MOBILE, Ala. -- A biting wind blew off the Mobile Bay in the early morning. Threatening clouds covered the whole region. A line of angry, red, blinking storms hung over the radar map, and tornado warnings were issued: not something to be taken lightly in Alabama these days.
The impending storm meant only one thing to the North squad: practice as usual, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium!
That's right: the North gave outside practice their best shot, despite the obvious severe weather on the way (and the fact that the stadium is in a residential neighborhood with no shelter for large groups nearby). Players stretched in a light drizzle. Quarterbacks warmed up by throwing into the sharp wind.
Then, minutes before the start of practice, the peal of thunder. That was that. The North left the field, hopped onto buses, and retreated to the Mobile Convention Center ballroom for a walkthrough. Everyone else scrambled. As scouts, media and team officials like Ted Thompson of the Packers rushed to their cars, dozens of campers and RVs funneled into the stadium parking lot: Tailgating season is underway. Ladd-Peebles has one main parking entrance, so huge camping vehicles jockeyed with rental cars to enter and exit a two-lane highway as the rain began falling in sheets.
Was this trip really necessary?
It was when the alternative was a workout in a ballroom with a cement floor. The North lined up for practice on the northern side of the room. The southern side of the room was littered with garbage, dirty tablecloths, and stacked chairs from an event the previous night. Workers cleaned up the mess on one side. Leslie Frazier had his team practice their field goal protection assignments on the other side.
Needless to say, there was not much to take away from the North practice from a scouting standpoint. Players walked through drills in shorts and T-shirts, with the occasional hoodie. T.J. Graham (WR, NC State) wore a visor to protect him from the indoor sun glare on a rainy morning, making him look like the world's fastest accounting clerk. When players wore yellow helmet pinnies over their otherwise bare heads to indicate that they were playing offense or defense, the pinnies looked like shower caps.
Senio Kelemete (OL,Washington) told me what players can get out of such an unusual practice. "Being able to stay mentally focused," he said. "Being sure that you lock in, and that you are not just messing around. Working on your technique instead of trying to be physical." The North offensive linemen worked on weight distribution, hand technique and other fundamentals that can be practiced indoors, in sneakers, on a hard surface.
Players and coaches took the proceedings as seriously as possible: There was no obvious "messing around." Still, it was hard not to laugh. Kirk Cousins (QB, Michigan State) threw a corner route to a receiver in the slot. The receiver ran straight toward the water fountains, made a tight cut toward the men's room, and was able to catch the pass and stop his momentum before running into the exhibit storage room. Russell Wilson (QB, Wisconsin) ran a 7-on-7 two-minute drill on the far side of the ballroom, and he spiked the football to stop the imaginary clock. Seriously. He was lucky the ball didn't bounce straight up into his face.
Kelemete was one of the stars of Wednesday's practice; Vikings coaches used his technique as a role model for the other linemen during individual drills. "They just liked my ability to stay low, my hand placement, being able to shoot my hips forward, and getting on the bags," Kelemete said when asked about the feedback he received. Kelemete played left tackle in his final seasons at Washington but is too short-armed and not quite athletic enough for the outside at the NFL. He has been playing guard in most drills and projects as a third-round pick: high for a player at a position that is usually not prioritized by NFL front offices.
Practice ended with kickoff drills. No chandeliers were threatened: Carson Wiggs (K, Purdue) approached the ball and pretended to kick. Doug Martin (RB, Boise State) held a football and pretended to catch it before jogging through a pretend return. We pretended to watch. Anyway, there are no chandeliers, just an industrial ceiling with exposed beams and pipes. Practice ended, and players were held up at the pedestrian walkway that crosses a major highway between the convention center and the hotel headquarters: High winds made the walkway extremely risky. A handful of players were halfway across when security guards temporarily halted pedestrian traffic, and when the wind gusted, they took off at full speed for the hotel.
Unfortunately, that dash cannot be used as their official 40 time.