An unusually warm Mobile sun greeted the Senior Bowl North team Wednesday morning at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, as the coaching staff began preparing and installing small parts of Saturday’s game plan. The practice was overall uneventful, and a little less attended than yesterday’s morning workout. Still many familiar faces like John Harbaugh, Marvin Lewis and Jerry Glanville were on hand to watch players looking to move up the board and increase their draft worthiness before the large contingent of NFL scouts and front office personnel.
The team began the morning practice with a short special teams period then broke off into individual workouts. The offensive line, which looked very good yesterday, was less consistent Tuesday drawing criticism from the coaches from time to time. This North team drew the early workout straw and several players looked like they were still half asleep at times, especially early in the practice.
The Vikings coaching staff really stayed on Wisconsin offensive tackle Kevin Zeitler during the initial offensive line drills telling Zeitler to “pop the air out of the bag – hear it pop!” At one point the coach stopped the drill to correct his footwork and tell him in this pass blocking drill to be patient and let the rush come to him. Coaches continued to explain to all the linemen when doing their pass blocking drills to remember weight on the onside leg, arch your back and keep your head back.
While the offensive linemen worked near the goal line, the tight ends had found the chutes the offensive linemen used on Tuesday and were being drilled and schooled on drive blocking techniques. Michigan State’s Brian Lithicum was corrected a couple times by his position coach with words of wisdom for the young tight end to “keep your pad level down, two steps then explode and the low man wins.”
Next period brought a few of the units together for two-man drills. The offensive and defensive lines got together on the ten-yard line and both groups got good work in. The drill consisted of two offensive linemen going against a defensive lineman and a linebacker. The idea was to double-team the defensive player, and then react to the motion of the linebacker. If the linebacker made a move toward the line-of-scrimmage the offensive linemen had to communicate in the middle of the block and one would release to the ‘backer. While this was primarily an offensive line drill it was live full contact and the defensive lineman made the drill more difficult than on Tuesday where the defensive players were actually reserve offensive linemen. Marshall’s Vinny Curry was a disruptive force for most of the workout and after making a couple plays with his speed and athleticism actually had the two offensive linemen arguing with each other.
Zeitler, who struggled in the individual period woke up and started showing aggression that was missing earlier in the workout, coming off the block and sprinting to the linebacker and using good technique to drive him away from the play.
The offense and defense next came together for inside tough drills with the offense working on a combination of running and passing plays. Focusing on the play of the linebackers. Nevada linebacker James Michael Johnson was the most impressive of the group showing good instincts and flow to the ball. Johnson was patient, avoided blocks then showed great acceleration after diagnosing running plays including at least one tackle for loss where he shot through the offensive line without being touched. Early projections have Johnson going somewhere in the fourth and fifth rounds but if his game goes like his practice did, Johnson may move up some team’s boards, especially those looking for linebacker help.
The next period saw the popular offensive and defensive 1-on-1 battles. The coaches again had a cone setup to act as the pocket of the quarterback and it was the job of the offensive lineman to keep the defensive player off the cone. The defensive line got the best of the offensive line in this drill on Wednesday with numerous phantom sacks. Jumbo-sized Ohio State tackle Mike Adams was inconsistent today looking like a first-rounder one play, then a practice squad guy the next. Zeitler was another top prospect that was hot and cold all day. Vinnie Curry abused Zeitler on one play with his extreme quickness beating the Wisconsin product off the ball and using a quick inside club move that baffled Zeitler.
An intriguing player that scouts seem to either love or loathe is Michigan defensive lineman Mike Martin. At 6-foot-1, 307 pounds, Martin’s height may be a deterrent to several teams but Martin is a high-motor guy who never stops and practiced this week with aggression and a chip on his short but massive shoulders.
Like former Bucs head coach Raheem Morris is now back in his element as a defensive backs coach with the Washington Redskins, former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary is in his element as the Minnesota Vikings linebackers coach. Singletary is a great communicator and spent a lot of time complimenting the footwork of Utah State’s Bobby Wagner, Nebraska’s Lavonte David and Arkansas State’s Demario Davis during the individual drill period. Those three linebackers, along with Nevada’s James-Michael Johnson appear to be standing out the most for the North.
At the conclusion of the individual period the linebackers went to the middle of the field to face the running backs and tight ends in 1-on-1 coverage drills. Boise State running back Doug Martin stood out with his quickness, agility and speed. He is quickly becoming one of the true standout players in Mobile, and reminds some of Baltimore’s Ray Rice. In his first rep, Martin easily dusted former Broncos teammate Shea McClellain and made a nice catch downfield.
Boise State safety George Iloka did a nice job of hanging with Missouri tight end Michael Egnew and broke up a pass downfield.
North Carolina State linebacker Audie Cole used his big 6-foot-4, 231-pound frame to attack and jam Ohio State running back Dan Herron at the line of scrimmage and didn’t let him release to catch a pass. That was one of the few impressive plays in an otherwise uneventful North practice.
For some reason, Martin got a second rep against McClellin again and the outcome was the same. McClellin couldn’t hang with the player known as the “Muscle Hamster” and Martin easily blew by the big Boise State linebacker for a big gain down the left sideline.
David did a good job of being physical and cutting off Cincinnati running back Isiah Pead on a wheel route down the right sidelines. Pead didn’t have a chance to catch the ball and David’s play drew praise from Singletary.
Washington running back Chris Polk continues to struggle in Mobile. As soon as he caught a pass in the flat, Wagner tackled him to the ground immediately. The Vikings coaching staff had to be pleased with Wagner’s speed and thumping ability, but because it was practice, they reminded Wagner to keep the offensive players up and not tackle them.
Herron beat Davis across the middle on a circle route as the Arkansas State linebacker slipped a bit in transition.
Martin finally got a rep against someone other than McClellin and made a great catch on Cole, whom he beat with an up-and-out move. Martin has great hands and has to be helping his draft stock at the Senior Bowl.
Pead also displayed great hands and excellent agility as he used a great inside move to shake David and make a big catch across the middle.
During their rematch in the 1-on-1 passing coverage drills, Wagner stuffed Polk at the line of scrimmage and wouldn’t let him release into his route. Wagner has been impressive and this under-the-radar draft prospect has got to see his stock rising at the Senior Bowl.
UMass tight end Emil Igwenagu had his best day in Mobile, beating Iloka across the middle and gaining separation for a big gain. Ignwenagu has good hands, and displayed them during the offensive install period with a great one-handed, off-balance catch.
During the 1-on-1 period between the receivers and the defensive backs, Boston College cornerback Donnie Fletcher did a great job of being physical against skinny Cal receiver Marvin Jones. Fletcher loves to jam and hit receivers and those skills were on display on Wednesday.
Fletcher had a nice pass breakup against Oklahoma cornerback Jamell Fleming.
Iowa State cornerback Leonard Johnson has struggled to make plays in Mobile and Wednesday was not an exception. The Clearwater, Fla. native, who interviewed with the Buccaneers for 40 minutes the other night, slipped in transition against big Appalachian State wide receiver Brian Quick. Johnson was also beaten by Jones on a hook route.
Iowa wide receiver Marvin McNutt did a great job of beating Fleming on a hook route. Arizona State wide receiver Gerell Robinson also smoked Fleming on a hook route, and it was clear that the OU cornerback struggles in transition.
North Carolina State’s T.J. Graham, who may be the fastest player on the North roster, beat Johnson on a go route, but dropped a one-handed touchdown grab in the end zone.
After working on coverage, the North coaches had the receivers and cornerbacks work on stalk blocking in the running game and shedding blocks. Stocky, muscular Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard attacked Graham, shed his block and easily tossed him aside.
The physical Fletcher pancaked Robinson as the ASU receiver was attempting to block him. As Fletcher flattened him, Robinson began holding him as the two went to the ground, which would have drawn a penalty.
After not doing a good job of shedding a block earlier in the drill, Johnson laid a huge hit on Jones, knocking the tall Cal receiver backwards and allowing the Iowa State cornerback to maneuver around him.
In 7-on-7 drills, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins looked sharp, especially when connecting with the North’s best receiver, McNutt. The Iowa standout found a hole in the deep zone for a big catch between Michigan State’s Trenton Robinson and Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith. Like he has all week, McNutt just finds a way to get open in zone coverage.
Martin had a nice catch out of the backfield and showed off some of jitterbug running style, eluding linebackers and getting into the secondary quickly. Because of his speed, quickness, hands and tackle-breaking ability, Martin would be a great pick for the Buccaneers near the top of the second round.
Jones had a shaky practice for the North and dropped a pass after getting wide open against the defense’s Cover 3 zone.
Conversely, Edwards used his speed to separate from coverage to get open deep against Cover 3 and make a big play in the passing game, hauling in a perfect pass from Cousins.
Dennard had a nice pass breakup on a deep ball from Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson intended for Quick.
In the 11-on-11 drills, Martin started off the session with a sensational zig-zagging run up the middle.
Cousins looked sharp in taking the starters reps except for a fumbled shotgun snap.
David and Johnson did a great job of sliding outside and getting in front of Pead to stuff him for a loss on a run off right tackle. Both linebackers did a great job of diagnosing the run and getting in the backfield to make a tackle for loss.
Egnew did a good job of blocking Wagner on the sidelines as Ohio State wide receiver Devier Posey raced up the right sideline for a long touchdown.
Cole hit Brian Lithicum just as the Michigan State tight end went to catch a pass. Prior to the throw, Cousins would have been sacked by West Virginia’s Vinny Curry.
Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore has been unimpressive this week and missed Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing, who was wide open, on a wheel route down the right sidelines. Robinson got lost in the coverage, allowing Ewing to run free down the sidelines.-Mark Cook and Scott Reynolds contributed to this report
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