by Grumpy Lindsay
Arguably, the top storyline to emerge at this year’s Senior Bowl, and maybe for the whole draft overall has been the emergence of the defensive line, and especially the defensive tackles, as one of, if not the best unit in this year’s draft class. The DTs dominated with their quickness and athleticism at the practices in Mobile and it wasn’t much different during the actual game. Indeed, several DTs including Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington, Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech and Penn State’s Austin Johnson came pretty close to putting on a DT clinic during Saturday’s game. The Buckeyes’ Washington was particularly impressive; he consistently showed a quick, long stride off the snap followed by some DE-like lateral agility that gave him some almost immediate separation; he was then able to plant and redirect upfield where he spent most of the afternoon in the opponent’s backfield. For their part, Butler and Johnson were also able to build on their strong weeks of practice. Neither appears to be quite as athletic as Washington, but both also showed a nice combination of strength and movement skills, along with decent technique and pretty high-energy motors for big guys. Johnson, though, needs to learn to do a better job of using his hands to shed blockers off the straight bull-rush as he has a tendency to play a little high and lose momentum once his initial charge is slowed.
Meanwhile, late-game additions D.J. Reader of Clemson and Javon Hargrave from South Carolina State, two of the better players in last week’s Shrine game, were able to follow-up on their strong outings in St. Petersburg on the bigger stage that is the Senior Bowl. Reader isn’t much of an athlete, but was very effective taking on blocks and jamming the middle of the line of scrimmage, while Hargrave isn’t all that polished, but is a low-based dynamo who is tough to block because his feet are always moving. We are also tempted to list Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day among the top DTs in the Senior Bowl game, but he actually played more snaps at DE where he was very effective. Day is another low-based defensive lineman who was quick off the snap, played with excellent leverage, and was just relentless going attacking the pocket. The job now for pro scouts is to figure whether he’d be a better fit at the next level as a 4-3 DT or DE or as a 5-tech DE in a 3-4 scheme as he looks like he could fill a role at each.
Ironically, if there was a DT is this year’s Senior Bowl that had a disappointing game it may have been Jarran Reed of Alabama. Reed, who came into the game as probably the highest-rated player in Mobile – remember that most of the top prospects for the 2016 are underclassmen not eligible to participate in the Senior Bowl – was actually only expected to play a couple of series, but he ended up playing well over half the snaps on the day. And while he did make a couple of plays late in the game, for the most part, Reed didn’t show much at all in the way of the lateral agility as play after play he just put his hands into the guy in front of him’s numbers and bull-rushed without getting a whole lot of penetration. Reed also got knocked off his feet more than one would like to see from a top15-20 prospect. Same story for Michigan State tweener Lawrence Thomas, a 300-pounder who played almost exclusively at DE, but who really struggled to get off blocks.
As good as the defensive tackles were in Mobile, the best player of the field in the Senior Bowl was Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence. Spence, who had been unblockable at times in the week’s practice sessions, was almost unblockable in the game. Indeed, it’s rare to see a case where a DE gets around a big-time collegiate OT without even being touched, but Spence did that on multiple plays in Mobile as he was just too explosive off the snap for most of the guys in front of him Saturday. In fact, watching Spence in the Senior Bowl one was tempted to start whispering things like ‘top 10 elite talent’ to oneself. Of course, there’s a whole more to the story with Spence who could ultimately end up being one of the more polarizing stories of the 2016 draft season. First, there are some holes in his game. Spence is still something of a tweener DE/OLB who while he just explodes into the backfield, isn’t very strong at the point of attack and will run himself out of position at times. Then, of course, there is the off-field stuff. Spence was originally a big-time recruit at Ohio State, but after a couple of very promising years in Columbus was booted from the program – and banned by the Big Ten – reportedly for drug usage so if nothing else he knows what kind of question to prepare for during combine interviews.
As quick as he was, EKU’s Spence may have been given a run for his money as the most explosive DE in Mobile by Virginia Tech DE/OLB Dadi Nicolas. He’s another type who was blowing by big OTs all afternoon, but he looked a little out of control at times, and like Spence, also didn’t show much inclination to get to heavily involved in the run defense. Another DE who had a really interesting game was BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi, who actually split his time between DE and DT and didn’t look out of place at either. Kaufusi wasn’t fast enough to just run around people, but as a one-time member of the BYU basketball team, was very light on his feet with good balance and lateral agility. Kaufusi also showed excellent hand strength and placement and was consistently able to get his blocker off balance with a nice array of spin and counter moves, along with a strong closing burst when he got a seam. And while he only had a few snaps at DE Utah State tweener DE/OLB Kyler Fackrell also showed some hops and lateral quickness in the handful of plays when he did line up with his hand in the ground.
If there was one real enigma on the defensive line at the senior Bowl, though, it was probably enigmatic Shawn Oakman of Baylor. Check the game stats and Oakman, who was credited with a couple of sacks and a forced fumble, reads like an emerging star, but watch the tape and he was rather underwhelming. Both of Oakman’s sacks came, for example, when the opposing QB was flushed out of the pocket by others and more ran into the DE than the other way around. Of course, Oakman looks the part, does run well enough in space and was effective when he used his long stride to get some separation when looping. However, for the most part, he showed little ability in this game to get off blocks as there just didn’t appear to be much lateral agility or polished technique; instead one just saw a lot of wasted motion.
Note: A bunch of defensive linemen were not able to play in Saturday’s game because of injury including Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins, Penn State DE Carl Nassib, Illinois DE/DT Jihad Ward and Oklahoma DE Charles Tapper.