MOBILE, Ala. — Braxton Miller was not your typical quarterback-turned-receiver during his first Senior Bowl practice.
Miller (6'1 3/10", 204 pounds) demonstrated a variety of releases off the line of scrimmage and was quick and clean coming out of his breaks. He looked comfortable tracking the ball and catching it in traffic.
In short, the former Ohio State quarterback who became a slot receiver and Wildcat specialist last season knows what he is doing. And he knows exactly which NFL wide receiver he wants to emulate.
"A.B. Antonio Brown," he said without hesitation after practice. "He's a monster. He has that athleticism and explosion. He can play inside and outside."
Proving that he can be a complete receiver is one of Miller's primary Senior Bowl-week goals. The Buckeyes used him almost exclusively out of the slot (when they weren't giving him direct snaps) and tried to isolate him against deep safeties. It's the kind of tactic used to get the football to a size-speed athlete who might technically be a little raw, like a former quarterback who switched positions after multiple arm injuries.
Miller has clearly been working on the nuances of playing wide receiver.
"You have to use your hands, use releases," he said. "You have to use your feet. It's all technique."
Miller's technique is not flawless, but it is impressive. He proved hard to jam during Tuesday afternoon's practices. He changed speeds and used head fakes to disguise routes. Many quarterbacks-turned-receivers (Michigan's Denard Robinson, now a Jaguars running back, leaps to mind) come here still counting the steps of their routes and getting trapped at the line of scrimmage by physical cornerbacks. Miller looked about as polished as any receiver who practiced Tuesday.
Miller has the advantage of a full year at wide receiver, of course, even if it was a situational role. Just as importantly, he relishes the chance to play outside and challenge cornerbacks.
"It's a lot more fun," he said. "Either you're gonna win, or he's gonna win. You have a chance to show it. On the inside, you've got the safety, you've got the rotation with the linebackers."
Converted quarterbacks are usually classified as "projects" entering the draft. Based on Tuesday's practice, the Miller project appears to be nearly complete.
A Big Day for Receivers
Tuesday's Senior Bowl practices took place in "shells" (helmets, pads and shorts) during a soupy drizzle after a heavy morning rain. There wasn't a lot of thudding in the trenches, which made it a great day to focus on the wide receivers and defensive backs.
Defenders generally have the edge on the first day of any football practice—it's much easier to disrupt timing than to establish it—but Tuesday's practices were an exception. Several wide receivers besides Miller stood out on a day when most defensive backs looked ordinary and inconsistent.
Malcolm Mitchell (5'11 1/2", 194 pounds, Georgia) plays bigger than his size and demonstrated impressive ball skills on several tough catches, including a one-handed grab while rolling out of bounds. Mitchell also got deep separation on a variety of defenders several times, which included beating LSU's Jalen Mills (6'0 1/10", 194 pounds) on a stop-and-go route up the sideline. Mills had an inconsistent practice, showing some nasty physicality off the line but often losing receivers after their cuts.
Charone Peake (6'2", 215 pounds, Clemson) used his size to make contested catches and muscled a deep ball away from Alabama's Cyrus Jones (5'9 6/10", 196 pounds) on a play that skirted the edge of offensive pass interference. Peake also stood out in punt coverage drills, quickly beating blockers off the line.
Jay Lee (6'1 7/10", 214 pounds, Baylor) hauled in many short passes in both 7-on-7 and full-squad drills, demonstrating tight, sudden cuts and sure hands on a choppy field with a wet football.
At the North practice, Tajae Sharpe (6'2", 189 pounds, UMass) looked incredibly smooth, with excellent initial quickness in his release and fine hands. The knock on Sharpe from a tape-measure standpoint—besides the fact that he is a little lean (though chiseled)—is that his hands measured just 8 inches. Petite hands or not, Sharpe catches the ball naturally. Still, discussion of tiny hands (8 inches is rather small for a man well over 6 feet tall) leads us naturally to our next segment.
Take a Look at These Hands
Sometime in the next three months, there will be a strange-but-unavoidable conversation about the hand sizes of the top quarterback prospects. Draft followers around the world will take sides about whether hand size matters. The debate will be more polarizing and rancorous than anything surrounding the presidential election. Then, everyone will forget whose hands measured how many inches three days after the draft.
Many personnel evaluators consider 9 inches to be the minimum handspan for an NFL quarterback—or so the campfire wisdom goes. A quarterback with a shorter-than-9-inch pinkie-to-thumb span will have a hard time gripping a properly inflated football (hush, you) in cold or rainy conditions. Some evaluators worry about quarterbacks whose hands barely crack the 9-inch barrier, particularly in cold-weather cities. You don't have to believe hand size matters, but you have to accept that many personnel people take it very seriously, so it can affect draft stock.
I'll provide detailed quarterback breakdowns in a later Senior Bowl notebook, after everyone has had more time to establish some timing with their receivers. (Right now, none of these quarterbacks looks much better than adequate, not even North Dakota State buzz-generator Carson Wentz). But here are their official hand measurements. Bookmark this page so you are informed when the Great Quarterback Hand Size Troubles begin:
- Brandon Allen, Arkansas: 8.48 inches.
- Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State: 9.12 inches
- Jake Coker, Alabama: 9.12 inches.
- Jeffrey Driskel, Louisiana Tech: 9.68 inches. (Driskel's left hand was measured, because his right [throwing] hand has what is called a "pinky deformation.")
- Kevin Hogan, Stanford: 10.18 inches.
- Cody Kessler, USC: 9.78 inches.
- Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 9.78 inches.
- Carson Wentz, North Dakota State: 10 inches.
Final Thoughts from Tuesday
There will be more on offensive and defensive line play tomorrow, when everyone should be in full pads. One note: Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (6'1 1/2", 304 pounds) may be this year's Aaron Donald.
Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams (5'10 7/10", 219 pounds), who missed his senior season with a foot injury, was limited to individual drills. Williams did look good while running through cones, demonstrating confident, sudden cuts.
True to form, Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman (6'7 4/10", 269 pounds) was the most imposing specimen of humanity during weigh-ins and warm-ups. If sunlight strikes his abs just so, they act as a prism that casts a rainbow out of his midsection. Also true to form, Oakman was conspicuously inconspicuous during full-squad drills, though we will get a better sense of him when squads are in full pads.
A wet ball caused several fumbled snaps during running-game 9-on-9 drills at the South practice. After several plays were whistled dead, frustrated Duke safety Jeremy Cash shouted, "C'mon! We need some real reps!"
As mentioned earlier, Driskel has what is bluntly called a "pinky deformation" on his throwing hand. A total of nine players (Driskel was the only quarterback) were listed with "pinky deformations" on the official weigh-in sheet. Football is a rough sport, folks. As someone whose left pinky is at a permanent right angle due to a bizarre blogging accident (kidding about the blogging accident; I tore a bunch of ligaments years ago), I prefer the term "little finger challenged" and implore Phil Savage and the Senior Bowl officials to adopt this more humane, politically correct term in the future.
Nick Saban made his customary appearance at the South practice. As usual, fans and reporters alike acted as if the Pope and Elvis walked onto the field arm-in-arm. This reporter did not interview Saban for fear of being trampled to death.