MOBILE, Ala. -- On Wednesday morning, the North team put up a spirited practice that included a lot of playmakers. I have talked to several evaluators in Mobile, and the general sense seems to be so far that the North team has more pure talent, but the South team has put up better practices. Wednesday, a few players that I hadn't seen enough from to date really showed up, bringing that difference in practice quality to a possible close.
I had not questioned the burst and initial speed of Oklahoma State halfback Kendall Hunter before Wednesday, but I really liked what he showed on Wednesday morning. Earlier in the week, he seemed to go down a bit too easily upon contact, but he ran Wednesday like a man with a lot to prove -- decisively and with a lot of power. He burst out of the line between the tackles, and kept that velocity and power consistent when bouncing outside. He was also very dynamic catching passes out of the backfield, getting up field in a hurry on a quick swing pass from Washington's Jake Locker and a slip screen from Iowa's Ricky Stanzi. More and more, he impressed with his total skill set, and hopefully he'll run like this the rest of the week and in Saturday's Senior Bowl game.
Oklahoma scatback DeMarco Murray had caught my eye before, but I had been reluctant to place a full comparison to Kansas City's Jamaal Charles(notes) on him because I hadn't seen enough inline power and explosion outside after contact. But Wednesday, I saw all of that. On one of his trademark quick bounces outside left, Murray took three tacklers with him a good 5 yards downfield after first contact. He's also showing more and more as a receiver -- not just in the flats and quick-up routes you'd expect, but in quick slash cross patterns. Make no mistake -- this is a fully formed NFL back who may not be a three-down guy in a traditional system, but he has what it takes to excel at the next level. I anticipate that as his measurable skills become even more of an asset during the Combine and Pro Day process, Murray will be someone you'll be hearing much more about.
Another running back I liked during the morning practice was Nebraska's Roy Helu, Jr. Helu showed tremendous quickness out of an early sprint draw handoff from Ricky Stanzi. He seems to be a very effective transitional runner from the backfield through the first to the second level -- Helu keeps his pads low and explodes through tackles with quickness. The Cornhuskers' I-back has some serious size (5-11, 215 pounds) behind his speed, and he could be a very nice hybris back at the next level.
Of all the receivers I saw in this practice, I was probably most impressed with Boise State's Austin Pettis, the tall (6-3, 205) possession receiver who displayed his toughness in crowds by first taking a low 12-yard comeback pass into the ground and making the catch. He later grabbed a seam route to the right side from Locker in which he had to stretch a bit with defenders around him. These are the kinds of catches Pettis will be expected to make at the NFL level, and he's off to a good start by exhibiting no fear over the middle, or with defenders converging in on him.
Boise State teammate Titus Young was the downfield burner for quarterback Kellen Moore as Pettis defined the inside, and Young looked as fast as you'd expect on an end-around. That play was set up by Jake Locker's ability to sell hard play-action -- another skill Locker has shown this week.
Looking more closely at a few guards, Toledo's Kevin Kowalski has shown some toughness this week -- he's good at pinning guys down and winning the leverage battle ... Wisconsin's John Moffitt continued what's been a tough week for him. Moffitt does flash decent power at the point of impact, but he has been easily beaten by defenders taking him outside ... Michigan's Stephen Schilling isn't a really powerful run-blocking guard, but he's good at getting his arms out and pushing defenders out of the "Octagon" when they're trying to get past him.
Other players: Stanford fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic hasn't shown much on the defensive side, but he looked nice on one screen, going out of his way to find contact on the sideline ... East Carolina receiver Dwayne Harris has been impressive all week -- a real burner off the blocks and tougher than you might expect on a square-in ... San Diego State's Vincent Brown also showed off his toughness when Nevada's Colin Kaepernick threw him into coverage; Brown took the hit and held onto the ball. Brown has impressed to the point that some analysts are calling him the best receiver here this week.
Miami's Leonard Hankerson is the other receiver getting those raves, and we'll be talking more about him Wednesday evening in the South practice report.