RB Duel Emerges, TE Rivera Shines During South’s Wednesday Practice

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2013 – 6:24 pm

The dog days of Senior Bowl week are here, as both the North and South teams are 4 days and 3 practices into their week in Mobile. But that didn’t stop new developments from emerging on Wednesday afternoon at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, with the South team practicing for roughly 2 hours in a near perfect football climate.

One of the more entertaining developments was the emergence of a duel at RB. Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor is perhaps the most well-known runner on the South squad, having logged 3 straight 1,000-yard rushing and double-digit TD seasons. He was clearly his team’s best RB in Tuesday’s practice and has the kind of build you see in bell cow runners at the NFL level. But on Wednesday it was Florida’s Mike Gillislee who starred for the South. Gillislee broke free on the first play of 9-on-7 drills and then later in the practice he carried the ball on a draw play, burst up the middle and made a sweet cut to the right that allowed him to outrun the angle by pursuing LB Sean Porter. On that play, Gillislee’s burst was on display and it drew a reaction from the bleachers full of coaches and scouts.

I didn’t see Monday’ practice. On Tuesday it was Taylor who was better. On Wednesday it was Gillislee who was better. It’s an interesting duel between those two runners – a pair of runners with similar styles.

Rivera tops the TEs
I noted on Tuesday that the South team had an intriguing group of TEs and that I’d take a closer look at the group to try and discern among them. On Wednesday, a close look was not required in order to discern the talent. Tennessee’s Mychal Rivera was the standout. Granted, Rivera is the better pass-catcher of the group, and it can be easier to notice a pass-catching TE than one that excels in blocking. But, the bottom line is that on Wednesday Rivera solidified his standing as the group’s best pass-catcher. He didn’t drop a pass while I was watching him – both Vance McDonald and Michael Williams did – and he was constantly open. His best play came on a post route he ran while starting down the left seam. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson stepped up into the pocket and fired a laser at Rivera, who leaped and hauled in the catch on a route that took him over the dropping linebacker and under a charging safety.

Rivera measures in at just over 6-3 and at 237 pounds. He appears to have a frame that he could build on, but that takes dedication and discipline, so teams interested in him will have to gauge his commitment. He did labor quite a bit in the late stages of a few periods on Wednesday, but you can hardly blame him considering how many routes he ran. Also, some offenses would prefer a TE with his build because they essentially use TEs as WRs. Regardless, Rivera clearly has pass-catching talent and has been one of the South’s most productive receivers this week.

3 CBs, 3 LBs stand out
The South defense had a spirited practice on Wednesday, and 6 individuals from the back end of that defense stood out. We’ll start with the CBs. The Detroit Lions coaching staff had the entire group of DBs go through drills that required them to sink and turn their hips quickly, and San Diego State’s Leon McFadden and Southeast Louisiana’s Robert Alford looked the most fluid during those drills. Williams & Mary’s BW Webb also looked good in this setting. A guy who flashed a bit on Tuesday – Cal CB Marc Anthony – flashed a bit once again on Wednesday. It should also be noted that Alford and Webb both took turns returning punts on Wednesday, and both fielded all punts cleanly.

For the LBs, Alabama’s Nico Johnson was all over the field, constantly in the middle of a play or the area of an incomplete pass. He lost a one-on-one every now and then during a pass coverage drill, but he was nearly flawless when pass rushing vs. the RBs/FB and he was solid during both 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 work. On one play, in fact, Johnson dropped into zone coverage and reached his depth quick enough to force a high incompletion on a pass from Oklahoma QB Landry Jones to Rivera – one of the few incompletions intended for Rivera on the day. Johnson was playing the MIKE (middle) LB in the South’s defense.

Playing one of the outside LB spots was Texas A&M’s Sean Porter, a 6-1, 231-pound defender who can run well and isn’t afraid to lay a big hit. While Gillislee did run away from Porter on one occasion, one must keep in mind that the Florida RB would run away from most defenders on the field. Porter is an athletic LB, and he made one of the better hits I saw of the week during an 11-on-11 period when he came downhill and blasted a ball-carrier on a good, clean hit.

Speaking of athletic LBs who can run, that’s exactly how one should describe Missouri’s Zaviar Gooden. He’s listed at just under 6-1 and at 233 pounds, and he can fly around the football field. At first glance, it’s even easy to mistake him for a safety. I’m not sure if it’s fair to categorize him as a tweener (that’s usually not a flattering description for a player), but I would categorize him as a LB who plays and looks like a safety.

– It would be fun to see a DT tandem that consisted of Georgia’s Jonathan Jenkins and North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams. Jenkins measures in at just under 6-4, 369 pounds, while Williams tips the scales at 6-2½, 313. Williams strikes me as being more capable of developing into a 3-down DT, but if a team had a Jenkins-Williams tandem at DT, something tells me they’d have success defending the run.
— The South offense tried a creative play near the end of practice, but a pair of South defenders were not fooled. The play was a fake handoff to the FB going through the A gap and then a pitch to the HB wide left. Clemson DE Malliciah Goodman and Alabama S Robert Lester were not fooled, though, as Goodman strung the play wide toward the sideline and Lester came downhill and finished off the ball carrier. Both players showed good athleticism and discipline on the play.
Louisiana Tech P Ryan Allen got 4 punts off to close practice on Wednesday. On the 4 punts he had a gross average of 49.3 yards, with 3 of the 40 kicks going at least 50 yards. I didn’t clock the get-off time or the hang time, so perhaps Allen took a few liberties in those areas because there was no rush, which would result in better distances. But the numbers on their own were pretty impressive.

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North WRs Dazzle On Wednesday; Other Practice Notes

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2013 – 12:55 pm

I came to Mobile on Monday excited to see North WR Aaron Dobson (Marshall) perform at the Senior Bowl. After Tuesday’s practices, though, I came away from Ladd-Peebles Stadium impressed with what the South WRs showed.

After Wednesday morning’s practice, however, it’s going to be hard for the South receivers group to be the most impressive of the day.

The North WRs, led by Dobson but including several others who stood out, performed well in the morning practice. Dobson and Elon’s Aaron Mellette were at the head of the class, as expected. But I also saw Texas WR Marquise Goodwin and Kansas State WR Chris Harper jump up, too. Here are a few standout plays from this group…

– During one-on-ones, Dobson got off the line on press coverage beautifully using his hands and quick feet to beat Texas S Kenny Vaccaro on a go route. Later in the drill, Washington CB Desmond Trufant tried to get physical with Dobson, but the Marshall playmaker eventually won the battle and uncovered himself for another reception.

– Mellette displayed the same ability to beat press coverage and uncover for a reception when he beat Florida International S Jonathan Cyprien on an intermediate route. Mellette showed his ability downfield as well, sprinting past Nevada DB Duke Williams and Utah State DB Will Davis to haul in a long reception down the right sideline during 11-on-11 work.

– Goodwin was good all day on comeback routes, displaying an ability to drive a defender backwards and then stick his foot in the ground and come back to the QB to uncover. He did exactly this late in the practice, made a diving catch to the outside, and got to his feet in time to sprint past the defense down the sideline. Harper was solid all day, especially in routes over the middle. He actually ended the 11-on-11 period while catching a beautifully thrown pass from Miami (OH) QB Zac Dysert that would’ve resulted in a TD.

What’s the story with LB Arthur Brown, S TJ McDonald?
Kansas State LB Arthur Brown
and USC S TJ McDonald are great looking athletes who appear to be among the better players at their position here in Mobile. But as you watch practice, you just don’t see them making any sensational plays. They seem to make the routine plays routinely, but there hasn’t been much splash to their game.

Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. Brown rarely is out of position and he’s around the ball frequently. McDonald read a draw perfectly during 11-on-11 work Wednesday and in fact was the only defender who did, displaying natural instincts and discipline. Also with McDonald, whether it’s during full team work or 7-on-7 drills, the football is rarely thrown in his direction, which tells me he’s in the right place at the right time quite a bit, forcing the QB to go another direction.

It’ll be interesting to see how the stock of both Brown and McDonald changes in the build-up to the draft. My guess is that both of them see their stars become brighter as the draft approaches.

A couple solid CBs
Speaking of being in the right place at the right time, that’s exactly how I’d describe the performance of a pair of North CBs on Wednesday – Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer and Boise State’s Jamar Taylor. Neither player made any spectacular impression today, but both were often in the right place at the right time, forcing incompletions and forcing ball carriers to alter their path. Taylor’s best play may have come on the first play of 11-on-11 work, when he was in perfect position to shadow a receiver running a deep crossing route after a play-action fake by the QB.

Poyer measures in at just under 6-0 and 182 pounds, while Taylor tips the scale at 192 and measured in at 5-10½. Not great size for their position, but poor size, either.

Barner in the passing game
Oregon RB Kenjon Barner is an intriguing prospect to me. He comes from that up-tempo, high-scoring offensive system that Chip Kelly ran. Those players, historically, didn’t always translate well into the NFL. But as I wrote earlier in the week, the success the San Francisco 49ers have had with LaMichael James makes me think Barner can fulfill a similar role with an NFL team. There’s a big discrepancy in the speed of the game from college to the pros, but Barner has the kind of speed that really marginalizes that speed margin.

Barner has work to do, though. He was not very good going against LBs and DBs in pass protection drills today. He was bull rushed by Washington DB Desmond Trufant early in the drill and then Rutgers LB Steve Beauharnais got the best of him a bit later with a nice outside-to-inside move.

Later in the period, though, when the defenders were charged with covering the backs out of the backfield, Barner impressed. He beat Vaccaro with an inside move easily and then used an outside release to explode past Rutgers LB Khaseem Greene.

North Carolina DT Sylvester “Sly” Williams followed up an absolutely dominant day on Tuesday with another excellent day on Wednesday. He was in the backfield frequently disrupting both QBs and RBs.
— I’ve mentioned Illinois LB Michael Buchanon a couple of times this week. On Tuesday he recovered a fumble and returned it for a TD. And on Monday I included him in the “10 players to watch” entry just because he played LB at Illinois, just as Vikings Director of College Scouting Scott Studwell did. But I’m not sure if Buchanon will be a LB in the NFL. Perhaps he’ll be a DE. Or perhaps a team that employs the 3-4 defense will take him and put him at that pass-rushing outside LB spot. With his size-athleticism combo and ability to flash as a pass rusher off the edge, I think he may be best served rushing the passer more than dropping into coverage as frequently as a LB does.

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Rudolph Becomes 6th Vikings Pro Bowler

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2013 – 8:04 am

The Vikings already had 5 Pro Bowlers. But a reinforcement is coming for good measure.

TE Kyle Rudolph has been named to his first Pro Bowl, as he replaces Tony Gonzalez for the NFC squad.

“When I first heard, I was surprised,” Rudolph said. “I’m just so excited and honored to be playing in the Pro Bowl. It is a dream come true, a dream I had since I was a little kid.

“Having six guys in the Pro Bowl says a lot about our team. All offseason we had the mindset and the mentality that the sky was the limit. We kept that to ourselves within the locker room and worked hard all off season. It paid off during the regular season.”

Rudolph tied for 1st in the NFC among TEs with a career-high 9 TD receptions during the regular season, which was good for 2nd in the NFL behind only New England’s Rob Gronkowski. The second-year product out of Notre Dame also recorded career-highs receptions (53) and receiving yards (493) in 2012.

Rudolph, who started all 16 games in 2012 and the team’s Wild Card playoff game, becomes the first Vikings TE to make the Pro Bowl since Byron Chamberlain did so in 2001. He joins fellow Vikings Jared Allen, Jerome Felton, Chad Greenway, Adrian Peterson and Blair Walsh in Hawaii.

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