2014 Senior Bowl: 10 observations from Monday's North practice

Former Canes QB Stephen Morris wasn't his sharpest Monday at Senior Bowl practice. (USATSI)
Former Canes QB Stephen Morris wasn't his sharpest Monday at Senior Bowl practice. (USATSI)

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MOBILE, Ala. – The North squad suited up at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Monday afternoon and practiced as the wind picked up and sun started to set, disappearing behind the stadium’s elevated press box.

The Falcons coaching staff, led by head coach Mike Smith, led a well-organized practice with hundreds of scouts, coaches and evaluators looking on from the stands. Atlanta’s general manager Thomas Dimitroff had a front row seat, viewing the practice on the field next to his coaching staff. The important takeaway from Monday is to isolate where certain prospects struggled in order to see if they show improvement on Tuesday, Wednesday and the rest of the week. A prospect’s ability to respond to NFL coaching is a substantial part of Senior Bowl week, especially in an unfamiliar setting.

Like Rob Rang’s report on the South team, I deciphered my practice notes into 10 coherent observations from the North team’s practice on Monday.

1. DT Aaron Donald was an unstoppable force on Monday. Like his play all season, the Pitt defensive tackle was extremely quick in drills and was relentless from snap to whistle. His burst and anticipation off the snap and active energy to fight through and around blocks make him tough for any blocker to handle. Donald repeatedly victimized Baylor OG Cyril Richardson at practice, winning with leverage, hustle and fluidity that Richardson has likely never seen before on the football field. Donald’s skill-set is ideal for one-on-one drills so he should shine, but the NFL team that drafts him will get a really good football player.

2. I feel for the wide receivers on the North team due to the inconsistency from all three quarterbacks on the roster. Miami QB Stephen Morris, Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas and Clemson QB Tajh Boyd were all inconsistent on day one, which was almost expected after the up-and-down senior seasons of all three. Boyd in particular struggled with accuracy and his ball placement is a strong concern. Thomas threw a few pretty passes that hit receivers between the numbers, but other fastballs hit the ground or sailed over his intended target. The good news for this group? The only place to go from here is up.

3. Speaking of the wide receivers, I really like the group on the North team. The South squad might have the only senior wideout who ends up being drafted in the top-50 picks (Jordan Matthews), but the mid-round talent at receiver on the North is above average. Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis, Wyoming WR Robert Herron and Oregon WR Josh Huff all looked good on Monday before, after and during the catch. All three have a legitimate chance to be drafted in the top-100 and Monday reminded everyone why.

4. Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort lined up at right tackle and did an excellent job sinking his butt, digging his cleats in the ground and stonewalling rushers. He lined up across from North Carolina DE Kareem Martin (and his long 34 3/8” arms) several times and Mewhort did an excellent job combating hand moves and riding him past the pocket. The former Buckeye is built well for the right tackle position at 6-6 and 306 pounds and has shown consistent improvement from his underclassmen days.

5. Miami OT Seantrel Henderson continues to be a mystery. He flashed on Monday with his strong, heavy hands to punch and control rushers. But his snap anticipation and balance were up-and-down throughout drills. It’s been said time and time again, but if a NFL coaching staff can get Henderson to play focused and ambitious, they’ll land themselves a very good player. He is a player to watch this week to see how he responds to the instructions of the Falcons’ coaching staff.

6. Linenwood CB Pierre Desir and Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste are both tall, long defensive backs who have the athleticism to turn and run with receivers downfield. They both did a nice job in press-man to get physical at the line of scrimmage and then ride the receiver through the route, although both got away with a little too much holding. Neither are elite when controlling their start/stop momentum, but neither are allergic to contact either. And with several teams who utilize press-man techniques on defense looking for the next Richard Sherman, both Desir and Jean-Baptiste are players to watch this week.

7. As I mentioned in my Senior Bowl preview, Northern Illinois S Jimmie Ward is the top safety prospect in Mobile this week in my opinion and he played like it on Monday. He overcame a few poor angles early and put together a good practice, showing off his foot quickness and aggressive instincts. A Mobile-native, Ward could make a case to be the top defensive back overall this week.

8. Louisiana Tech DT Justin Ellis picked up right where he left off last week at the Shrine Game, using his quickness and snap anticipation to surge past blockers before they were in a stance. He is a quick thinker and reacts well to what the blocker wants to do, either attacking with pure momentum or using a spin or sidestep move to get past him. Ellis, who weighed nine pounds lighter from the Shrine Game weigh-ins, has helped himself as much as anyone the past two weeks and shouldn’t last long on the draft’s third day.

9. Clemson OT Brandon Thomas played left tackle in college, but he projects better at guard where he can operate in a smaller space and that showed in practice on Monday. He measured in at 34 3/8” arms and will use that length to engage and bury defenders – just ask fellow ACC prospect DE James Gayle out of Virginia Tech who Thomas dominated a few times. But the former Clemson blocker also struggled in space during drills, bringing up questions on whether or not he should stay on the edges.

10. Yes, he plays on the South squad and this is a North practice review, but I feel compelled to mention North Dakota State OL Billy Turner. He lined up at guard and tackle during practice and showed off his quick feet, upper body strength and mean punch to handle rushers. If Turner can learn to consistently sink his hips and not bend so much at the waist, I truly believe there are several Pro Bowls in his future.

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