MOBILE, Ala. -- While other position groups have earned more attention at the 2013 Senior Bowl, the North team's defensive line has emerged as the most impressive group in Mobile. Much of that is due to defensive ends Alex Okafor (Texas) and Datone Jones (UCLA), whose stellar play has caught some NFL talent evaluators by surprise.
Though each had put up eye-popping numbers during their senior seasons, Okafor and Jones had each relied on strong hand play and high-revving motors to achieve their success. This week, each has shown better quickness, often slipping past the North offensive tackles with their initial burst.
Considering that the North boasts Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher -- NFLDraftScout.com's top rated prospect playing in the Senior Bowl -- that's saying something.
"I like the size and athletic ability of the North defensive line," Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told NFLDraftScout.com. "A couple of the outside pass rushers have played particularly well."
While Zimmer acknowledged that he was seeing many of these players for the first time this week, the highly regarded assistant coach fielded a unit that registered 51 sacks in 2012, third behind the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams, who tied with 52 quarterback takedowns.
Okafor, who measured in at 6-foot-4 (and 5/8) and 261 pounds on Monday, appears to be slightly leaner than he was at Texas, where he registered 18 tackles for loss, including 12.5 sacks. Operating at right defensive end against Fisher and Syracuse's Justin Pugh, he was consistently able to get pass blockers turned, showing enough flexibility to dip under their reach and turn the corner to close on the quarterback. While leaner, Okafor hasn't lost his trademark hand usage, alternately chopping away at his opponents' attempts to get their hands on his chest or using an effective arm-over swim move to slip by them.
Jones, stouter at 6-foot-4 1/8 and a rock-solid 280 pounds, has seen time at left and right defensive end. Jones, who posted 19 tackles for loss for the Bruins but "just" 6.5 sacks, is used to being moved around, as he saw time at virtually every position along the Bruins' defensive line throughout his career. His combination of quickness and strength results in an explosiveness that has been tough for the North defensive linemen to handle. He was able to simply bull rush offensive linemen, including Fisher and Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner, on multiple occasions. In prior years, Jones' frame might have earned him the dreaded "tweener" label. With so many clubs looking for "hybrid" defensive linemen capable of playing inside or out, however, he's earning high marks from talent evaluators for his versatility.
Other Notes from Wednesday's practice:
- The North defensive backs have continued to impress. Washington's Desmond Trufant has estaliblished himself as the top cornerback in Mobile, enjoying another strong practice. Two safeties gaining positive traction, albeit for different reasons, are Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, whose fluidity and instincts in coverage have made him a defender the North quarterbacks have generally avoided, and Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien, a physical, aggressive defender. There are, however, some concerns about his straight-line speed.
- The North quarterbacks might have entered the week as the most talked about unit, but many of the talent evaluators in the stands have been underwhelmed with their largely inconsistent performances. North Carolina State's Mike Glennon threw some beautiful passes on Wednesday, including a few picture-perfect deep balls. As was the case with the Wolfpack, however, his accuracy hasn't been nearly as impressive once he's forced to re-set his feet. Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, similarly, has shown many of the same struggles with touch passes that he had with the Orange. Frankly, the softer he needs to throw it, the less accurate his passes have been. Miami of Ohio's Zac Dysert has the tools to work with but has been consistently inaccurate on out-breaking routes, often sailing passes high and wide of his intended target.