There are special days on the football calendar.
Super Bowl Sunday
First day of training camp
Regular season opening game
First day of practice at the Senior Bowl.
Well, that's my football calendar Mount Rushmore, anyway. The last one above doesn't always trigger the emotions for most like it does for me and those that have descended on Mobile, Alabama for the week. For those in attendance, though, it fits the bill. The Senior Bowl's tagline is "It Starts in Mobile" and it started on Tuesday. Here are my 'Harris Hits' from the afternoon at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
Back during the season, Texans GM Nick Caserio nearly burst my bubble on one of my draft absolutes - I feel it's necessary to see guys in person. So, I made a comment about seeing players in person vs. solely on tape and noted that it was important to me seeing prospects up close. Caserio then said that it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. My jaw hit the floor so I tracked him down in the hallway two days later and asked him why he thought that way. I thought, of all people, Nick would think like me on that one aspect. Thankfully, he clarified, saying that seeing prospects in person was important but it couldn't override whether a guy could actually play or not. On THAT, we absolutely see eye-to-eye for sure so I'm always excited to see guys live for the first time. As such, there were some prospects that hit me as "oh, he's enormous" or "he's way shorter than I thought."
One guy that IMMEDIATELY stood out was Minnesota OT Daniel Faalele. The Australian import starred in the B1G for the Gophers and when he arrived in Minneapolis he was 400 lb. He's "slimmed" down to 387 lb. and didn't look heavy at all. He dwarfed the other massive men in the offensive line group and he certainly caught my eye from a size perspective.
Another group of players that caught my eye from a physical standpoint was the National team secondary. Four Texas schools are featured in that secondary and nearly every single cornerback in that group is 6-1 or taller with plastic man arms. UTSA's Tariq Woolen measured 6-3 ⅜ and 33 ½ arms. I mean, c'mon. He looked like a small forward on his way to an NBA game but got lost in a football jersey and pads. He wasn't alone. Alontae Taylor. Zyon McCollum. Physically blessed dudes, all of them.
Another tone setter, physically, was Boston College interior offensive lineman Zion Johnson. With a number of 6-5+ offensive linemen near him, Johnson appeared lilliputian at just 6-2 ¾, but talk about stout, my gosh. Legs and backside - like tree trunks. And, it showed in his play too. He spent much of the day at center, which was a little bit of a surprise, but not a huge one once I saw him up close. It made a lot of sense based on his build and assets. He was absolutely one of the winners on day one of practice. He held up well against bull rushes. He slid laterally well when interior defensive linemen tried to rush an edge. He was outstanding in all facets in one-on-one and in team settings.
As you can perhaps tell by my thoughts on Johnson, I watched the big fellas in the morning and more of the fly guys/perimeter players in the afternoon practice.
The one thing that we don't see as much on defense in college football is size. Like, massive man mountain size. It's clear that defensive people need to be able to RUN and MOVE at a rapid rate. So, most of the big, REALLY BIG, guys move over to the offensive line nowadays. So, when Jordan Davis (Georgia) arrives on the scene, it's exciting. Well, there's one more name to add to the list and that's U Conn's DT Travis Jones. He measured 6-4 ⅜ and 326 lb. and ate everything that moved on Tuesday. He completely dominated any and all single blocks and made plays in the backfield in the team sessions and embarrassed poor interior offensive linemen that attempted to block him in one-on-ones. I must have written his name down four or five times - here's my tweet post practice discussing both Johnson (above) and Jones.
One of my favorite offensive linemen to watch on Tuesday was Southern OL Ja'Tyre Carter. He had success throughout the day in one-on-ones and in team settings as well, but it was the way that he didn't back down from anyone. The Jets coaching staff conducted one-on-ones the way that I LOVE. Two reps. You get got on the first rep? You can get him on the next one. So, on the first of two reps with Oklahoma DL Perrion Winfrey, Carter didn't get destroyed, but Winfrey clearly got upfield, ripping underneath the long, strong left arm of Carter to get near the quarterback. On the next rep, though, Carter held up against Winfrey's initial move and, on the whistle, Carter got up in Winfrey's face and had something to say. Then, he tapped on Winfrey's helmet as if to say "I'm sooo not scared of you big school fellas…AT ALL." On his second go-round, Carter faced Houston DL Logan Hall and stood straight up against the hulking Hall on his bull rush.
Ohhh, man, I really liked watching UT-Chattanooga interior OL Cole Strange in person. I had seen him on tape and thought there was some promise to play on the interior. But, up close LIVE, wow, I REALLY liked what he was able to do against the National defensive linemen. Like Zion Johnson, Strange spent the day at center and held up against bullrushes well. He doesn't wear gloves. He doesn't have tape on his hands or wrist or wear any OL flair. Bare arms. Strong lower half. More than adequate feet. Man, man, man…he can really play.
There were a number of FCS OL for the National team and Carter and Strange highlighted that group, but my top rated OL at the Senior Bowl is Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning. It was not a perfect day, but when Penning plays with proper leverage and knee bend, he's got such immense power. I could HEAR him make contact throughout the day. He has to be more consistent with his feet and not rely so heavily on just his upper body strength, though.
One wide receiver that stood out with his explosiveness in and out of his cuts, his sudden twitch was slot receiver Bo Melton from Rutgers. Whooo, man, he's got some juice.
During one-on-ones, Ohio State edge rusher Tyreke Smith hit Penning with a ghost/rip under that was sick.
I wasn't sure what I'd see from UCLA DT Otito Ogbonnia but his second rep in a series of two against Cole Strange was a definite win. Strange held up against Ogbonnia's bull rush, but on the second rep, Ogbonnia caught Strange leaning, snatched him forward and sped to the QB unabated. The UCLA interior disruptor then had two consecutive wins on his next round of one-on-ones later in the drill.
I was fortunate to see more than just the linemen. During a few breaks, I caught some of the passing game action. One play that caught my attention included Cincinnati LB Darrian Beavers. Before practice, I caught up with one of my great friends and I asked him his thoughts on Beavers because I was torn on my thoughts on the Bearcat linebacker. And, it was just that - is he a linebacker? Is he a defensive end? Dude is 256 lb. which was great for an inside linebacker in the NFL back in 2002 when the Texans came into existence. But, what is he NOW? Either way, it was helpful to see him in lockdown coverage on Colorado State TE Trey McBride on an out route in front of me.
It's interesting how quarterbacks come to Mobile and find a connection with a foreign receiver early in the practice, only to maintain that confidence in said receiver throughout the practice. I could really see the trust Pitt QB Kenny Pickett had in North Dakota State WR Christian Watson. Pickett ripped a couple of dig throws in the middle of the field to the FCS star WR.
After a full season of watching Lovie Smith as DC for the Texans, it was no surprise that Illinois S Kerby Joseph, who played for Lovie at Illinois, had one interception and one fumble recovery during the practice. #LovieLovesTakeaways.
Penn State has a few defensive DUDES in Mobile and the best one is the guy who only played there a year - edge star Arnold Ebiketie. The long and rangy transfer from Temple has some go-go juice off the edge. On his first pass rush rep in one-on-ones against North Dakota OT Matt Waletzko, the OT rode the Penn State star up the field, past the quarterback. But, BUT on rep two, my gosh, Ebiketie hit Waletzko with an inside counter move and it was lights out. Talk about twitchy, explosive and quick. THAT version of Ebiketie is unblockable in this setting and I can't wait to see more.
Another Penn State star LB made his presence felt as well. Similar to Darrian Beavers above, I'm not totally sure where Jesse Luketa plays on a play in/play out basis but it was pretty clear that he has some pass rush abilities. He won back-to-back reps out on the edge with a ghost/dip and then an inside counter move. Both clean wins for the Nittany Lion disruptor.
Oklahoma DL Isaiah Thomas had an incredibly impressive rep as he nearly lifted Northern Iowa's Trevor Penning up off the ground on his way to the QB. Thomas has a knack of getting to the quarterback, but that burst to power move was, uh, WOW. On the second rep, Penning shut down Thomas's inside move. Here's the thing with Thomas and I found this studying him this season - one rep, unblockable, one rep, doesn't bring the same juice. It's perplexing, but dude is wildly talented and has to keep the volume at level ten consistently.
One guy I want to see more of tomorrow that was HIGHLY intriguing on tape this season is Miami OH edge Dominique Robinson. He's a former receiver but doesn't play like it. This guy is ROCKED UP. Muscles for days. Speed and burst too. I just didn't watch him much today, but he's a guy I want to see more of on Wednesday.
When Wyoming LB Chad Muma and Montana State LB Troy Andersen are lined up next to one another, there isn't an inch of turf those two can't cover with their speed. Oh, did I mention that both are 241 & 242 lb., respectively? Man, they just fly to the ball. Andersen ran down a wide zone run early in team drills then Muma shot the gap to slow down another zone run a few plays later. I wrote Muma or Andersen in my notebook at least five times and all in a positive manner.
I wonder if Sr. Bowl executive director Jim Nagy will cross train Andersen, given that he was a former QB for Montana State. Then again, if Andersen does the kinds of things at linebacker that he did today, there may be no need to do it.
Oh man, watching dudes with flat out speed is like smelling an outstanding brisket on the smoker. You're doing that smell thing right now, aren't you?? It's so damn pleasing to the olfactory sense. So, when Arizona State RB Rachaad White found an open lane on an inside zone play, hit the gas and took off for the end zone with no one in sight….OHHHHHH, MAN give me some! White hit 21+ mph on that run, one of the top three speed marks during the day. He had the two longest runs on the day where he was able to open up and show that speed.
Baylor has both safeties here - JT Woods and Jalen Pitre - and I kept screwing it up. I wrote down number nine as Pitre and number eight as Woods. That was backwards but what wasn't backwards was how well those two played on Tuesday. The overall point is that Dave Aranda taught those guys VERY well. They were around the ball all over the field all day long.
I wrote this note down - "Most NFL looking play? Pickett to Watson on the dig route - 17 yards completion". Pitt's Pickett threw a laser shot to NDSU WR Christian Watson for a completion.
During team drills, Southern OL Carter, mentioned above, made a great block on Houston's Hall which opened up a big lane for White on a long run play.
One guy that just impresses on the field at all times is Missouri's 5-7 ¾ RB Tyler Badie. He is one tough ball carrier with juice and power when he gets the ball in his hands. The immediate comparison is to Tarik Cohen because of the height and size, but Cohen is more of a space player than anything else. Badie runs between the tackles like he's 6-2, 220 lb., pinballing off of tacklers and running through others. He bounced a run to the outside during a team period that left a couple of defenders grabbing air.
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder had his best throw of the day when he lasered one to Colorado State TE Trey McBride as Ridder was on the run out of the pocket.
I didn't see a ton of the defensive backs in the early practice but, during team drills, I saw Joshua Williams, from tiny Fayetteville State play an Alec Pierce out route just perfectly. Williams is intriguing as all get out with his size 6-2 ½, 193 lb. build. Williams topped out at 21+ mph during practice as well so it's clear there's a TON of potential. As such, he'll be a guy I watch closely on Wednesday to get a better read on his prospects.
One thing that has been more prevalent this year at the Senior Bowl than any other year during practices is the number of college coaches showing up to support their guys. I saw P.J. Fleck (Minnesota), Luke Fickell (Cincinnati), James Franklin (Penn State), Josh Heupel (Tennessee), Jay Norvell (Colorado State, formerly of Nevada) and Bryan Harsin (Auburn). There were a few more I'm sure I missed. Either way, it was really cool to see Fickell spend up to 20-25 minutes with his group of Bearcats in Mobile on the field after the first practice.
Virginia Tech OG Lecitus Smith will have my respect forever because he was showing abs all day long. Yes, 321 lb. Lecitus Smith showed off his six pack ala Quinn Meinerz last year and I loved it. Smith is a powerful, run crusher.
I watched a little more of the quarterbacks and the passing game in the second practice, which meant getting eyes on Liberty QB Malik Willis for the first time in the flesh. My. GOODNESS. When Willis decides to GRIP IT AND RIP IT, look the heck out. I've seen Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and every quarterback that's been at the Senior Bowl for the past nine years and no one, I repeat, NO ONE has thrown a ball with that kind of velocity. Yes, I know what I just said. Willis' ability to spin it has never been in question but seeing the strength of his arm is, like, WOW, what did I just see?!? He was the guy that truly stood out more than any other in the afternoon practice, especially so when ripping a couple of 20-25 yard dig routes on a rope. The drawback is that the ball can sail a bit on Willis, which is not a great thing on those throws over the middle. During one-on-ones, Willis ripped a fastball to South Alabama WR Jalen Tolbert on that same dig route for a completion. Tolbert got separation but it wasn't much. Didn't matter, though, as Willis threw the best ball of the day for the completion. A little later, Willis dropped on play action and was dead to rights with two defenders in his face. He pulled it down, spun back to the outside and sprinted up the field for a first down. He's electric. He's got WOW arm strength. He just hasn't found that consistency…yet.
Florida State edge star Jermaine Johnson II is the truth. He's unabashedly confident and has the size, twitch, quicks and overall pass rush maneuvers; all are top notch. I was a big fan heading to Mobile, but the way that he showed off on Tuesday makes me think he needs some top 20 love in the Harris 100.
Memphis slot receiver Calvin Austin III put on a shake show all day long. There wasn't a defensive back in Mobile that slowed him down. I fell in love with the dynamic Austin in 2020 when he lit up UCF for nine catches for 151 yards and two tuddies in 2020. Like that day against UCF, he was on one with the in and outs of his breaks and his pristine route running. He was quicksilver throughout the day. This year's Senior Bowl doesn't have as many slot receivers as in prior years, so Austin III is really taking advantage of that void to shine. He was a stud on Tuesday, all 5-7 ⅜, 173 lb. of him.
Auburn CB Roger McCreary finished his season at Auburn with a tremendous performance against Alabama and followed that up with a fine performance on Tuesday. Missouri CB Aykaleb Evans had a couple of pass breakups during the day as well.
Last year, I fell in love with Tennessee WR Josh Palmer (LA Chargers rookie WR - 33 catches, 353 yards and five TD as a rookie) and this year I came to Mobile with a man crush on Velus Jones Jr. The Crush is growing after seeing him work up close and personal. He's smooth and physical, runs clean routes, flashes strong hands and has some downfield juice. So, if my math is correct, Volunteer star WR Cedric Tillman will be one of my favorites in the draft class next year. That said, Velus Jones Jr. is a name to keep in mind in the near future.
One DB who is constantly jawing is Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt. He's grown on me as I wasn't a huge fan early in the 2021 season. But, as I studied him throughout the 2021 season, I really started to like what I saw. He's 5-10 ½, but weighs a sturdy 200 lb. He worked a ton from the slot as the nickel and had a great pass breakup on Jones Jr. on a hitch route. He didn't let anyone forget about it either. He got "got" by Austin III on a deep route a little later…and kept talking about that too. Dude is absolutely growing on me for a good reason, though.
One of the best throws on the day came from record setting former HBU QB Bailey Zappe. He threw a deep out to Ole Miss WR Dontario Drummond who was draped in coverage by Sam Houston DB Zyon McCollum. I could see the DBs on the other side of the field shaking their heads as to how Zappe got that ball into that tight space.
Zappe was included in one of the most interesting moments of the day too. UTSA DB Tariq Woolen eliminated a slant route by the aforementioned Velus Jones Jr. The Tennessee receiver tried to run a slant route but Woolen darted inside and cut him off completely. Jones had nowhere to go and Zappe had to eat the ball. After the play, there was a little hubbub going on as I wrote in my notebook. When I looked back up, I noticed that Jones was going back to the LOS and Woolen was lining up again on defense. On the snap, Jones Jr. lulled Woolen a bit and then sprinted down the field beating the Roadrunner cornerback by a yard on the go route. Zappe dropped the ball out of the sky for a deep ball touchdown. That was some fun and a win on both sides.
Georgia DT Devonte Wyatt is a problem. That's all.
Practice ended with a Jermaine Johnson-Darian Kinnard call out by Lions head coach (this week) Duce Staley. Johnson whipped the Kentucky tackle on the first play, going speed to power in an impressive fashion. Kinnard caught him on a spin move on the next play. The third one was too close to call so a TIE IT IS!! It was a fun end to a productive day of work.
Man, I'm still trying to decipher my notes, shoot, what am I saying, I'm trying to read my writing which has eroded over the years. As I complete that task, I'll have much more tomorrow on day two at the Senior Bowl. See ya then, everyone!
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