January 29, 2011
After five days of practice leading up the Senior Bowl game, most of the coaches and media are gone, and it's time for the players to put their game faces on one more time at the NCAA level. The players listed below are not rated for their collegiate performances or how we think they'll do in the actual Senior Bowl game; there are the guys who looked best to us through the practice week. Of course, we'll have a full Senior Bowl recap as part of Yahoo! Sports' draft coverage. Here are our practice standouts for the South team, the North team standouts can be found here.
Quarterback: Christian Ponder, Florida State -- Perhaps the most well-developed quarterback here from a playbook and awareness perspective. Had Ponder not been challenged by shoulder and elbow injuries through his junior and senior seasons, he would most likely be a lead-pipe lock as a first-round pick. But he checked out medically here, and he showed what you see on tape - a great sense of route development from 0-20 yards, the occasional well-thrown deep ball, nice mobility in and out the pocket, and solid overall mechanics. Any team looking for a young quarterback to run their West Coast offense would have to be impressed with what they saw from Ponder this week.
Running back: Derrick Locke, Kentucky -- Locke had a lot to prove this week, and he ran like it at all times. He told me that NFL teams will naturally be concerned that at his size (5-8, 186), he'll be able to run between the tackles. Every day, he ran inside with authority and broke through the pile a few times. I think he put himself on the radar of a few NFL teams here, and he'll be another one to watch through Combine and Pro Day.
Receivers: Leonard Hankerson, Miami/Ronald Johnson, USC -- Hankerson was the star among all the receivers to many analysts - people like his smooth stride and ability to run routes very well. While I echo those sentiments, and also liked his toughness when going low in traffic on comebacks, I'm a little concerned that Hankerson's lack of speed will affect his NFL prospects. He doesn't make a hard cut in stride - it takes him a second to get back up to speed - and I don't know that you can get away with that against faster and more complex NFL defenses. Johnson consistently impressed me as a slot receiver; he is quick enough to get open in short spaces and helped Hankerson and other bigger receivers by taking the inside route on combo routes very quickly.
Honorable mention to West Virginia's Jock Sanders, who came to Mobile as a late add and blew me away with his speed on quick stutter-go routes from the slot. Size concerns will dog him, but that kid is ridiculously fast.
Tight Ends: DJ Williams(notes), Arkansas/Luke Stocker, Tennessee -- Not much to talk about at the tight end position on the North team, but the South had two standouts. I liked Williams' turn-and-go when getting open downfield, and he has great hands - one hand naturally follows the other when he's bringing the ball in and he's quick to grab the pass in the end zone. Stocker was one of the most physically impressive players through practice week because he caught everything thrown his way, and he also held on early in the week when Alabama's Greg McElroy throw him right into a huge hit in the secondary. He's that big, Jason Witten(notes)-type tight end who can do just about everything - a skill set that will never go out of style.
Tackle: Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State -- Unlike the North team, which was loaded with tackles of interest, the South squad seemed to have more going on with its interior linemen, That said, those North tackles all struggled with consistency on a day-to-day basis, and that's one thing Sherrod didn't do - he gave a solid level of performance every day. Playing right tackle at times, he made "flipping the protections" look a lot easier than it can be. Sherrod is a smooth blocker who reminds me of Jason Smith(notes), and I wonder if he might not wind up as an outstanding right tackle as Smith has become for the St. Louis Rams.
Interior Linemen: Rodney Hudson, Florida State/Danny Watkins, Baylor -- Hudson may be on the wrong side of 300 pounds, but he plays about 30 pounds heavier than he is, because he starts so low before the snap and explodes into the defender's pads. No matter who he had on him during practice week, Hudson would not be denied. I wonder if his build (he doesn't have a really wide base in his lower body) might be more tailored to the center position. Watkins, the 26-year-old former firefighter form Canada who wound up replacing Jason Smith at Baylor, looked pretty solid at guard and told me that he felt especially comfortable at center. All through the week, he played with a serious nasty streak - he stood some good defenders up and he'll come away from this experience with a few new converts on the NFL side.
Defensive Linemen: Phil Taylor, Baylor/Pernell McPhee, Mississippi State -- At 6-4 and 330 pounds, Taylor surprised a lot of people with his quickness - he looked more like a 300-pound three-tech when doing agility drills. McPhee showed a lot of aggressiveness through the week, consistently driving blockers back and exhibiting good quickness in short spaces. He may not be an edge rusher per se, but he could complement an NFL pass rusher very well. What I liked best about McPhee was that he got penetration with inside and outside moves - he didn't seem limited when his options went one way of the other.
Linebacker: Von Miller, Texas A & M -- It's not that we didn't expect Miller to stand out, but the fact that he lived up to all expectations is a good indicator of what he brings to whatever he does on the field. Miller had the benefit of practicing all week against a stellar roster of tight ends, and he took advantage, shadowing Arkasas' D.J. Williams especially well. Everyone knows that Miller is a great pass rusher and a downhill thumper as an inline tackler - add his increased versatility shown on Mobile, and Miller is looking closer at a possible top 15 draft pick.
Defensive Backs: Curtis Brown, Texas/Shareece Wright, USC -- Two aggressive cornerbacks here. Brown can get a little grabby at times, something you hope his NFL coaching staff will train out of him before he gets a rep with officials at the pro level. But he's very quick in short spaces and he has good recovery speed. Brown's major problem - and this is true of Wright as well - is the occasional gamble leading to a score. While that may be a product of the fact that defenses are basically limited to single-high safety zone coverages (Cover-1 and Cover-3), it's something to watch going forward.
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