareness are all over the place, leading to mistakes and sloppy reps, but his movement skills simply cannot be coached. Along with his past baggage, Harrison will have plenty of questions to answer in Mobile. If NFL scouts like what they see/hear, Harrison could be a riser.
8. Dallas Goedert can cement top senior tight end status
South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert has the physical skill-set, dependable ball skills and football character that could land in him in round one. With almost all his experience coming against FCS-competition, how will he match up against better talent in Mobile?
Goedert is a big, physical athlete with the body control and footwork of a much smaller player, making himself available in his routes with natural adjustment skills. There won’t be a linebacker at the Senior Bowl who will be able to cover him, and the safeties will have a tough time matching his aggressive play. With a productive week, Goedert can lock down his status as the No. 1 senior tight end, ahead of Penn State’s Mike Gesicki, Indiana’s Ian Thomas and others.
7. Time for Jalyn Holmes to step out of the shadows
A former top recruit, Jalyn Holmes was sometimes lost on the deep defensive end depth chart at Ohio State, collecting only two sacks as a senior and four in his career. The lack of starting experience and overall production looks unimpressive on the resume, but his traits are what have attracted NFL attention.
Holmes is body beautiful with his sculpted 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame and intriguing athleticism. There is no question he is unseasoned as a pass rusher and run defender, lacking the technical savvy to string together moves off the edge. However, Holmes shows immense potential with his toolsy physical profile, and if he shows progress throughout the week, his draft arrow will point north into the top-100 picks.
6. Central Florida’s impressive trio of prospects
Regardless if undefeated UCF should or should not have been in the College Football Playoff, there is no denying the talent on the roster. And now several of those talented players are preparing for NFL careers, including three Senior Bowlers: linebacker Shaquem Griffin, wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith and tight end Jordan Akins.
Griffin, who lost his left hand at the age of four due to a rare birth condition, is one of the best stories in sports, overcoming obvious obstacles. He will always have trouble taking on blocks and finishing tackles due to his disability, but Griffin has the play speed and energy that jumps off the screen. He is a draftable player, and his performance in Mobile will only back that up.
Smith, UCF’s leading receiver the last three seasons, is a well-built pass catcher with the ball skills and downfield skills to be a playmaker. The redshirt junior graduate requires route refinement, but for a player who didn’t play organized football until his junior year in high school, he is further along than expected. Smith has top-100 potential with a strong pre-draft process.
Akins originally signed with UCF in 2010, but he was drafted in the third round of the MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers and spent four seasons in the minor leagues. He joined the Knights in 2014 and steadily regained his football legs, starting 11 games in 2017 and scoring a career-best four touchdowns. Akins is a possible late-round pick.
5. Stanford’s one-man wrecking crew
Stanford’s Harrison Phillips is an impressive individual. Off the field, he earned Academic All-America honors and graduated early with a double-degree from one of this country’s top universities. On the field, Phillips recorded 103 tackles, including 17 for loss, which are remarkable numbers for any position, but especially impressive considering he lined up as a nose tackle in the Cardinal’s 3-4 scheme.
Phillips doesn’t play with much flash and won’t produce off-the-chart numbers at the Combine, so the Senior Bowl is the perfect place to showcase his skill-set. He is a bully at the point of attack with his hammer hands and wrestling background, making him a nuisance to block. Phillips is highly intelligent and relies on various techniques to consistently be in the right place at the right time.
4. Levi Wallace is one of the best stories (and senior corners) in this draft class
For non-Alabama fans, rooting for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide is like rooting for the House in Vegas. However, Alabama cornerback Levi Wallace is an easy player to appreciate because of his journey.
With zero scholarship offers out of Tucson (Ariz.) High School, Wallace didn’t have many options, but he was determined to play at Alabama, his father’s favorite team. He walked on in Tuscaloosa as a wide receiver and spent his first three seasons in the shadows, redshirting, competing on the scout team and even playing intramural flag football to get on the field.
After spending the 2016 season as a backup and helping on special teams, Wallace earned a starting role as a senior and flourished. With opponents staying away from Anthony Averett, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and the other talented defensive backs in the Tide secondary, Wallace received plenty of action and he responded with 18 passes defended and three interceptions. Now, he is arguably the best cornerback on the Senior Bowl roster and is competing for his pro future.
3. Offensive tackles moving to the interior offensive line
Projecting a position change for certain prospects can be a difficult task for evaluators, but that is just another reason why all-star games are so important. One of the most common is when college offensive tackles are asked to play at either center or guard. This year’s Senior Bowl roster has several players who will be making the switch.
Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn started 15 games at left tackle for the Bulldogs, but will need to make the move to guard for the NFL. He lined up at guard as an underclassman so it shouldn’t be a complicated transition, but Wynn looks like a potential top-60 draft pick if the move goes smoothly this spring. Nevada’s Austin Corbett was a four-year starter at tackle in college, splitting time between the left and right sides. He is listed as a center on the Senior Bowl roster and will get plenty of work at guard as well. Scouts stamped him with third-round grades as a guard.
2. Will we find separation among the receiver prospects?
The senior crop of wideouts is a talented group, but they are thought to be log-jammed on day two; scouts are hoping the Senior Bowl helps separate them.
Oklahoma State’s James Washington is a legit vertical threat with sticky hands to make strong catches, but his route-running and stem footwork are concerns. Colorado State’s Michael Gallup has a very well-rounded skill-set with his size, speed and routes, but there isn’t much that distinguishes him aside from being consistent. New Mexico State’s Jaleel Scott has a humongous catch radius, using his 6-6 frame and long arms to climb the ladder; however, his skinny 215-pound frame and rigid routes require time to develop.
Other receivers like Iowa State’s Allen Lazard, Boise State’s Cedrick Wilson, LSU’s D.J. Chark and Georgia’s Javon Wims have attractive qualities, but it is anyone’s guess who will have the best week and make a move to be the best receiver prospect at the event.
1. Dissecting every pass, decision and sneeze of the quarterbacks
The quarterbacks are always the main draw, and this year’s Senior Bowl has a pair of passers who will attract plenty of attention and headlines. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Wyoming’s Josh Allen, who are on the North Team and coached by the Denver Broncos, have first-round aspirations, possibly as early as the top 10. Their performances at the Senior Bowl could move the needle and shape their draft destination.
The other quarterbacks in Mobile: Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, Washington State’s Luke Falk, Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, Virginia’s Kurt Benkert, Troy’s Brandon Silvers and Western Kentucky’s Mike White.