In their final chance to impress scouts in a live college football game before the 2015 NFL draft, Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis and Yale running back Tyler Varga were among the players who led the North to a 34-13 win over the South in Saturday’s Senior Bowl.
More than 100 draft prospects were on the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, for a game in which the final score mattered far less than how each talent stacked up individually.
Unsurprisingly, many of the standouts from Saturday’s game were players who already stood out during the week of practice. Similarly, some of the players who struggled—including the six quarterbacks in the game—were coming off disappointing weeks of practice in front of NFL scouts, coaches and personnel executives, plus media and fans.
Practice Player of the Week Continues to Dominate
A constant presence in the backfield during his three practice sessions this week, Carl Davis was so impressive that a panel of NFL scouts named him the Most Outstanding Practice Player of the Week for this year’s Senior Bowl.
Saturday’s game was no different for the Iowa product. He continued to have success shooting gaps through the line of scrimmage, including one play in which he recorded a tackle for loss, and he was the most disruptive defensive lineman for either team.
Davis is coming off a somewhat disappointing and inconsistent senior season, but he proved himself to be an early-round talent in Mobile this week. A 6’5”, 321-pound defensive tackle with a strong swim move and a great first step off the line of scrimmage, Davis showcased huge potential at the Senior Bowl.
In a post-practice interview Thursday, Davis said he was trying to “be dominant and have fun.” That certainly looked to be the case Saturday.
“Mighty Mouse” Has Big Game
Thanks to NFL Network’s Charles Davis, Oregon State cornerback Steven Nelson has a new nickname. Dubbed by Davis this week as “Mighty Mouse,” in reference to a cartoon character popular from the 1940s through 1960s, Nelson is a small cornerback who displayed big talent this week, especially in Saturday’s game.
Nelson, who measured at 5’10” and 199 pounds at Tuesday morning’s Senior Bowl weigh-in, blanketed his opponents in coverage all afternoon. He was officially credited with two pass breakups but was also targeted on multiple other throws that fell incomplete.
At times, Nelson’s coverage was deemed to be a bit too tight—he was flagged once for defensive pass interference and another time for defensive holding, although both penalties were questionable calls.
Either way, Nelson’s overall body of work in coverage Saturday was outstanding, as he shut down taller receivers such as Auburn’s Sammie Coates and Fresno State’s Josh Harper. Nelson was also credited with four total tackles for the game.
It is likely Nelson will be projected to play slot cornerback because of his size limitations. Nonetheless, the athleticism, footwork and technique he showed Saturday should have solidified him as a player who will be selected between the third and fifth rounds in this year’s draft.
Quarterbacks Continue to Struggle
One refrain you will hear repeatedly in the buildup to this year’s NFL draft is how the quarterback class has a horrible lack of depth. That’s because there are no senior quarterback prospects who deserve to be top-100 picks, a reality that was compounded by Saturday’s game.
The six quarterbacks who took the field Saturday—Baylor’s Bryce Petty, Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, East Carolina’s Shane Carden, Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson, Alabama’s Blake Sims and Southeastern Louisiana’s Bryan Bennett—combined to complete just 39 of 70 passing attempts for 520 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
While Bennett (twice) and Petty (once) were the only quarterbacks to actually be picked off, Sims and Mannion also got away with passes that should have been interceptions but were dropped. Grayson and Carden looked the best of the quarterback group Saturday, but that’s not saying much.
Grayson came into the week as the most likely candidate to be the top senior quarterback drafted. Named as the Senior Bowl’s top practice performer among quarterbacks this week, that status has not changed. But while Grayson had a chance to prove himself as a second- or third-round talent in Mobile, he looked like a player who should be a fourth- or fifth-round pick instead.
Between Saturday’s game and last week’s East-West Shrine Game, the thirst for a senior quarterback to stand out in an all-star game has gone unquenched. It has become clear that behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and UCLA’s Brett Hundley (who is well behind Mariota and Winston himself), there is a massive drop-off in talent at the quarterback position.
Running Backs Stand Out
As the passing offenses for both the North and South were limited by their quarterbacks on Saturday, numerous running backs took advantage of the opportunity to shine.
Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah earned the game’s MVP award after leading the North squad in both rushing, with 73 yards on seven attempts, and receiving, with 40 yards on four attempts. NFL.com's Bryan Fischer noted Abdullah's achievement:
A small but explosive runner at 5’8” and 198 pounds, Abdullah displayed his speed, ability to make defenders miss and even his ability to finish forward through contact. A productive rusher and a skilled receiver, Abdullah is better in space than he is between the tackles, but his dynamic skill set should make him a second-day draft pick.
Just behind Abdullah in rushing production Saturday was Minnesota’s David Cobb. A thickly built runner at 5’11” and 229 pounds, Cobb showed impressive burst and one-cut running ability as he went for 69 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries in the game.
Cobb also caught two passes for 16 yards, though he had one drop. Best as a between-the-tackles runner but an impressive athlete for his size, a strong week at the Senior Bowl puts him in position to be a third-round pick.
Both running backs on the South squad, Northern Iowa’s David Johnson and Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne, also looked solid in game action Saturday.
Johnson, another big back at 6’1” and 224 pounds, ran for 49 yards, including one 19-yard touchdown on which he broke tackles from four different defenders. A skilled receiver, Johnson also added a 16-yard catch.
Artis-Payne, a 5’10” and 212-pound back, ran for 43 yards on 10 carries. The SEC’s leading rusher this past season, Artis-Payne did most of his damage on the first drive of the game.
The most impressive running back of all on Saturday, however, was Tyler Varga. A college tailback who was listed on the North roster as a fullback, Varga showed an impressively well-rounded skill set Saturday.
As a tailback, Varga ran the ball four times for 31 yards; two of his runs went for touchdowns. As a fullback, Varga made a number of strong lead blocks up the middle, including one on Cobb’s four-yard touchdown. Varga also displayed pass-catching ability, as he did all week in practice, with three receptions for 39 yards.
A 5’10”, 227-pound Ivy League product, Varga projects only as a late-round draft pick, but he’s likely to emerge as a quality role player for whichever team is smart enough to jump on him.
Plays of the Day
Miami (Ohio) cornerback Quinten Rollins might have the best ball skills of any cornerback in the 2015 draft class, and that showed in Saturday’s game.
Rollins surprisingly missed an opportunity for an interception early in the third quarter. He made a leaping, spinning adjustment to an underthrown ball by Bennett for what could have been a great pick, but instead the ball bounced off his hands and into the hands of Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett for a 23-yard catch.
Later in the third quarter, Rollins got redemption. As Bennett hung up another deep ball, Rollins did an excellent job tracking the ball down, making a leap toward the throw and pulling it in for a diving interception as he went to the ground.
There were a number of great catches on both the offensive and defensive ends—TCU cornerback Kevin White also had a diving interception, while Central Arkansas wide receiver Dezmin Lewis adjusted his body to make a couple of challenging grabs along the sidelines.
The best offensive catch of the day, however, was a 32-yard leaping grab along the left sideline by Central Florida wideout Rannell Hall over the aforementioned Nelson. Hall made a number of challenging grabs throughout the week of practices as well, and he elevated his chances of being a Day 3 draft pick.
One more outstanding play of note came from Delaware tight end Nick Boyle. Boyle really had an up-and-down week, as he looked slow in practices and had a couple of passes go off his hands in Saturday’s game. He had one impressive display of athleticism when he hurdled over UCLA safety Anthony Jefferson—who had a bad day overall Saturday, as he also missed a few tackles—on his way to a 22-yard gain.
Miscellaneous Game Notes
—The Senior Bowl threw an interesting twist into its rules this year that gave the game’s quarterbacks more opportunities to work in two-minute-drill situations. Each quarter included a two-minute warning, and each new quarter began with a kickoff and a new possession, rather than the two teams simply switching sides and continuing play in the second and fourth quarters.
Other new additions to the rules this year included cornerbacks being allowed to play in press coverage, and defenses being allowed to use two deep safeties simultaneously.
—Saturday’s game was a rough one for place-kickers. Colorado State’s Tom Obarski went just 2-of-4 on his field-goal attempts, with misses wide left from 44 and 43 yards out, while Louisiana-Monroe’s Justin Manton went 2-of-3 in field goals but shanked a 25-yard kick off the left upright.
Both players are long shots to be drafted, although Manton could make an NFL team as a punter, after fulfilling both duties for the South squad this week.
—Sammie Coates, who used to catch passes from Marshall at Auburn, left Saturday’s game early with a groin injury. He finished with one reception for 13 yards, but he missed a number of other opportunities for catches. Inconsistent throughout this past season, Coates has huge upside and had a good week of practices, but he did not have a strong finish to the week.
—Auburn’s Nick Marshall, who converted to cornerback this week after playing quarterback collegiately, led the South squad with five tackles in Saturday’s game. He suffered some beats in coverage, as one would expect from an inexperienced player at the position, but he competed hard this week and showed enough athleticism and ability to be legitimately viewed as a developmental prospect as a defensive back.
—Utah’s Nate Orchard had an up-and-down week of practices, in part because he spent much of his time working at linebacker rather than his natural position of defensive end. In Saturday’s game, however, Orchard was as productive as any defender on the field. He had five total tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and also two quarterback hits.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Measurables were acquired firsthand during the Senior Bowl’s official weigh-in Tuesday morning.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.