TCU linebacker Daryl Washington and Ohio wide receiver Taylor Price stole the show during the North's practice at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday, the most important of the week before things throttle down leading up to Saturday's game.
Washington, the No. 3 rated inside linebacker by NFLDraftScout.com, only started two games as a junior, but his play in the Horned Frogs' win over Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl portended his success taking over for Jason Phillips inside in 2009 (109 tackles, 11 for loss three interceptions.)
And he's clearly the most athletic linebacker on either team at the Senior Bowl. He was fluid in coverage, attacked throws to the flat and dropped his hips and exploded into his target in drills Wednesday. He even looked comfortable running with and receiving the ball when asked to take on the role of an offensive player in one-on-one drills within the linebacker group.
The problem with judging linebackers in practice is they don't have to tackle anyone. Washington's safety-like 6-foot-2, 226-pound build will scare off some teams, even though he will likely play outside at the next level. But his production, length and speed on the edge should allow him to secure ballcarriers in space during Saturday's game and be selected in the top 75 overall picks.
Price, on the other hand, will be tough for the South defensive backs to wrangle down. He's so fast and elusive that about a half dozen teams had to surround him after practice to speak to him. With Cincinnati star Mardy Gilyard struggling to consistently catch the ball, Price has stepped forward as the best receiver on the North squad - and maybe on both teams.
At 6-feet, 198 pounds and expected to run in the low-to-mid 4.3's in his 40-yard dash at the Combine, Price has the size and speed teams want. That speed was on display Wednesday morning, as he separated from corners on go routes, showing a burst severely lacking from most of this year's senior receivers. He ran crisp routes inside and outside with good suddenness, brought in high throws and displayed excellent body control on the sidelines, only dropping one with Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty draped all over him in the middle.
If teams don't have Price ranked as a second-round value, like former MAC star and current Green Bay Packer Pro Bowler Greg Jennings (Western Michigan), then he won't last very long in the third round. He entered the week at NFLDraftScout.com's 20th-ranked wide receiver in the draft, but is likely to vault up draft boards.
Although the North quarterbacks may all be selected in the top half of the draft, they have failed to impress this week. Dan LeFevour from Central Michigan was the best of the bunch, but he, Tony Pike (Cincinnati) and Sean Canfield (Oregon) have trouble throwing a tight spiral on their receivers' numbers when throwing with authority past 10-15 yards.
LeFevour couldn't make quality throws on the run, which scouts thought was his specialty. Pike made Virginia corner Chris Cook look like an all-star by throwing a very poor intermediate out route which Cook stepped in front of for an interception. Canfield struggled to get the ball outside the hashes in a timely manner all week.
Pitt's Dorin Dickerson had a bounce-back day, catching almost every ball thrown his way, even though most weren't delivered with accuracy. He had a nice grab extending on a wide throw on an out route to the left sideline, and even beat diminutive Cal cornerbacker Syd'Quan Thompson deep on a straight go route.
Thompson again came up short (literally and figuratively) against Missouri receiver Danario Alexander, who simply pushed him aside a few yards downfield after eating up Thompson's cushion. Thompson is clearly a zone corner, albeit a potentially very good one with strong run support skills who lacks recovery speed and needs help over the top to succeed in the NFL.
Clemson receiver Jacoby Ford looked outstanding early in the week, but over time it has been obvious his short arms and small hands prevent him from consistently keeping the ball away from his chest. His quickness is still tough for corners to deal with and nearly impossible for linebackers to check when in zone coverage, and he proved it by finding holes inside on multiple occasions.
The North team brought in Youngstown State wide receiver Donald Jones on Wednesday to fill out that part of the roster. Jones really had trouble getting his 210 pound-frame moving, even making some scouts around me say "he can't run." He can shield defenders with that body and was a willing blocker, but had troubles coming out of breaks and lost his balance while trying to catch the ball and stay in bounds on a post corner route.
Another impressive player Wednesday was Oregon tight end Ed Dickson. He had a nice shimmy to get off linebacker coverage on the line, planted his foot and drove out of his routes and fought the ball less over the past couple of days than he did on Monday.
Two running backs, Fresno State's Lonyae Miller and Wayne State's Joique Bell, are mid-round picks to watch for in April. Miller's ability to cut and burst through holes would be perfect for a zone-blocking offense and it appears he can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. Bell hasn't necessarily wowed scouts with great elusiveness or speed, but his hands as a receiver have been solid, he has given great effort in pass protection (though inexperienced and needing technique work) and the thick-framed runner always gets his pads low for contact, which makes him tough to bring down.
This year's class of specialists is not very strong, and Michigan's Zoltan Mesko has been rated as the top punter on the board most of the year. However, his punts have lacked height and spirals, rarely turning over to gain maximum hang time and distance. He'll need a strong game performance to regain the confidence of scouts.
Focusing on the line play Wednesday, it became very clear that NFL interior offensive linemen won't be looking forward to the arrival of massive SEC tackles Terrence Cody (Alabama) and Dan Williams (Tennessee).
Everyone knows about Cody's nickname, "Mount," because the 370-pound behemoth gave SEC offensive lines fits over the past two seasons after being a junior college All-American. However, he relies fully on his brute strength to win battles inside while his pass rush ability and lateral movement are limited.
That pure power he uses overwhelmed centers Jeff Byers (Southern Cal) and Ted Larsen (N.C. State) nearly every time during one-on-one drills. Those guys will have help on Sundays, however, and veteran centers are much stronger. In fact, LSU's Ciron Black moved inside to guard (also lining up at right tackle) and fared very well against Cody in drills and team play.
And these practices didn't show Cody's lack of stamina once in the action for a few consecutive plays. Still, the quick burst he shows and his ability to eat blocks and create piles inside will remind scouts of long-time space-eater Ted Washington, possibly garnering him the type of late first-round slot (especially by a 3-4 team looking for a nose tackle) Washington earned coming out of Louisville almost two decades ago.
Williams' game is a bit different but still impressive. At 6-2, 329 with 33-inch arms, he has the low center of gravity and long arms to be a very effective nose tackle. Once again Byers came up short against Williams, as the former Volunteer threw him down like a rag doll during one-on-one drills.
He isn't as dominant with brute strength as Cody, as Baylor center J.D. Walton and Alabama guard Mike Johnson stood their grounds much better against the stout defensive tackle. Still, his combination of power and hustle to the outside, which Mount Cody cannot duplicate over the course of a game, gives him a chance to be a mid first-round pick.
Oklahoma State cornerback Perrish Cox made two interceptions Wednesday, one beating a receiver to the spot on a slant and the other coming over from his man to nab a floating pass from Cowboys teammate Zac Robinson. He was beat by a Joe Webb double-move earlier in practice, but recovered nicely to break up the play just outside the end zone. With many cornerbacks failing to impress this week, Cox may have helped himself.
West Virginia offensive tackle Selvish Capers was a late add to the South roster, and hasn't looked deserving of the invite. Whether lining up on the left or right side, he can't move his feet to get to outside rushes and is caught leaning too easily by quicker ends like Antonio Coleman, who easily ran around him inside.
Coleman did have trouble when bulls like Mike Johnson or Tennessee's Chris Scott latched on in drills. The 6-2, 255-pound Coleman didn't get a chance to show his stuff at linebacker, which could have helped his draft stock. South Florida's George Selvie, however, got a rep in linebacker coverage drills and looked fairly fluid and quick, staying with a receiver all the way down the sideline. At 6-4, 247 pounds and often unable to get off blocks from Ole Miss' John Jerry or Scott during team drills, Selvie may be best off as a 3-4 rush linebacker.
Undersized tackle Geno Atkins is capable of excellent explosion from the three-technique spot. He gets off the ball very quickly and uses his arms to swim past slower guards. The problem is he hasn't always given full effort on every play, and frankly was part of a rotation at Georgia that limited his opportunities. A team may get a great value in the mid-rounds if they take a chance on Atkins.
Florida receiver Riley Cooper has been seemingly lacking in effort this week, relying on his athleticism to make plays. Making a couple of one-handed catches on the sidelines was great, but receiver coaches would prefer he run crisp routes or hustle to get into position to get it with two. He stuck out one hand to get a wide pass early on, failed to extend for a pass above his head later on and even gave up on a post corner route when his man Tim Tebow was trying to hit him in a red zone drill. With guys like The Citadel's Andre Roberts working hard on every play, Cooper's lackadaisical play stands out.
East Carolina punter Matt Dodge's worst punts were as good as Mesko's best efforts Wednesday. He consistently reached 4.3-4.5 seconds on 45-50-yard boots, turning the ball over about every three out or four kicks, as the other players stretched before practice really got going. However, Dodge took 1.6-1.7 seconds to unleash the kick (even with a legitimate two-step drop), which is well above the acceptable 1.25-1.35-second range. When pressure comes on Saturday, Dodge will have to prove he still can drive the ball that way.