Movers And Shakers In Mobile

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: January 29, 2009

MOBILE, Ala. — Every NFL GM, head coach, and their staffs were in Mobile, Alabama the week of January 19th as the 2009 Senior Bowl took center stage on the NFL Calendar.

Though the first week of the two week lead-up to Super Bowl is supposed to be quiet, the future was on the minds of every NFL team as they sent their scouts and talent evaluators to Ladd-Peebles Stadium to prepare for the upcoming 2009 NFL Draft.

The teams had the right idea in going to Mobile, because the Senior Bowl is the top place to view players “in pads” before all of the t-shirt and shorts workouts start in February leading up to the draft in April.

Senior Bowl week is a special event unto itself as shown by the extensive amount of coverage on NFL Network, but this year’s event had even greater significance as some of the lower tier College Football All-Star Games were cancelled due to the economy.

Even though many of the top players in the 2009 NFL Draft will be underclassmen, the good news was that several top-level senior players (USC LB Maualuga, Oklahoma State TE Brandon Pettigrew, USC LB Brian Cushing, Ole Miss OL Michael Oher, and others) did chose to participate in the Senior Bowl’s week long activities, probably to the chagrin of their agents.

However the bad news was that several high profile potential 2009 first-round picks did decide to stay away from this year’s event including Ohio State CB Malcolm Jenkins and LB Laurinaitis, Baylor OT Jason Smith, Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson, Wake Forest OLB Aaron Curry, Virginia OT Eugene Monroe, and Texas DE Brian Orakpo.

Overall, several scouts that I talked to that were in Mobile indicated that this year’s senior group was a little more talented than the 2008 group. But don’t expect to see this year’s group reach the heights of the 2006 Senior Bowl class that produced 14 first-round picks.

Hopefully the players were relaxed, because the Senior Bowl is a week-long blur of Weigh-in’s, NFL level practices, competitive “Live” one-on-one drills, interviews, and of course Saturday Night’s game under the lights all under the supervision two NFL staffs (North: Bengals and South: Jaguars).

You can have the lesser All-star games (East-West Shrine, Hula Bowl, “Favor of the Year” All Star game) and the NFL Combine, because the Senior Bowl is the place where “football” players get to show off their skills in front of the entire NFL.

The scene is really incredible, because everyone understands that the Senior Bowl is almost like the NFL’s yearly open scouting clinic. Also several new and old head coaches use the Senior Bowl as an opportunity to interview potential coaches to fill their vacancies on their staffs before hunkering down for the draft.

Make no bones about it, everyone in Mobile was starting the long pre-draft scouting trek that will end at RadioCityMusic Hall, but I am sure some of the talent evaluators present were there to start their draft cajoling and smoke-screening too.

The crazy thing about the event is that every team for the most part is open to talking to other NFL staffs, you could even see division rivals like Bill Parcells (Dolphins) and Bill Belichick (Patriots) sitting in the stands next to each other talking shop at morning and afternoon practices.

As for the game, Ladd-Peebles Stadium was packed with 38,796 fans looking to see the nation’s best seniors battled it out in the 60th annual Senior Bowl.

The storyline going into the game may have been a supposedly stacked North squad, but it was a day of redemption for West Virginia senior quarterback Pat White.

The former Alabama high school quarterback that was not recruited to play the position locally returned to his home state leading the Jacksonville Jaguars coached South team to 35-18 victory over the favored North squad.

White (4-10, 95 yards passing and 1 TD with an additional 31 yards rushing), who was incorrectly assumed to be automatically converted to receiver by many evaluators, showed that he could make it in the NFL as a passer too.

The NCAA 1-A level all-time leading rushing quarterback showed off his stronger than expected arm while leading the South squad on two scoring drives plus looking very comfortable in the pocket. White showed what he could do early in the second quarter, leading an eight-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Quinn Johnson of LSU. The drive also included a 33-yard pass from White to North CarolinaState running back Andre Brown.

However White’s best throw of the game and possibly of the week came on a third quarter 39-yard touchdown strike to Ole Miss WR Mike Wallace in the corner of the end zone.

After the South’s victory, White said of his performance, “I’m just happy I had the opportunity. This was a great coaching staff that taught me a lot in a week, I’m looking forward to keeping working, trying to get better.”

White even outshined more heralded University of Alabama homeboy quarterback John Parker Wilson, who was named the Offensive Player of the Game after completing 7-of-13 passes for 56 yards and rushed for the game’s opening score on a short 4-yd touchdown run.

The South had a 21-10 halftime lead and they never let up as their coach Jack Del Rio was looking for the win. CoachDelRio was impressed by his squad and said of their efforts, “We had a good week of practice, the guys really worked hard and had fun. We got after it pretty good, especially early in the week, came out tonight and kind of let it all out and had a good time competing”.

One of the players that the South staff and everyone else here in Mobile were high on after the game was Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers, who completed a very good week by winning the Defensive Player of the Game after producing three tackles, a tackle for Loss, and 1.5 sacks.

The North squad coached by the Cincinnati Bengals staff tried to play catch-up all night in Mobile even narrowing the score to 28-18 early in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run by Eric Kettani of Navy and a 2-point conversion run by Oregon’s Jeremiah Johnson.

But it was not meant to be as the South pretty much closed out the game when University of Mississippi All-American defensive tackle Peria Jerry fell on a fumble in the North end zone for the South’s final score about midway through the fourth quarter.

Now that the weighing, practicing, questioning, and playing is over for the Senior Bowl, we have some observations, news, and notes from the 2009 Event.

Event Risers – These were players that we believe increased their value in at the 2009 Senior Bowl.

USC LB Rey Maualuga – The player that everyone came to see in Mobile didn’t disappoint. Maualuga (6-foot-3, 250) may need to tighten up a little after hitting the banquet circuit in the postseason, but in practices and in the game he flashed often. He was very aggressive and all over the field in Saturday’s game producing 3 tackles, 1 tackle for loss and forcing a fumble. You could see all week that #58 was the leader in almost every linebacker drill and Maualuga showed a “Can-Do” attitude when receiving coaching. The USC intimidating linebacker was definitely in his comfort zone and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his Top 10 status through Pro Day workouts and the Combine.

West Virginia QB Pat White – After arriving in Mobile with many talent evaluators still wondering when he would make the jump to receiver ala Antwaan Randle El in 2002, White continued to prove his naysayers wrong. More known for his running in college, the former WVU star took control of the huddle in practice and looked fluid in his drops and throws. The 6-foot, 190-pound lefthander had a lot of zip on his throws and clearly outplayed Alabama’s John Parker Wilson and Clemson’s Cullen Harper. In the game, White showed that he is more than capable of continuing as a passer and we maybe seeing the maturation of a future NFL difference maker. White will now have to continue to impress at the combine where the scouts will be looking to see him throw deep out patterns.

Penn State WR/KR Derrick Williams – After being a highly heralded recruit, Williams may not have had the dominating college career once predicted for him, but he showed in Mobile that will be a solid pro prospect. The former PennState utility player was good coming out of his breaks, showed strong hands, and had a good burst in separating from DB’s. The area where I really think Williams will shine is in the return game where he looked fluid catching kickoffs and punts while not wasting effort getting up the field. In the game Williams led the North team with 124 all-purpose yards from 5 yards rushing, 19 yards receiving, 89 yards on kickoffs, and 11 yards on punt returns. I like that Williams has great value as a “football player” where he should be able to be a contributor on specials teams and trick plays (former HS quarterback) at the next level.

Southern Miss. TE Shawn Nelson – This H-back type receiver/tight end really had his stock rise in Mobile. Though not built like a pure tight end or wide receiver, Nelson surprised many in the stands with his sure hands and his willingness to block. With a height of 6’5 and a weight of 239 pounds, the best hope for Nelson would be that he turns into a Chris Cooley type at the next level. Nelson in drills and practices was explosive out of his stance and was good running in space. Though he didn’t have any catches in the game, Nelson had a very nice week to build upon at the NFL Combine and on his Pro Day.

Northern Illinois DE Larry English – Though overshadowed at times by higher profile guys, you could not help but follow this high-motor defensive end from a non-football factory. English was explosive in his first step and showed good closing speed to the ball in drills. However being a smaller school prospect, you hoped that English would flashed more in the game as he only produced 1 tackle. Going into the combine and his Pro Day workout, English will need to get stronger at the point of attack and cut down on his head faking.

Event Maintainers – These were players that we believe were solid and did not hurt their value at the 2009 Senior Bowl.

Oklahoma State TE Brandon Pettigrew – One of the top-rated prospects overall at the 2009 Senior Bowl, the big tight end (6-foot-5, 265) from OklahomaState didn’t disappoint. The North starter at tight end didn’t have a catch in the game, but he shined in practices and drills. The All-Big 12 tight end in practice blocked well with a solid anchor and showed a nice ability to find holes in coverage. Though I wouldn’t categorize him as a burner, Pettigrew showed good speed, but he will need to find his second gear on seam routes. At the combine he will need to prove that he has the speed and strength to be considered a first round pick.

Mississippi offensive tackle Michael Oher – Another player that came to the Senior Bowl with high expectations maintained his first round standing with a solid showing. Oher (6-foot-5, 318) showed an ability to be a dominant run blocker, used his hands to get a good punch, and had a nice nasty streak in drills. The area the All-SEC offensive tackle will need to work on is his pass-blocking skills, as he sometimes reached and didn’t play with leverage in drills. He maybe a better suited for right tackle than left tackle, but his strength and good feet still make him a first-rounder.

Hawaii DE David Veikune – A classic tweener (6-foot-3, 265) this possible 3-4 outside linebacker showed good quickness and determination in drills. I liked his explosive first step and ability to play with leverage against larger men in drills. The question though is, “Can Veikune continue to play with his hand in the dirt at the next level?” I am not sure if we got our total answer in Mobile, but I did like what I saw in this high-effort player as he produced 2 tackles and provided pressure for the winning South team.

Oklahoma WR Juaquin Iglesias – After coming into Mobile as one of the receivers from Heisman-winner Sam Bradford’s high-powered offense, Iglesias continued to shine. In the game, he was the North’s leading receiver catching six balls for 90 yards and in practices, Iglesias (6 feet, 202) showed good speed, an ability to make catches in traffic, and good separation. I thought Iglesias, Williams, and OhioState’s Brian Robiske were the strongest receivers in Mobile. It will be interesting to see at the combine if Iglesias can show his reported 4.4 speed to maintain his first-day status.

Event Crashers – These were players that we believe hurt their value at the Senior Bowl and will need to make up ground at their Pro Days and the Combine to get back up in the mix by the NFL Draft.

LSU offensive guard Herman Johnson – The player known as being the Biggest Baby Ever Born in the State of Louisiana (15 pounds, 14 ounces) did not help himself in Mobile. Johnson who is for lack of a better word “huge” measured out at 6-feet-7 ¾ and 382 pounds, as the ballroom was abuzz by his girth. Unfortunately all of his size was not that impressive to the coaches and personnel evaluators that I talked to. At Johnson’s size you would think he would be an ideal tackle, but his conditioning, footwork and questionable effort have placed him on the inside at offensive guard rather than at offensive tackle. Johnson struggled in one-one drills and at times got lost in practice. You could clearly see that he was not explosive out of his stance and quicker players were able to beat him. Johnson will need to work on his conditioning and footwork before the combine and his Pro Day.

Missouri S William Moore – Probably one of the most heralded players coming into the Senior Bowl, probably wished that he had stayed home. After an injury-plagued season and USC’s Taylor Mays surprisingly going back to school, the former Tigers star hoped to shine in Mobile. Unfortunately nothing seemed to come together for this David Fulcher sized (6-feet-1, 230) hitter. Moore didn’t look the part of a centerfield safety as his deep coverage was not there. He may have been slowed by an ankle injury, but he was constantly beat by small quicker players. He only had one tackle in the game and one scout that I talked to said that he went from an almost-certain first-rounder to a possible late second-rounder. Now there are even questions about whether Moore might make a better weakside linebacker instead of safety in the NFL. Moore was clearly outplayed by Western Michigan FS Louis Delmas, Alabama FS Rashad Johnson, and Oregon’s Patrick Chung. Moore like fellow safety David Bruton of Notre Dame will need to pick-it-up at the combine and on his Pro Day.

Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell – Oh no…. I think we have another quarterback with inflated stats from Mike Leach’s high octane Texas Tech offense. Harrell looked like the second coming of Kliff Kingsbury as his arm was a disappointment in practice and drills. Harrell (6-feet-2, 205) did show nice touch and pocket awareness, but he didn’t have the arm the pros love and he struggled at moving under center, which is essential for an NFL quarterback. Harrell’s passes didn’t have zip and you have to wonder in cold weather cities if he might struggle. In the game, Harrell was only 4 for 13 passing for only 40 yards and 1 INT. Harrell along with fellow unimpressive quarterbacks SamHoustonState’s Rhett Bomar (fumble in the game) and Clemson’s Cullen Harper (inaccurate in practice) will need to find a way to shine at the combine.

Cal Poly WR Ramses Barden – Sometimes it is hard for smaller school guys to make the transition against higher competition and that is exactly what happened to Barden. Everyone liked his size at 6-feet-6, 227 pounds, but he was far from the stud receiver that his numbers showed (broke several of Jerry Rice’s lower level records). Barden had trouble getting off the line of scrimmage and his speed/quickness, all ready a question mark given his size, was not that great either. Barden will need to fix his problems quick, because in the NFL he will not make a roster with just his route running and hands. It will be interesting to see if he gets faster and stronger by the combine, because his stock is currently suffering.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

Defensive Tackles were impressive in Mobile — Going into the Senior Bowl, most people thought that the O-linemen would dominate the D-linemen in drills. However led by Boston College DT B.J. Raji, was the best player at almost every practice seeming to be unblockable, the defensive tackles shined. . Raji was joined on the Stock Up List by fellow space-eaters Ole Miss’ Peria Jerry (maybe a first rounder after manhandling several O-lineman in drills and recovering a fumble for a score in the game), Georgia Tech’s Vance Walker, Missouri’s Ziggy Hood, Georgia’s Corey Irvin, Purdue’s Alex Magee and USC’s Fili Moala. All of the defensive tackles listed showed a good anchor and were stout at the point of attack in practices and in the game.

Running Backs struggle again – I don’t know if it is the All-Star setting or that most of the best runners are clearly underclassmen ( Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno, Ohio State’s Beanie Wells, Iowa’s Shonn Green, Uconn’s Donald Brown and others). But the running back group at the Senior Bowl was not that impressive. The fact that little known Rashad Jennings of LibertyCollege in Virginia (South) was the game’s leading rusher with only 41 yards on nine carries tells you everything you need to know about this group. I guess the two standouts of the weak group were North CarolinaState’s Andre Brown and Tennessee’s Arian Foster of Tennessee (hamstring) with both displaying good vision and cuts in practice. Brown did display some nice hands receiving the ball catching two passes for 41 yards in the game. It will be interesting to see how this group fairs once they are tested at the combine against the underclassmen standouts.

Corners came to play – With the NFL going to more spread formations putting four and sometimes five receivers on the field, teams are looking for cornerbacks that can cover and tackle on draw plays. This year I would have to say that the featured group in Mobile. Led by sure first rounder WakeForest’s Alphonso Smith (1 pass break-up in the game), this group was physical in press coverage, showed a good backpeddle, and an ability to break on the ball. I was also impressed with Smith’s fellow corners Virginia Tech’s Victor “Macho” Harris, West Virginia’s Ellis Lankster (had the game’s only interception), Jackson State CB Domonique Johnson (4 TKLs in the game), Oregon State’s Keenan Lewis of Oregon State, Uconn’s Darius Butler of UConn and San Jose State’s Coye Francies.

The Trojans come marching in – As if the USC Trojans’ Rose Bowl thumping of PennState wasn’t enough, head coach Pete Carroll for the second year in a row sent the most players to the Senior Bowl with six players. Of course everyone knew about Maulaga, but the Trojans also sent his partners highly touted linebackers Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. Cushing had one tackle in the game, but all week everyone was impressed with his size, recognition skills, and downhill playing style. Matthews — son of Cleveland Browns legend Clay Matthews Sr. — proved that he was more than a pass rusher by showing that he also had the feet to dropback in coverage, so look for him to be a steal on someone’s draft board. Other members of the Trojans contingent included wide receiver Patrick Turner (had some drops in practice, but the big 6’5 receiver led the South with three catches for 30 yards), rangy defensive end Kyle Moore (had a sack in the game), and defensive tackle Fili Moala (described as the strongest man in Mobile and had one tackle in the game).

That’s a wrap for the 2009 Senior Bowl and now the NFL’s attention will shift to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa between the Steelers and Cardinals.