Every year in Mobile, AL, the cream of the crop of college footballs’ seniors are invited to participate in the Senior Bowl. Regardless if they’re a Division I FBS All-American or a complete unknown from a Division III school tucked away in a far corner of the country, it’s a chance for players to prove their worth in front of NFL scouts, general managers and coaches.
This year, the North squad is led by Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff, while the South squad will be led by Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley and his staff. The game is set for Saturday, January 24 at 4 p.m., and viewers can tune in live by switching on NFL Network.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has long been known league-wide for his ability to strike it rich with his gold-mine drafting. Although he has several big misses on his resume, what coach doesn’t? It’s not a perfect science, and nobody is perfect at it, but since 2001, the Steelers are the ONLY team in the league to have not had a top-10 draft pick. That tidbit right there tells you all you need to know about the stability of the franchise, despite a current state of defensive rebuild.
With the Steelers coaches and front office on hand this week in Mobile, coupled with the offense seemingly set, they’re undoubtedly turning their focus to the defensive side of the ball this week. There are many question marks surrounding the defensive state of the Steelers, but none bigger than in the secondary and the pass rush. Beginning with the latter, there are several prospects participating in the game who already seem tailor made for Pittsburgh’s 3-4 edge rush.
University of Utah standout Nate Orchard is a good place to start. The Ted Hendricks Award winner (best defensive end) had a banner senior year for the Utes, recording 21.5 tackles-for-loss to go along with his 18.5 sacks. The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder has made opposing offensive linemen for the North squad look silly at times this week in practice. He shows a wide arsenal of pass rush moves including one-arm swim moves, a nice bull-rush and a cat-quick burst off the snap. Orchard looks far more comfortable getting after the quarterback than dropping into coverage, and he also lacks the ideal frame of a 4-3 defensive end. These things may push him down draft boards, but no doubt that Orchard very well could be the “apple” of Pittsburgh’s eye.
Two more quarterback hunters that just have the “look” of a Steelers linebacker are the University of Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha, and the University of Missouri’s Markus Golden. With Kikaha, maybe it’s the Hawaiian descent or his long flowing hair that’s reminiscent of another Steelers’ great (Troy Polamalu) but he very well could fit the bill for Pittsburgh. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Kikaha literally rewrote Washington’s record books, finishing with 36 sacks and 40.5 tackles-for-loss. He did however suffer two separate ACL tears on his left knee, so that could throw up a medical red flag. He certainly looks the part of a Steelers linebacker though, possessing a fiery, nonstop motor and plays with reckless abandon through the whistle in practices this week.
Golden could be in play as well, especially if the team opts to go secondary in round 1, then shore up the pass rush in rounds 2 or 3. Measuring in at 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, he’s the short, squatty type of linebacker the Steelers have fielded the past few years with James Harrison, Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley.
“He measured in a little smaller than I was hoping for,” said CBSSports.com draft guru Rob Rang. “ I think he’s an undersized defensive end and a pretty solid one, at that. I see him going in the second- or third-round range.”
His final season with the Tigers, he posted 20 tackles-for-loss and 10 sacks. With the Steelers maybe employing more hybrid looks in 2015 under Keith Butler, the linebackers may be asked to put their hands in the dirt more, something Golden doesn’t mind at all.
“That’s the thing about me — I can get up to 265 in two weeks,” Golden said. “I can gain weight fast, I can lose weight fast. So I see myself playing whatever the coaches want me to play — defensive end, stand-up linebacker, whatever they want me to do, I can do it.”
Colbert and the gang are undoubtedly watching the secondary play as well. Cornerbacks Quentin Rollins of Miami (OH) and USC’s Josh Shaw are two very interesting prospect who reportedly have shown well this week. A former 4-year starter on the school’s basketball team, Rollins used his fifth year of eligibility to try out football and wowed enough that he’s here at the Senior Bowl, showing off tremendous quickness and changing direction on a dime. Shaw has displayed his physicality in practices this week, and is a long-limbed prospect at 6-foot-1, much in the Ike Taylor mold. Shaw is trying to prove his worth to scouts after sitting out his senior year due to an incident where he jumped from a balcony. What better way to put that to bed than prove yourself in front of representatives from all 32 ball clubs?
The safety position is a need as well for Pittsburgh, with top juniors such as Landon Collins and the ballhawking Gerod Holliman being linked to the team in various mocks. If the team opts to wait until the mid-rounds, a name to put in the memory banks is Cody Prewitt of Ole Miss. He reportedly showed off his center fielder skills in Tuesday’s practice by snaring an impressive interception, and then later showed his nose for the football by instinctively blowing up a reverse, much to the liking of coach Gus Bradley. And guess who the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder says he styles his game after? Troy Polamalu.
“I like to think I pick up on things really well, and it allows me to play really fast,” Prewitt said. “I take a lot of pride in my football IQ.”