Daniel Valente and I are in Mobile, Alabama for the 2020 Senior Bowl. Though with the weather, temps in the low 40s, wind chill around freezing, I’m not convinced I’ve actually left Pittsburgh. We’ll be bringing you news and notes from practice over the next couple of days.
For Tuesday, I focused on the offense while Daniel focused on the defense.
– Coached by Zac Taylor and the Cincinnati Bengals.
South Offense (Alex’s Report)
– Couple general Senior Bowl notes to start things off. This is my fourth year at the Senior Bowl and generally speaking, it’s rare to see Steelers’ scouts around town during the week. At practice, sure, they’re there. But afterwards? Feel like ghosts whereas other teams mill around the players hotel and are generally visible.
The reason for it is likely because Pittsburgh is one of the few teams who stay relatively far away from Mobile. They hold up in a resort in Fair Hope, about a half hour drive across I-10 and the Mobile Bay. That’s a Mike Tomlin preference, wanting to get out of the downtown area and away from the sometimes chaotic nature that is Senior Bowl week (i.e. media aka me and the many, many bars that exist downtown).
Always wondered why Steelers’ scouts were so elusive. Got my answer today.
– But don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of black and gold personnel on hand for today’s weigh-in and practice. At the former, I spotted: Pro Scouting Coordinator Brandon Hunt, BLESTO scout Chidi Iwuoma, Senior Assistant Rick Reiprish, Area Scout Mike Butler (normally handles ACC/East Coast schools), and Scouting Intern Dennis MacInnis. Saw a couple of faces I wasn’t familiar with too so we’ll see if the team has expanded or mixed up their scouting department.
– By the way, Hunt is an awfully detailed note-taker during weigh-ins. Looks like the team might have a letter system for how each guy looks, accompanied by a brief blurb per prospect. Hunt had a line for nearly everyone on stage. Reiprish seemed to handle recording heights and weights. Iwuoma seemed more passive, though got excited to see UCLA RB Joshua Kelley on stage. Iwuoma is from Pasadena, attended Cal, and briefly served as an assistant at the school before circling back to Pittsburgh.
– At practice, the team was led by a very animated Mike Tomlin – who dapped up Pitt CB Dane Jackson right before a special teams/gunner drill – and Kevin Colbert.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) January 21, 2020
Plenty of assistants were buzzing around the stadium too: OC Randy Fichtner, DC Keith Butler, ST Danny Smith (he stood in the stands at the end of practice, looking across the stadium for something…maybe searching for a kick return plan), OL coach Shaun Sarrett, assistant coaches Blaine Stewart, Matt Symmes, and Denzel Martin.
Sarrett, who wore a black T-Shirt every (and I mean every) single day of training camp still rocked the plain, black shirt today but given the cold, threw on a snazzy grey jacket over top.
Stewart and Martin might not be long for Pittsburgh. Expect both to be with the team in 2020 but each are moving up the coaching ranks. Working in the Shrine Game is a testament to that, Stewart was with the QBs, Martin special teams, and it’s a valuable way for young coaches (Stewart is only 25, I believe) to build connections and work their way up the ladder. Stewart was angling for a job at West Virginia this year, where his late father Bill coached from 2000 to 2010, but lost out when Gerad Parker was hired January 10th and grabbed the title of both offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. That left the school without a job for Stewart to consider taking.
Still, Stewart’s (and Martin’s) future is bright and I expect him to land a job as early as next year.
– The indication is the Steelers will “probably” hire a wide receivers coach from outside the organization. Stewart and Ray Sherman served in that role in 2019 following Darryl Drake’s tragic, sudden passing. No word on an exact date or who they’ll look to hire but adding another name to the staff appears to be the direction the team is headed in.
– Let me get to some weigh-in reactions. Not a whole lot to talk about but a couple points. Really impressed with Saint John OG Ben Bartch. Good size at 6’5 308 with 33 inch arms, especially when we’re talking about a player coming from the D3 level. Carries his weight well. Far from a sloppy body. And by most accounts, I admit I didn’t personally watch him too closely, he had a good day of practice.
– Penn State linebacker Cameron Brown might be the longest linebacker to ever play. Dude is just about 6’5 and-a-half. Long, leggy dude but isn’t nearly as stiff and rigid in his movements as you’d expect. Very personable and candid in the media interview process, too.
– You can see why the Bengals are looking to play Cincinnati TE Josiah Degura at fullback. Came in under 6’3. Has an H-Back feel but there have been success stories of guys his frame, like Washington’s Jordan Reed. I talked to Deguara, and most of the TEs participating this week. We’ll have more on that in the near future.
– Alabama ILB/EDGE Anfernee Jennings is a big dude with broad shoulders. Possesses a well-rounded, technical game even if he’s only an average athlete.
– Texas WR Collin Johnson with some of the smallest hands of any player 6’5+. Just 8 3/4 inches. That’s a bit of a concern for the position.
– South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw just one of the most massive bodies this week. He’s going in the first round. Just a question of how high.
– Meanwhile, I thought LSU’s Damien Lewis is a bit of a sloppy body, though he looked good in practice. Mississippi State’s Tyre Phillips has a similar sloppy frame that reminds me a bit of Andre Smith, though not quite *that* bad in all fairness. Tight end Jared Pinkney is a big dude with a bubble butt, the power generator as Mike Mayock might say.
– Steelers scout had some oohs when South Carolina State OT Alex Taylor walked out and weighed in. 6’8/4, 308 pounds with the longest arms in Mobile, just a tad over 36 inches. Received lots of comparisons to Tytus Howard, drafted in the first round by Houston last season. Taylor is even bigger.
– Anyway, to practice. Short practice, it’ll be longer tomorrow, and the Bengals got in and out in basically one hour flat. Had only one team sessions compared to two for the Lions/North squad.
– Lot of drops today for the receivers/tight ends. For both teams. First day jitters and the freezing temperatures (with the wind, which felt constant) didn’t help.
When things got going, I thought Florida’s Van Jefferson and Ohio State’s Austin Mack had impressive days. Jefferson is an easy-mover with a great gear down and change of direction. He might’ve had the best singular route of the day in team drills, breaking down fluidly so much so that UCLA CB Darnay Holmes (who didn’t have a bad day, mind you) couldn’t match and drifted upfield. Jefferson ran his ten yard curl, worked back to the ball and caught the pass. Jefferson also shows a plus feel for finding grass against zone coverage, showing the QB his numbers and squaring up to the ball.
Mack also does well to create space at the top of his route, especially for a bigger framed guy like he is (6’1 212).
In WR/DB, Vanderbilt’s Kalija Lipscomb made a spectacular, diving grab down the left sideline initially tipped by Holmes. Great concentration.
– Tight end Stephen Sullivan moved from WR at LSU but still rarely got his hand down in a three-point stance. He didn’t look comfortable there today. Very tall, he’s a long, leggy body who simply seems a bit out of place in-line, and can be slow off the line with a tendency to get too tall. But scouts have to understand, and I’m sure they do, he’s very much a work in progress with substantial upside. It’ll just take patience.
– Tough day for Clemson LG John Simpson. Big body who can flash that size and strength but must be a more consistent player. Had back-to-back false snaps during the team period and the coaches – predictably – weren’t pleased. He has a tendency to get overextended and off balanced. Javon Kinlaw made quick work of him on one rep, clubbing him with a strong left hand and shedding the block.
– Lot of scouts and draftniks raving about LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry III, a relatively late add to the roster. Quick first step and ability to reach nose tackles shaded away from him. Strong and sets his hips well in the run game to seal defenders off.
– Bama QB Jalen Hurts might’ve had the throw of the day for the South Squad, floating a playaction pass down the left side over a leaping Antoine Brooks Jr. (Maryland) to hit his receiver in stride for a big play. Nice touch and timing. Hurts reminds me a lot of Deshaun Watson. Maybe a lesser version of him but two sorta-short guys with good athleticism and just a leader/rallying mentality that I think teams will love off the field in the interview room. Guys simply gravitate towards them and that’s what you’re looking for out of the position.
– Colorado QB Steven Montez did make one nice throwing, rolling to his right on a boot, squaring his shoulders, and hitting Texas WR Devin Duvernay in stride along the sideline for the completion. Montez is a big dude at 240 pounds.
– Watched a little bit of Dunvernay prior to Mobile and today at practice and I just haven’t felt that “wow” moment with him like some others have. Hope that feeling changes over the next few days. But right now, there are a lot of receivers (Jefferson, Mims, Jennings, probably Proche) I like more than him.
– Know Daniel is covering the defense but have to add a note on App State LB/hybrid Akeem Davis-Gaither. Love his “see to do.” High IQ guy who flows laterally and can read a run scheme. On one run play, there was an obviously wide split between RG and RT, where the FB ran through. ADG flowed to the hole the moment the RB stepped that way, scraped over RG Logan Stenberg (Kentucky) and filled the hole for the stop. Davis-Gaither a name to keep close tabs on these next two days into Saturday’s game.
– By the way, I didn’t get a good look at the group (heard Kinlaw dominated, Simpson was up and down, Taylor took his lumps) but Tomlin and Colbert were closely watching the OL/DL one-on-one drills during positional group settings. Something to file away, even if I’ll be the first to admit it doesn’t mean a whole lot. All teams get tapes of every aspect of practice to comb through.
South Defense (Daniel’s Report)
– Spotted Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert on the field before practice started. As the practice went on, I would spot Randy Fichtner, Keith Butler and Danny Smith. Seems like the whole crew made the trip to Mobile.
– South team kicks off with the special teams’ unit. Just different sets for the gunners and jammers to align and defend in. A Bengal’s coach yells “finish it” in the direction of Tulsa DB Reggie Robinson who is the gunner on the play.
– First off, got my eyes on the South team defensive line and they are working on the dummies. Initially they are just working on their explosiveness off the snap and then they work their way towards working on their swat moves against the dummies later.
– Tulsa defensive lineman Trevis Gipson looked really quick off the ball in the first drill and he flashed some violent hands when showing off his swat moves and such. Auburn defensive lineman Marlon Davidson also earned some praise. One Bengals’ coach yelled out “I see you big dog” after an impressive rep working his way through the dummies.
– Mississippi defensive lineman Josiah Coatney also earned some praise from the Bengal’s coaching staff. Penn State defensive lineman Robert Windsor slipped around the last dummy on one rep, with the Bengals’ coaching staff barking at him to get up and finish, which he did with a lot of effort.
– Bengals’ staff was putting a lot of emphasis on finishing each and every drill for the defensive lineman/ edge rushers. Another Mississippi defensive lineman Benito Jones flashed a very quick and violent rep as he swatted through four dummies before tackling down the last dummy, earning a “There you go Benito!” from the Bengals’ staff.
– Next drill the Bengals’ staff put the defensive linemen through had an emphasis on the linemen working on an inside counter move while keeping their hands tight. Thought that Florida pass rusher Jabari Zuniga did really well in this drill while Davidson was reminded to get low on one rep.
– At this point, the linebackers and defensive backs were walking through their depths and drops when the whistle rang for one on ones. “Time to eat” someone proclaimed and boy, were they right.
– Biggest winners in my books from the WR-CB one on ones were Texas WR Collin Johnson and Pittsburgh CB Dane Jackson. Jackson had a brief interaction with Tomlin shortly before practice started as well.
– Johnson showed a good deal of physicality and quickness right from the start. His first rep came against Reggie Robinson and he ran a strong route with a little subtle push off at the top of the curl for the catch.
– The Texas receiver really flashed some sudden footwork and quickness. He won with impressive footwork to get the inside release he desired and he was simply too much to account for on most reps.
– The Pitt cornerback also showed some impressive physicality as he was glued to the hips of most receivers and had a good amount of closing speed to record some impressive pass breakups. I got three pass breakups by Jackson with the only two reps he lost coming at the hands of Johnson.
– One cornerback who did not have the day that he would have liked was Georgia Southern cornerback Kindle Vildor. The small school cornerback was beaten off the line of scrimmage on his first rep by Texas WR Devin Duvernay but the pass was overthrown. He then recorded a pass break up on a slant but struggled after that.
– On one rep he was beat over the top and was told that he was too early by the Bengal’s coaching staff. On the next play, he was beaten inside and got coached up on the sideline. On another rep he was beat by Florida receiver Van Jefferson, who also had a very good day as he flashed the ability to separate consistently.
– Moving on to the 7 vs 7 drill next.
– Jefferson continued to shine here, winning two reps, one a slant and the other an out route on Robinson. Really doing a good job of making some noise in a deep receiver group.
– Oklahoma State cornerback A.J. Green had a great diving pass break up over the middle at one point and Kindle redeemed himself with an interception on the following play. “Take it to the house” could be heard after Kindle’s interception.
– Dane Jackson also played as the slot cornerback which is also interesting. He really stole the show on the first day of practice. Closed on the ball quickly and his fearlessness when lining up against Collin Johnson was something that I loved to see.
– Oregon QB Justin Herbert also stood out and he really made some big-time throws. Had a nice deep ball down at one point. When he checked in at 6’6, one scout let out an audible “Wow” and wow was the right word to describe his day.
– Funny moment after Herbert’s deep ball as the Bengals staff shouted “You guys can get excited, it’s okay, it’s football.” Just shows the first day tension.
– Also noticed that South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson positioning his teammates and pointing out where to line up on one rep while linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither was very vocal in the huddle. Heard a lot of good things about Davis-Gaither and he really backed up those positives.
– Last but not least, some 11 on 11 notes for the South team.
– Penn State linebacker Cam Brown took a bad angle to the ball carrier on one rep and it was costly. On the flip side, Davis-Gaither shined again as he made a great and quick read, beating his blocker across the line of scrimmage into the backfield.
– Cornerback Darnay Holmes also had a very aggressive pass break up down the right sideline and was very hyped up about it.
– Florida pass rusher Jon Greenard showed an explosive first step off the line of scrimmage. He has good burst and along with Zuniga, Florida has two pass rushers worth monitoring closely.
– South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson showed excellent pursuit to the running back on a screen pass and sniffed it out immediately.
– One play which stuck out when watching the All-22 footage and kudos to Alex Kozora for pointing it out was made once again by Davis-Gaither. The linebacker noticed the wide split between the right guard and right tackle and instantly keyed in on a run to that direction. Davis-Gaither is just a great player, not just athletically either but also mentally.
– And lastly, Jefferson continued to distance himself from the wide receiver pack with some great route running in the 11v11 drills.
– Coached by Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions.
North Offense (Alex’s Report)
– Longer practice for the Lions though to be fair, they didn’t have to get off the field for another team the way the Bengals did. So they could afford to stretch things out a bit…and I mean that literally. Patricia made sure everyone limbered up with a long stretch session and plenty of special teams sessions, channeling his inner Bill Belichick. But Detroit did get in two team sessions which helped in the evaluation.
– Again, weigh-in impressions.
Baylor’s JaMycal Hasty (RB) isn’t a big dude in height (5’8) but he’s definitely rocked up. WR and Baylor teammate Denzel Mims called him the toughest player he’s ever been around. Wake Forest DB Essang Bassey is cut from a similar cloth.
– Senior Bowl Director Jim Nagy made the comparison Monday and physically, it’s apt. UConn OT Matt Peart looks like the second coming of D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Here’s how they stack up.
6’6 312 pounds
35 1/2 inch arms
6’6/4 310 pounds
35 1/8 inch arms
– Michigan’s Josh Uche did come in a bit lighter than the 250 he’s listed on the team website. 241.
– Whatever Nebraska OL Darrion Daniels’ goal weight was, he hit. As they read off his “322” to the crowd, Daniels smiled and while walking off, flexed to some of his teammates as if to say “I knew I’d get my weight where I needed it to be.”
– Sounded like the Steelers liked the look and game of Notre Dame DB Jalen Elliott. This safety picked off six passes the last two years. Pittsburgh’s no stranger to the ND Pro Day so they’ve probably gotten to know him – and certainly the coaching staff – in recent years.
– Some notable safeties not participating due to injury. Texas’ Brandon Jones and Cal’s Ashtyn Davis. Davis was in attendance to meet with teams and the media. Jones, to my knowledge, pulled out of the game entirely to rehab. Bummed they couldn’t compete this week.
– Like the burst and change of direction from Texas A&M WR Quartney Davis though he, like the South teams, had some early drops in “on air” drills. Warming up the gloves the way NASCAR has to warm up tires.
– Not a particularly notable day for the tight ends but I’ll tell you what, Michigan’s Sean McKeon just catches everything thrown his way. Pretty much the rest of his group dropped at least a pass – Brycen Hopkins, Adam Trautman, all the big names we’ve hyped this week – and here’s McKeon catching cleanly, outside his frame, and adjusting to the ball from all angles, including one thrown near his shoelaces early in practice. Limited athlete but good blocker and reliable pair of hands.
– Again, Daniel will talk more about the defense but Michigan DE/LB Josh Uche looked strong in coverage. Which isn’t a surprise. He did that a ton under Don Brown. Comfortable and fluid dropping backwards and I like him in an off-ball role in the NFL, serving as a situational/third down pass rusher.
– Denzel Mims, as I expected, mixed it up and was one of the most physical players in the WR/DB stalk blocks. His tape is littered with key blocks and he told me he takes pride in that element of his game.
– Sure-handed James Proche made a nice snag high over his head on a seven route later in practice.
– At RB, Hasty struggled with bull rushes in the backs v backer. Pancaked by Wyoming’s Logan Wilson on one noteworthy, ugly rep.
In drills, TCU’s Darius Anderson showed good vision and feet on one inside zone run, bending the run back after reading the hard flow of the front seven to the frontside of the play. Went for a big gain.
– Too cliche to call Temple’s Matt Hennessy Temple Tough? Not the biggest (6’4 302), not the most athletic, but proper hand placement and punch, works angles well, and recovers when initially beat off the line of scrimmage. Excellent grip strength and finish. A center, he should be on the Steelers’ short list.
North Defense (Daniels’ Report)
– The Lions staff spent a lot of time focusing on warming up and stretching which made sense considering that it was freezing down in Mobile on Tuesday.
– Starting off with the defensive line again, the Lions’ staff starts off with drills focusing on playing with a proper pad level. Lions’ staff is very vocal which is a pleasant treat.
“Set the edge firm but don’t jump out”, someone on the Lions’ staff tells North Carolina State defensive lineman Larrell Murchison. On his next time up, Murchison did exactly that and earned approval from the staff.
– One sight that caught my eye was Utah defensive lineman Leki Fotu. Though he was not participating due to a flagged medical, Fotu was just as involved with the defensive linemen as anyone. He helped out with the drills, moving the dummies for the coaches and was right there soaking up everything. Also caught Fotu having a conversation with Tomlin and later during the team drills, he was motioning calls or perhaps substitutions to his teammates. Think that speaks volumes to the character that Fotu brings to the table.
– At this point, another member of the Lions’ staff is preaching how important it is to know the down and distance and where the sticks are. Though he is also out with a medical issue, Cal safety Ashtyn Davis is still out there listening and talking to various personnel.
– Back to the linebackers and Tomlin seems to have made his way over. He is watching the North team pass rushers very closely. The outside linebackers are working on stepping and punching, with a lot of emphasis on stepping into the bag. Michigan State edge Kenny Willekes and Miami’s Trevon Hill stood out the most in this drill.
– The inside linebackers are now working on shedding blocks. Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun got coached up after one rep while Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison and Utah linebacker Bernard Francis did a very good job in this department.
– Next the linebackers were working on dropping into coverage and their hands. They would drop into their spots and a staff member would fire a football unexpectedly at a random linebacker. All linebackers did very well in this regard. Out of 11 reps that I accounted for, all 11 were intercepted with the only double catch coming from Michigan linebacker Josh Uche.
– Next were the one on one drills and Tomlin remained around to watch the interior defensive linemen and pass rushers get to work.
– Murchison got stuffed on one rep as his pad level was just way too high. Hill showed great ability around the bend. Though no one commanded more attention than North Carolina defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge. Lions’ staff member yelled “Y’all see that sh*t” after one of his reps.
– Strowbridge really impressed in the one on one drills. He won one rep by putting Justin Herron on the ground, another rep with a nice swim move and he showed a good amount of quickness on another rep.
– Oklahoma defensive end Neville Gallimore also really impressed. Even from just watching him hit the pads, you can tell that there is something different about him from the rest of the pack. Think he could be in store for a huge week.
– The North’s offensive line was fairly impressive though and they handled the defensive line’s moves really well. Nebraska defensive lineman Darrion Daniels got stood up one on rep.
– Eventually, the interior defensive line would get back to working against the dummies and Tomlin had a front row seat to this. Most ironic part of the day had to be when a punt fell a few feet from Tomlin as he was standing on the field as the special teams’ unit was practicing their punts.
– Two major takeaways from watching the defensive line – Gallimore is one strong dude with very violent hands and Strowbridge is a lot quicker than he looks. He is another player capable of generating pressure in a variety of ways.
– Just a few notes from the 11 on 11 portion of practice.
– Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia had a good pass break up while Jordan Love threw one very ugly pass in the dirt. Safety Alohi Gilman dropped an easy interception over the middle and came yelling off the field. He knew that one got away from him. Also, I know I mentioned him a lot but also could not help but notice Strawbridge’s motor on the field.
– And finally, some brief points from the All-22 portion of Tuesday’s practiced released later that night.
– Malik Harrison and Logan Wilson both had some great reps in the backs on backers drill. They blew right through the running backs assigned to them.
– Gallimore was very quick off the snap and was able to consistently get inside penetration. Murchison ended on a positive note with great inside penetration on one rep. Syracuse defensive lineman Alton Robinson also made a very smart play when he purposely took out a tight end on a screen pass which blew up the whole play.
– Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson had a nice pass breakup on one of the final plays of Tuesday’s practice. Defense was in cover three and Jackson did a nice job getting in position to attack the ball at the point of attack. He also clocked in as one of the faster players on Tuesday.
Our TL;DR version for you guys.
– South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw is probably the most talented player in Mobile. Top 15 pick, at least.
– Nice day for WR Van Jefferson. Thought he was the best wideout of either group.
– Even though I was watching the offense, CB Darnay Holmes and LB Akeen Davis-Gaither jumped off the page at me. Pitt CB Dane Jackson, who I didn’t mention earlier, had a very good day. Three breakups in WR/DB drills.
– Tight ends pretty quiet out of the gate, except for Sean McKeon’s trusty mitts.
– I wonder what number Matt Hennessey will wear when the Steelers draft him with their third round comp pick…
– Pitt CB Dane Jackson had himself quite the day
– Jason Strowbridge and Neville Gallimore were easily the most impressive interior DL
– CB Kindle Vildor did not have the day he hoped for, will need to bounce back