After a mad dash from a restaurant on the causeway to the USA campus football stadium at the western end of town, we were happily treated to two full practice sessions sans rain until the last 15 minutes of the later session.
The opener featured the NATIONAL Team under the guidance of BRIAN FLORES and his Dolphins coaching staff. The top Draft prospect in this field of athletes was featured WR DeVONTA SMITH from Alabama. He should be the first player drafted from either roster here. After a blockbuster season for the Crimson Tide, he is currently projected to be the top WR in this years loaded receiver class, likely in the Top 10 Picks. And coincidentally, the rising Dolphins team lists WR as one of it’s top needs to upgrade their roster. Also, in case you have forgotten, his former QB TUA, is the Dolphins franchise QB. The stars seemed to have aligned on this happy coincidence except that SMITH’s dislocated finger from the national championship game, which required surgery, prevents him from even playing this week. However, it still gives the Dolphins staff a chance to talk with SMITH all week and look at his Michael Jackson-esque lean frame. I wonder if he can “moon walk”? Strangely, as has been widely reported, he declined to step on the scale or have his height measured at the weigh-in Tuesday morning. He did let them measure his hand, which presented a nice receiver number of 9 3/8″.
As is my long stated philosophy and practice, I will not be making any wide ranging comments on the QB group until Thursday and the game. The first few days can be especially tough on the QB groups as they learn a playbook, adjust to mostly new receivers, and in many cases, pretty much take their first snaps from under OC since high school.
Other than SMITH, the best initial news from the NATIONALS is that no one showed up injured, other than SMITH, and no one left the practice field with a noticeable injury. Although, NAJEE HARRIS, another ‘Bama guy, clearly looks less than 100% and took very limited reps that I saw. If you gave me a bag of Reese’s Pieces, I would bet quite a few of them, that he may not even see the field on game day.
Even so, this squad may have the most imposing RB at the proceedings in Oklahoma’s RHAMONDRE STEVENSON, who checked in at an imposing 5’117, and a slightly lighter than expected, 227 lbs. Those numbers actually put him in the slightly smaller than NAJEE category. NAJEE was 6’017/230. But STEVENSON is healthy, and early on displayed the power, speed, and good hands that marked his final season in Norman. STEVENSON clearly looked like a load that defenders are not anxious to come up against in the open field.
Let’s get to the really good right away. I thought the most impressive player all around was DT LEVI ONWUZURIKE of Washington, who will be closely watched all week. He opted out of playing his senior season for the Huskies, and comes into Draft prep season as clearly the top senior interior d-lineman in the draft class. He shined in 1-on-1 drills. He was quick off the snap and used his hands like a karate black belt, chopping and slashing as would-be blockers quite often saw him rush pass them and head into the pocket. By my count, he clearly won at least 2 of every 3 snaps. He also was a constant visitor to the offensive backfield in 11-on-11 snaps. I know this is early, and making comparison projections might be considered sacrilegious, but I can see some AARON DONALD in LEVI’s game already. He would be my top performing prospect of the first practice.
However, if you fancy scoring and Fantasy Point production, you need to look no further than the receiving group. I thought SAGE SURRATT made the catch of this practice with a diving backward, sideline catch, with 2 defenders all over him fighting for the throw. Or maybe it was an out-of-bounds catch, me being poorly positioned on the opposite side of the field and towards the other end zone. SURRATT, another opt out last season, had a very good start to his week in pads. FRANK DARBY was his usual self. His most notable trait is the ability to sky for 50/50 throws, and he did exactly that several times in this practice. DARBY is just a fraction over 6’ tall, but his 9 5/8″ hands, and what looks like a huge vertical jump, seem to give DB’s fits of frustration.
It is early and smaller school kids traditionally look a bit overwhelmed early in the week, but progress with days of practice with the big school boys, and pro coaching to improve their technique and play. Last year, guys named CHINN & DUGGER were big hits down here as small school S/LB type hybrids. This year’s version of those guys is thought to be #29, CHRISTIAN UPHOFF from Illinois State. At the weigh-in, he clearly fit the bill at 6’024/213. His hands also measured 10″. But unlike CHINN/DUGGER, he looked overmatched much of Tuesday’s practice. Now I will be watching to see how he progresses from day to day.
Among the OL group, I was impressed immediately at how large and strong ROBERT JONES, #70 looked. My mind took a look at the first couple of reps he had in 1-on-1 and said ‘there is a grown man’. He weighed in at 6’4/319, but his frame looks even broader than that. He is working inside at OG, right where he belongs. He certainly looks more impressive going forward than backwards, so he’d better wind up with a power running team like the Titans.
I am a bit concerned for small school OT SPENCER BROWN/Northern Iowa, #76. BROWN clearly looks like a basketball power forward at 6’084, and 314 lbs. His arm length is okay, but average for his size, at best (34″). I just didn’t see too much power in those arms or legs today. He plays high, which is natural at his height. I will wait to check in again on him later in the week. Being from the smaller school game (N. Iowa), he may just need a few days to settle in. Plus, he opted out and hasn’t played in a long while.
Speaking of that school and that learning curve, I was excited by some of the work from BROWN’s college teammate, DE ELERSON SMITH, #47. I was not really looking for him much today, but that number kept popping into my line of sight, with his quickness and penetration. He has a nice lean frame and was 6’064/262. He was quick off the snap of the ball and used his hands (10 1/2″) to good advantage. His arms are not really long (32 1/2″), but his 83″ wing span is more useful than arm length in getting around people, which he did today. He could really stand out on game day as an edge-rusher.
Let’s move along to the AMERICAN TEAM practice under the supervision of the Carolina Panthers Head Coach MATT RUHLE.
I liked what I saw of D’ANTE SMITH OT #67, who spent the practice out at LT. He is one of the few OL under 300 lbs. this week, at a “light” 295, but he more than makes up for that lack of bulk with 35 1/4″ arm length and nimble feet. He is not weak, just not overpowering. He looks to be one of the more athletic OL on the field, and in today’s NFL, most teams will gladly take an athletic guy out on the edge. Very promising start for this Mr. SMITH, who is one of 4 SMITH’s on the American roster.
Sad to say, it was not a good day for the American roster on the injury front. LB CHARLES SNOWDEN of UVA (#11) was without pads and in a walking boot. MONTY RICE/LB/Georgia was also without pads prowling the sidelines. Then late in practice, BEN CLEVELAND/OG/ went down grabbing a leg and limped off to the locker room with the training staff. Given the concern for avoiding injuries down here, I would not expect to see any of those 3 working in pads the rest of this week. And of course, ‘Bama OC LANDON DICKERSON is on this squad, but having been injured late in the season, there is no way he puts pads on.
This team also has a stacked WR group, and there can be plenty of debate as to who impressed the most on Day One. SHI SMITH made a superb diving catch, amongst others. Local boy, KADARIUS TONEY flashed his speed throughout practice, but my favorite receiver for today was Clemson’s AMARI RODGERS #3. I say that primarily because he just looks like the prototype for an NFL Slot WR. He stands 5’094, and weighs 211. He is quick and fast with nice 9 1/2″ hand size, and his overall body build is that of a RB. He is a tough match-up in the slot, and it showed all afternoon Tuesday.
There were a few jersey number switches for this squad today. Oner of them took me a while to figure out until the team broke into position groups for drills. I have been fascinated by the work of UAB’s JORDAN SMITH, an Edge Rushing “Slim Jim”, who now wears #92. Another of the SMITH’s, he stands 6’6 and weighed in at 255. I was glad to see that weight because he looks very thin out there. He had some good moments bending the corner to create pocket pressure at times, but will struggle to set the edge against the run. I think he’ll be bound for a base 3-4 pro Defense, and I am projecting (I will keep watching this week) his game as a pro to perhaps resemble JASON PIERRE-PAUL.
I like the “big uglies”, having been one myself in High School from another football era. MARVIN WILSON of FSU has fascinated me for two years now. And I throw him a lifeline after playing in that hot mess that has become the Seminoles football program. Hoping Coach NORVELL can set that straight again. WILSON has been a flash player in his career, and was said to be a locker room leader for FSU. The big guy (6’034/319) looked to me to be loafing early in the practice. But once 1-on-1’s started and then light scrimmaging, he turned it up a notch and was his impactful self.
Watching QB JAMIE NEWMAN had an interesting twist as soon as practice began. #7 came out wearing his Wake Forest helmet, and it dawned on me that even though he committed to attend Georgia as a graduate transfer, he never put on a Bulldogs uniform because he took a Covid-19 opt out season. So look for me to proceed to refer to him as Wake Forest’s NEWMAN. That’s all for him today ’cause it’s not Thursday yet.
It wasn’t a large body of work to watch, but KYLIN HILL #20, despite his on-again, off-again 2020 season with MIKE LEACH at Miss State, proved to folks that he could be an all-around RB and catch the ball. He showed some of that again today in drills. He just looks natural running pass patterns and very smooth actually catching throws. Needless to say, that is a very good skill to possess as a skill position player in today’s NFL. We know he can run from earlier seasons at State.
Count me in among those who feel like ALEX LEATHERWOOD #70 of Alabama, may need to slide inside to OG for the NFL. However, there are others that say he can handle the OT slot, just maybe not the QB’s blindside. At least at the weigh-in, he had LT size at almost 6’5, 312 lbs. and 34 3/8″arms. As Colin noted yesterday, the arm length of many OL/DL was a bit below the normal standard of 34+”. I still thought his footwork was a bit heavy footed, but the measuring test came out in his favor.
JaCOBY STEVENS/LSU #7 is practicing drill work primarily with the DB group, but was also flipping over to the LB slot at times yesterday. In either instance, he was showing his acknowledged nose for the ball instincts. I doubt he is fast enough for a deep S spot in coverage situations, but as a hybrid type, he shows everything you want to see, including decent short, middle field coverage ability. His measurements fit that mold well at 6’012/216, except for the 31 3/4″ shortish arms. But he’s a baller, and looked it again Tuesday.
Time to hit the foggy trail up to the USA practice. By the way, I would be remiss if I did not mention what a nice, new stadium South Alabama has. It looks to be one of nicest in the Sun Belt Conference. Well done Mobile Bay Area.
Cheers from Mobile