Jerick McKinnon (Getty Images)
MOBILE, Ala. — You're looking for that flash, that glimpse that they can actually do this.
And both Northwestern's Kain Colter and Georgia Southern's Jerick McKinnon have accomplished those type of "ooh" moments this week at the Senior Bowl, showing flashes at wide receiver and running back, respectively, as they attempt to make the conversion from their college position of quarterback.
The NFL won't accept them for their passing skills alone — although early in the week, it looked as if the North team should at least have given Colter a chance to throw, given the way the quarterbacks were struggling. But Colter and McKinnon have enough athleticism and skills for pro teams to consider them elsewhere.
In the first practice of the week, McKinnon had fans and media members (and perhaps some scouts) looking down at their paper rosters, asking, "Who is No. 24?" That would be McKinnon, who took a handoff in 9-on-7 drills, burst through the hole small and compact and lit up Florida State safety Terrence Brooks.
Days later, the hit still resonates — a welcome-to-Mobile moment that announced McKinnon's steady presence throughout the week.
"Ooh, that's embarrassing!" said New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan as he watched McKinnon's big pop of the bigger linebacker.
Said McKinnon minutes later about the hit, "It was a last-second kind of deal. I just came through [the hole] and there he was. I knew it was me versus him. I knew I had to run with power, I was going full speed and I just tried to run through him."
McKinnon grabbed the nation's attention in late November when his Eagles went into The Swamp and stunned the Florida Gators with a 26-20 victory that stirred the college football world for a few days. McKinnon, listed as a quarterback, was actually a hybrid of that and running back; in the Eagles' flexbone offense, he was either under center, split to the right or left (as an "A" back), or behind the QB (in a "B" back spot).
He was a monster that day. Despite being, by his own guess, "70 or 75 percent healthy" for the game, McKinnon rushed nine times for 125 yards — including a 66-yard scamper through the heart of the Gators' defense and the 14-yard touchdown that was the game-winner with under three minutes left. Despite not completing a single pass that game, the Eagles stunned their big-name opponent.
"It put the school on the map," McKinnon said. "A whole new level, really."
And it opened scouts' eyes, too. He was invited to Mobile and definitely has looked the part, from the Monday weigh-in where scouts might have been surprised to see his rocked-up frame, all through Wednesday practice, when he broke around left end and outran several players to the edge.
But McKinnon knows it's about more than speed and power. He also knows that NFL backs will be asked to pass protect, something he seldom did at Georgia Southern. Last season, the entire team attempted only 101 passes — 17 of them by McKinnon.
"I want to show that I can sit in there and pass protect," McKinnon said. "You’ve got to have running backs who can stand up to a [rusher] and hit him, and keep your quarterback clean. That’s definitely something I have to prove."
Although the results in that department were mixed this week, his effort and willingness to get physical were apparent. With better technique, McKinnon could be fine in this department, as he frequently was asked to block in the Eagles' ground-based attack in college.
For Colter, his flash moment came early in Tuesday's practice when he ran a sideline route and deftly caught an errant Logan Thomas pass, whirling around to grab it, tap his feet in bounds and show the kind of body control that NFL receivers are required to possess.
"It was a fun catch," Colter said, "but it's nothing I haven't done before."
The transition for him is similar in that he played some receiver at Northwestern, bopping back and forth from under center. He had prolific moments for the Wildcats in his career but didn't make that huge step forward in a difficult and disappointing senior season for the Wildcats, in which the team struggled and Colter was set back by a few injuries, including two concussions.
Durability is a concern for him because of his slighter frame, but Colter, to the eye, looks a lot like the Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb. Colter, however, believes his game can mirror that of the New England Patriots' prolific slot receiver.
"I really see myself as a Julian Edelman type," Colter said. "I like playing in the slot, and I think my quickness is what sets me apart."
"He's quicker than he is fast," said Wisconsin LB Chris Borland, "but in the open field, he's tough to bring down. He makes subtle little moves and you can't seem to get your hands on him very easily."
McKinnon and Colter each has the desire to play on special teams, and they are both game for being a returner — even though neither really has done that.
"It's tough to project a guy as a returner if he's never done that," said St. Louis Rams special teams coach John Fassel. "But if you see that quick-twitch ability, those open-field instincts, you might say to yourself, 'OK, I can see him on kickoffs, or I can see him on punts.' The problem is that it's a learned trait, but it's also a feel thing — guys either have that knack or they don't. You have to stick them in the fire to find out."
The good news for both is that they belong in their new settings. A year ago, Michigan QB-turned-WR Denard Robinson looked like a fish out of water at the Senior Bowl, and though he was a fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars — who are coaching McKinnon's South team this week — and despite his tantalizing "offensive weapon" designation, Robinson did little as a rookie.
We don't know whether Colter or McKinnon can become first-year impact players, but they already are one step ahead of the Robinsons of the world: They don't look out of place in their new homes.
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