Senior Bowl 2017: Top Takeaways from Saturday's Game
The Reese's Senior Bowl is college football's premier all-star event and a vital part of the NFL draft evaluation.
Over the years, multiple all-star games such as the Hula Bowl and Blue-Gray Football Classic faded into obscurity, but the Senior Bowl is more relevant than ever.
The South Team captured a 16-15 victory Saturday over the North Team. Performances within the game and during the practice week matter most to NFL teams, though.
Executive director Phil Savage treats the event like he's running the 33rd NFL franchise. With the amount of talent he gathers each year, he's been rather successful in his approach.
Two major differences exist at the Senior Bowl compared to other all-star games.
First, complete NFL coaching staffs teach these young men throughout the week. Scouts and league decision-makers get to see how the players adapt and respond to the coaching they'll experience in the pros. The Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears staffs steered this year's squads.
Second, Savage changed the qualifications for the Senior Bowl to include underclassmen who already graduated. This year, Clemson's Artavis Scott became the first true junior to play in the contest.
Savage, a former NFL general manager, created a top-notch atmosphere for NFL teams to evaluate college football's best talent. The majority of those who took the field Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium will be drafted and found on NFL rosters next fall.
Bleacher Report identified those individuals who stood out during the 68th annual Reese's Senior Bowl.
Davis Webb Earns Most Valuable Player Designation
The upcoming quarterback class is below-average. This needs to be understood before praising California's Davis Webb for being named the 2017 Senior Bowl Most Valuable Player.
However, his performance shouldn't be overlooked. Dak Prescott captured the same honor last year before being drafted in the fourth round and going on to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 campaign.
No one expects Webb to replicate Prescott's success, but his Senior Bowl performance gives him an edge as multiple quarterbacks jockey for draft position.
The Cal product completed 11 of 16 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. His 39-yard touchdown toss to Texas A&M wide receiver Josh Reynolds was a perfectly placed pass down the sideline.
However, he missed other throws, including another wide-open deep pass to Reynolds.
Poor timing and other miscues can be expected since these individuals only get three padded practices and a walk-through before they're asked to operate at peak performance in front of NFL scouts, fans and a nationally televised audience.
Webb has the physical tools teams want in the quarterback position. He's 6'5" and 229 pounds with a big arm. In a setting against simplistic defensive schemes, a signal-caller with Webb's talent should shine.
Concerns will persist about the Texas native's ability to absorb an NFL playbook and play in a pro-style offense. For one day, though, Webb was the best player on the field against the best college football has to offer.
Aside from the quarterback, the Senior Bowl named Toledo running back Kareem Hunt as the North's Most Outstanding Player, and Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis won the same award for the South Team.
Top Quarterback Prospects Didn't Materialize
Aside from Davis Webb's MVP performance, the rest of the quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl struggled and only added to the perception this is a poor class.
Even in Webb's case, he played well, but he didn't shine like an early-round quarterback prospect would be expected to.
When Carson Wentz and Derek Carr took the field during their time in Mobile, everyone knew who the top quarterback on the field was. There's a different aura around that type of prospect.
This year's quarterbacks were barely passable at times. At other times, they weren't passable, firing more than a handful of poorly thrown balls during the game.
Pitt's Nathan Peterman came into this contest after being considered the best quarterback prospect during the practice week. Peterman completed 16 of 23 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown. He nearly led a comeback victory but fell short when his two-point-attempt pass was intercepted in the end zone.
The Tennessee transfer didn't display the command or willingness to threaten all the areas of the field during his performance.
The quarterback who beat Peterman to start at Tennessee, Josh Dobbs, looked comfortable in the Browns' offensive scheme, but multiple mistakes and turnovers ended his drives.
Tiffin's Antonio Pipkin could have developed into the draft's wild card, but he looked out of place against a higher level of competition. The 2016 GLIAC Player of the Year never established a comfort level, struggled to identify defenders and threw a pair of interceptions.
Colorado's Sefo Liufau and Iowa's C.J. Beathard combined to play just 17 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
After the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, NFL teams shouldn't be encouraged by the depth of the upcoming quarterback class.
East Carolina WR Zay Jones Captures NFL's Attention
East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones caught three touchdown passes. Only one counted, though.
Even so, NFL teams won't care. They saw a productive wide receiver who proved himself against top-flight talent.
The Senior Bowl doesn't use instant replay. As such, the officials couldn't overturn a call after Jones contorted his body in the air, tapped both feet inside the back line and came down with a touchdown catch. Instead, officials called Jones for being out of bounds.
On the play, he showed a tremendous catch radius and ability to adjust on a poorly thrown ball.
Later in the contest, Jones beat coverage and caught a 43-yard touchdown pass. This time, officials called the play back due to holding. The East Carolina product's route running was stellar.
Jones finally capitalized late in the contest when he caught a touchdown pass that counted. The 6'2", 202-pound receiver got across the cornerback's face and snagged a well-thrown pass from Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman.
The fact the East Carolina product performed well shouldn't come as a surprise. Jones set an NCAA record this past season with 158 receptions. His 399 career catches set another FBS record.
In Mobile, he needed to show toughness to beat the jam and excel within the entire route tree. He did both in spectacular fashion.
O.J. Howard Solidifies Status as 1st-Round Prospect
Cal quarterback Davis Webb captured MVP honors. East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones made everyone take notice. But no one came close to challenging Alabama tight end O.J. Howard as the best prospect at the Senior Bowl.
Howard came to Mobile to prove he's a complete tight end prospect who could do more than he showed at times for the Crimson Tide.
He did just that.
The No. 1 tight end available in the 2017 NFL draft is a smooth athlete, mismatch in the passing game and a willing blocker. More importantly, he showed he can be a reliable pass-catcher, too.
During each Senior Bowl practice, Howard impressed with his fluidity and effortless catches. He translated his talents into the game before being pulled at the end of the first quarter.
The 6'5", 249-pound tight end caught four passes for 39 yards. He proved to be a security blanket over the middle of the field as he exploited zone coverage.
A handful of players at the Senior Bowl are expected to be selected in the first round. Howard should be the first off the board and a potential top-20 prospect.
Running Backs Display Big-Play Potential
At points during the contest, the 2017 Reese's Senior Bowl was a slugfest. Since the quarterbacks didn't consistently perform to the level expected, each of the team's coaching staffs relied heavily on their running backs.
Toledo's Kareem Hunt led the way with 15 attempts for 118 yards. What's interesting about Hunt's performance is the fact he came to Mobile in much better shape than his time at Toledo.
The Rockets listed the school's all-time leading rusher at 225 pounds, but he weighed 208 pounds at the Senior Bowl. Hunt looked far more explosive during the contest and ripped off multiple long runs.
More importantly, the running back displayed nifty footwork in the hole, lateral agility and the burst to explode through the other side. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ohio native forced 98 missed tackles this past season.
North Carolina State's Matt Dayes didn't start well with a fumble, but he finished strong. Dayes is a patient runner with good footwork. He toted the ball seven times for 66 yards and a touchdown.
At times, he carried the Wolfpack with 1,166 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Even at 5'9" and 207 pounds, the Florida native runs with authority. Like Hunt, Dayes impressed with a solid all-around performance.
San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey is another running back NFL teams should be impressed with despite his lack of size.
Pumphrey weighed only 169 pounds during Tuesday's measurements. Yet, he left the Aztecs program as Division I's all-time leader with 6,405 rushing yards. Despite his slender frame, he carried the ball 1,059 times during his collegiate career.
His toughness shouldn't be in question, but it often is due to his size. Every opportunity he gets, though, he excels. There were points during the Senior Bowl when Pumphrey finished runs with authority. He's doesn't bring a lot to a fight, but there is plenty of fight in this back.
These three ball-carriers may never develop into workhorses in the pros, but there's a place for each of them.
Interior Blockers Deserve More Attention
The 2017 offensive class is underwhelming. The guards aren't, though. The offensive interiors found on both Senior Bowl teams proved to be formidable.
Discussing offensive line play isn't sexy, but LSU's Ethan Pocic's performance Saturday was as impressive as that of any player who took the field.
Usually, each player gets a few series to prove himself before another aspiring professional rotates into his respective position. Players don't play the entire game anymore. Well, the majority don't play the entire game, but Pocic did.
Due to a lack of depth caused by injuries throughout the week, the LSU product played every single snap. He started at center and eventually played multiple series at guard.
The South's biggest runs often came behind the 6'6", 307-pound blocker. His versatility and willingness to go the length of the game provided a positive impression.
As well as Pocic played, his performance didn't overshadow other interior blockers.
Indiana's Dan Feeney had an opportunity to establish himself as the top guard prospect after Western Kentucky's Forrest Lamp suffered an injury during the week.
At 6'4" and 304 pounds, Feeney will be a rookie starter. The Indiana product displayed great run fits during the game and exploded through his hips to uproot a series of talented defensive linemen found on the South's roster.
Meanwhile, Temple's Dion Dawkins made the transition from offensive tackle to guard with ease. Dawkins looked outstanding in confined areas and became difficult to beat throughout the week.
He carried his impressive play into the game and battled against tough interior defenders such as UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes and Auburn's Montravius Adams.
West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky also looked athletic and technically sound.
The success each of these all-star squads experienced, particularly in their running games, came courtesy of stellar play in the trenches.
Mixed Bag from Small-School Players
The Senior Bowl acts as a showcase for every individual who competes. But small-school prospects have the most to gain.
Each year, the event invites multiple prospects from the FCS level, Division II or III ranks and even Canada to battle the nation's best.
It falls on the individual to answer the bell. Some do; others don't.
As mentioned earlier, Tiffin quarterback Antonio Pipkin never got into a rhythm and threw multiple poor passes during the game. Pipkin said during the week on NFL Network's telecast that he just needed to let the ball go instead of thinking too much. It appeared the opposite happened once the game started.
Other prospects from small schools didn't perform well, either.
Bucknell offensive tackle Julie'n Davenport has all of the physical tools a team deems necessary at 6'7" and 310 pounds, but he's a project. Experienced pass-rushers regularly beat him during the game.
South receivers beat Lamar cornerback Brendan Langley on multiple occasions, although he did snag an interception.
Others performed much better.
Villanova defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon stole the show Tuesday at weigh-ins when he measured 6'6" and 280 pounds with only 4 percent body fat. He had his ups and downs throughout the week, but he showed a relentless motor during the contest.
Fellow South defensive end Keionta Davis crashed off the edge. The UT-Chattanooga product was one of a handful of players to receive a positive pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus.
St. Francis safety Lorenzo Jerome is a ball hawk. The defensive back had a pair of interceptions during the NFLPA Bowl. He added two more at the Senior Bowl and forced a fumble.
Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp wasn't a big factor in the game, but he performed as well as anyone during the practice week.
The chance to compete on the field against a much higher quality of opponent opens doors for small-school prospects, and there are always those who rise to the occasion to become high draft picks.