Sun, 07 Mar 2021

Senior Bowl Day 1, Offense | Harris Hits

Houston Texans
27 Jan 2021, 18:02 GMT+10

John Harris

It was a long day one at the Senior Bowl, but, in the end, there was plenty to OBSERVE. I figured the masses didn't, and don't, care for the split of teams; they just want to know which players flourished on either side of the ball. As such, here are my Senior Bowl HARRIS HITS - Offense now, Defense a little later.

Last year after the Cincinnati Bearcats hammered the Boston College Eagles in the Birmingham Bowl following the 2019 season, our pal Andre Ware texted me to tell me there was a player that I needed to keep an eye on in the future.

"His name is James Hudson and he plays left tackle. Trust me, he's a star in the making."

Here's the thing, that was Hudson's FIRST game as a Bearcat after transferring from Michigan the year prior. So, he was far from being on the radar screen of any draftniks. But, there's hardly anyone I trust more than Andre, so I kept a close eye on Hudson this season and was thrilled when he accepted a Senior Bowl invite. He's incredibly athletic and moves like a gifted and athletic tight end. Seeing him up close and personal for the first time, his gifts/traits really stood out to me. What also stood out was some work that he needed to clean up on as he moved into the NFL. But, man, you talk about some moldable clay...wow.

South Dakota State receiver Cade Johnson didn't play football in 2020 due to the decision by most, if not all, FCS schools to play in the spring. But, he worked hard in the fall for the opportunity to come to Mobile. I didn't see his whole workout, but in the team periods, it was clear that he had an excellent understanding of how to run his routes to get open. He's intriguing to say the least.

At first glance, I wasn't as enamored with the receiver group in Mobile as I was the running backs, but the more I watched on Tuesday, the more the pass catchers stood out. Consequently, Johnson was one. Another one was South Carolina's Shi Smith. The former Gamecock star blew up nearly every cornerback he faced in one-on-ones. He made perhaps the catch of the day on a deep over route on the sideline. The ball was thrown HIGH and way outside, but Smith was able to launch himself in that direction and snatch the ball out of the air for a catch that had everyone's attention. He was tremendous nearly every time he crossed the field on a route. Big time player.

Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers is going to step right into a slot receiver role and have success early in his NFL career. He's smooth and the word that I wrote a bunch in my notes was "glide." He seemed as if he just floated through the secondary on his routes. On the first route of the day, Florida safety Shawn Davis got a stout two hand jam on him and really threw off his route. But, from that point forward, Rodgers made adjustments, mainly exploding hard at the defensive back off the snap to get on his toes to THEN make a cut one way or the other. He took the route AT the defensive back as opposed to letting the defensive back dictate early in the route.

Three or four years ago at the Senior Bowl, I was really stoked to see Iowa State star receiver Allen Lazard compete in Mobile, but when it was over, I felt a little disappointed due to Lazard's performance that week. I knew he could play, but the big receiver couldn't find his way in Mobile and that seemed to have an impact on his draft stock. Two years later, Lazard was working on his second season in Green Bay and, when we saw him in preseason practices in Green Bay, he looked like the receiver that was a star at Iowa State. I bring up Lazard because Wake Forest receiver Sage Surratt reminds me of Lazard in a major way. The thing that perhaps separates the two is that Surratt may have a bit more twitch at this point in his career. But, we all saw what Lazard can do with the Packers and Surratt has that same type of size and ability. He showed that on a go route down the far sideline, skying above the poor cover corner that had no chance. Surratt is a physical specimen at 6-2 ⅝ and 215 lb. and has a massive catch radius to boot.

I thought the quarterback that threw it the best of the entire group on Tuesday was Texas four year starter Sam Ehlinger. I've said this before, studying defensive prospects last season that played Texas, Sam's throwing ability was much more impressive than I initially thought. He showed even more of that on Tuesday. He nailed a bootleg throw going to his left for a first down, hitting Boston College tight end Hunter Long. He then dropped a great throw to Louisville receiver Desmond Fitzpatrick deep down the field - the 'ol dropped it in the bucket throw. It was an excellent start to the week for Ehlinger who stayed after practice for quite some time to get some work with his centers on snaps.

Former Wake Forest/Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman sat out the 2020 season and has a ton riding on this week at the Senior Bowl as a result. One throw he made down the seam to Duke tight end Noah Gray was a beauty. Newman seemingly had a difficult time staying on top of his throws early in practice which forced the ball to sail high. However, Newman made some adjustments, especially on that throw to Gray for a big first down in seven-on-seven.

One of my favorite interior offensive linemen in this Senior Bowl class is Wisconsin-Whitewater's Quinn Meinerz. He actually declared early, leaving Division III UWW for a shot at the NFL. He was quickly awarded a shot at the Senior Bowl. When he arrived, he was asked to play center and he did that on Tuesday. He still has plenty of work to do on his shotgun snaps, but there aren't many centers that can make some of the blocks that he made. He had one play in which he scooped the playside shade, then worked up to the linebacker and blocked him as well on a zone run. He looks like a Wisconsin Badger fullback that got pumped up like a Reebok sneaker. But, man, he'll run defenders directly into the ground in a quick minute.

SMU tight end Kylen Granson had a couple of moments on Tuesday as well, running away from coverage to make a couple of catches in one-on-ones against the safeties and/or linebackers.

The running back group in Mobile is, without a doubt, my favorite unit in quite some time at the Senior Bowl. There were multiple guys that caught my attention on Tuesday.

The first was the BIG back Oklahoma's Rhamondre Stevenson who clocked in at just 227 lb. I say "just" because he was listed a lot heavier than that as I prepped for Mobile. But, wearing No. 29, he's a dead ringer for LeGarrette Blount. Powerful, but light on his feet, Stevenson thrived as guys like Trey Sermon (Ohio State) and Najee Harris (Oklahoma) didn't do much at practice. The more that I've watched of Stevenson, the more I've become enamored with his all-around skills. Those skills were on full display on Tuesday.

I didn't get to see his pass protection work, which didn't get rave reviews, but running the football is what got North Carolina's Michael Carter to the Senior Bowl in the first place. When he has the ball in his hands, he's so dadgum electric. I mean, I found myself holding my breath every single time he had the ball in his hands and didn't even realize I was doing it. The pace at which he runs the ball is what I find interesting because he seems to know when to be patient and when to hit the gas and go North/South. I can't wait to see more of him later in the week.

The guy that I spent a long time studying last week was Missouri's Larry Rountree III. I just really see him as a guy that could be playing in Houston in the future and I love his running acumen. Against Arkansas, he ran counter and zone all game long to the tune of 27 carries for 185 yards and three touchdowns. He showed the decisiveness in his running style, but I didn't quite see the cutting ability/vision and worried a bit about it. But, then I saw him on Tuesday in Mobile and my concern was quelled. He had a touchdown run during the inside period where he cut back behind center and then hit the gas up the field for a touchdown untouched. Talk about explosive, my gosh. At 216 lb. with speed, quicks, power and vision, Rountree III is intriguing as can be in my opinion.

One complete dark horse in the running back race is former Michigan ball carrier Chris Evans. It felt like Evans was at Michigan for a couple of decades, but a once promising career took a nosedive after the 2018 season. He missed all of 2019 due to a season long suspension. As a result, he had to work three jobs to make ends meet and get back in school. Then, in 2020, he and Michigan were afforded only six games in the COVID season. But, he got an opportunity to come to Mobile and showed why he ABSOLUTELY deserved the opportunity. He caught the ball very well out of the backfield and was a difficult cover for all the linebackers on his team. Furthermore, he ran the rock HARD when given the opportunity in the run game. After the 2017 season, I put Evans into my running back draft chart because I thought he had the skills to be an NFL back after what would've been his junior season in 2018. What he showed, though, coming back from the suspension and proving something at the Senior Bowl was perhaps as impressive as anything he's done on the field.

It's clear Oklahoma State wide receiver Tylan Wallace is an excellent route runner watching on tape, but it's even more impressive to watch him dissect defensive backs up close in person. I can't wait to see more from him the rest of the week.

If you're looking for a little bit of a surprise name to hit your friends with over the next few days, try Josh Palmer, Tennessee receiver. One of the Harris WOW moments of the day was when he ran right past a cornerback on a post route. I mean, FLEW past him too. Palmer was exquisite in his route running, making a couple of strong catches on deep comeback routes. I wasn't totally sure what to expect from him heading to Mobile, but he certainly has my full, utmost attention.

Another player that is intriguing as all get out to me is UAB receiver Austin Watkins Jr. He's built like a Greek statue and had moments in which he truly embarrassed defensive backs in coverage. He's decisive with his routes and worked most of the day out of the slot. He's got to work on maintaining separation when he first gets it off the line of scrimmage. A few different times in one-on-ones, he would whip the defensive back off the line of scrimmage but then slow down to make his cut which would then allow the defensive back to get back in phase. No matter, I really liked what I saw, especially if he can continue to work effectively in the slot at his size (6-1 ½, 207)

Two other running backs that grabbed my attention during the first day of drills were Louisiana's Elijah Mitchell and Virginia Tech's Khalil Herbert. Mitchell is a power packed dude, while Herbert reminds me a bit of a bigger Duke Johnson.

When the Houston Cougars came into NRG Stadium to start the 2019 season against the Washington State Cougars, I saw an NFL scout buddy of mine and I asked him about various prospects at the game. I then mentioned Houston receiver Marquez Stevenson and he turned to look at me and gave me that look. You know the one, like, Son, you know that man's faster than everyone, right? He didn't even have to tell me that but I could tell from his reaction that Stevenson could take a defensive back's speed soul in a quick minute. He did that on Tuesday, running right past a couple of cornerbacks on go routes, connecting on one beauty for a touchdown. He needs to work on his short/intermediate routes and releases, but when it's a go ball, say your prayers, DBs!

Another one of the FCS interior linemen that I had my eyes on today was Grambling State's David Moore. He's a brick house and plays like one, but his pass protection does leave a little something to be desired. But, today, he showed that he could hold his own, no pun intended, against some of the big fellas. He had one rep against USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu who had just won big against Tennessee's Trey Smith, in which he firmly held up against the Trojans' initial move and counter move. As I said heading into the week, Moore was REALLY intriguing and his performance, though far from perfect, stood out.

Alabama offensive tackle/guard Alex Leatherwood spent four years starting for Alabama, starring no matter where lined up, and still decided to come to Mobile. I've seen a lot of high quality players step to the side, eschewing the Senior Bowl, because fatigue or some other nonsense. Leatherwood? Just competing his butt off on nearly every rep and that will matter to NFL teams. I didn't see anyone really challenge him out on the edge in any period in practice. He's just technically sound and built like a house.

Speaking of Alabama lineman, I can only imagine what it's like to see Landon Dickerson practice and play. He tore his ACL late in the 2020 season and missed the two playoff games, unfortunately. But, he's here in Mobile as involved as any injured player I've ever seen at the Senior Bowl. He was near every huddle, talking to linemen every minute of the day and coaching on every play too. It's easy to see why they loved him at Alabama and why they will in the NFL in the future too.

Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill looks smaller in person than I thought he would but let me tell you he's tough as a two dollar steak and difficult to tackle out in space. He made a couple of cuts on inside runs that were outstanding. The other thing he did well was get skinny through holes in the run game; I'm telling you, he squirted through a hole in the defense on Tuesday that was no bigger than six inches. He's another of the all-around running backs that have my undivided attention.

Okay, that'll do it for the offensive side of the ball. Be on the lookout for my defensive recap right around the corner. See ya then, everyone and thanks for reading.

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