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Senior Bowl notebook: Inspirational Griffin stands out for South

— By Rob Rang, —

MOBILE, Ala. — Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin is one of the more inspirational stories in sports, earning the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award and leading the Golden Knights to an undefeated season despite playing with just one hand.

Griffin is not just a story of a resiliency, however. He is proving this week at the Senior Bowl that he is a legitimate NFL prospect, albeit one who has not been granted an invitation to the 2018 Scouting Combine.

It is difficult to appreciate Griffin’s ability to play with only one hand until watching him in person. Whether asked to drop into coverage or rush off the edge, Griffin consistently wins due to a combination of diagnosis skills and overall athleticism, showing the same playmaking ability that helped his twin brother, Shaquill, record 15 pass break-ups as a rookie starting cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks this past season.

Griffin initially lined up as an off-ball linebacker during Thursday’s practice, showing the quick feet and loose hips to shadow running backs in coverage, usually forcing quarterbacks to look elsewhere and not allowing a catch to be made when they did attempt to force the ball in.

As odd as it may sound for the 6-foot, 222-pounder, Griffin was even more effective as an edge rusher, beating Humboldt State left tackle Alex Cappa — the most consistent pass protector for either team this week — for big plays during 11-on-11 scrimmages, as well as during one-on-ones.

Rushing off the right edge out of the two-point stance, Griffin blew past Cappa early in practice to force a wounded-duck throw by the South team’s quarterback, which was intercepted by Virginia’s Quin Blanding. A series later, Griffin used a quick stutter-step to slip by Cappa through the B gap, and was credited with a sack.

While there is no denying that Griffin’s lack of a left hand limits his ability to shed blocks, tackle or intercept passes in a traditional sense, he has adapted wonderfully, using his forearm to fend off opponents. Offensive linemen are taught to grab the wrist and pull defenders down if opponents are successful in reaching their chest. Griffin’s narrow limb, however, gives opponents a comparatively small, blunt target which — combined with his agility — makes it very difficult for blockers to keep him contained for long.

Defenders are not allowed to take ball-carriers to the ground during practices. Do not be the least bit surprised, however, if Griffin ranks among Saturday’s leading tacklers. Tape review shows that despite what some would call a handicap, Griffin is one of the more technically sound open-field tacklers in this draft, breaking down well, initiating contact and wrapping his arms fully to stop ball-carriers in their tracks.

BRUGLER: Quarterbacks impressive at North practice

Among other notable observations from Thursday’s South practice:

–While Griffin was a notable exception off the edge, the South team’s offensive line has held up very well throughout the week of practice despite facing a formidable front. One longtime scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, characterized it as the best position group at this year’s game. Small-schoolers Cappa and Brandon Parker (North Carolina A&T) have not looked out of place at all against the top senior talent in the country. The most consistent blocker for either team this week has been Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, who looks like a plug-and-play starter at guard after excelling at tackle for the Bulldogs.

–If the South’s offensive line is its best position group, tight end would be a close second, with Indiana’s Ian Thomas and Western Kentucky’s Deon Yelder each showcasing the agility and speed to gain separation and making several impressive catches over the week of practice.

–Specialists rarely get much attention in all-star games but the South’s duo of Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson and Alabama punter JK Scott are special. Each boomed kicks that have forced onlookers sitting in the front rows of Ladd-Peebles Stadium to pay attention or risk getting an unpleasant surprise. Carlson has nailed field goal attempts of 58 yards each of the past two days with room to spare.