MOBILE, Ala. — Monday was the first day of Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., where hordes of NFL scouts and team officials come to evaluate two rosters of potential draft picks.
The last time I was in Mobile, I was a wide-eyed, eager-to-prove-I-could-hang young buck out of Stanford. Although I played running back my first two seasons at Stanford and linebacker in my junior and senior campaigns, I was a mere 6-feet and weighed 211 pounds dripping wet. I had a chip on my shoulder and a point to prove — that I belonged with the big boys.
As I spent Monday watching players and chatting with various NFL coaches and officials, I reminisced about my days of trying to impress coaches, scouts and GMs because that was one of the themes of the first day of workouts.
For every recognizable name in attendance, there was a player who only die-hard college football fans would know who made a positive first-day impression in professional circles. These are underdogs who will have to go above and beyond to distinguish themselves from the 2014 draft prospects who are bigger, faster and stronger, and that starts at the Senior Bowl.
Here are three such guys who made ripples among the NFL evaluators in their first showing in Mobile.
Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
I was chatting with Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who calls the shots at one of the most storied brands in all of football, while watching the 1-on-1 drills and asked which of the receivers had grabbed the attention of this gridiron guru.
Oregon’s Josh Huff, UCLA’s Shaq Evans and Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis all looked smooth in this particular session of drills, but it was the 5-foot-10, 187-pound Herron, a speedy player from a lesser-known school, by whom Colbert was most impressed.
If you blinked you would miss Herron’s release off the line, as he repeatedly got great releases when confronted with press coverage. He showed tremendous speed as his routes progressed down the field, pulling away from defenders on more than one occasion.
In the world of analyzing talent, you’ll often hear people say that someone “jumps off the screen.” This kid was quick as a cat and jumps out at you in the three-dimensional realm, too. Here’s some film from Herron’s junior season if you’re not familiar:
Billy Turner, OT, North Dakota State
The offensive line drills are always fun to watch. I’m always impressed at how well those big fellas do cone drills, showing off their agility and athleticism.
Nevada’s Joel Bitonio was quite impressive in every drill, particularly during one in which the players had to rapidly shuffle to a specific cone pointed out by a coach while trying to stay low and keep the bar parallel to the ground. Oklahoma’s Gabe Ikard, Florida State’s Bryan Stork and the towering Morgan Moses from Virginia also impressed.
But it was Turner, the FCS player, who was grabbing a lot of attention. He has good size at 6-5 and 310 pounds, and a long-time NFL offensive line coach with whom I was talking said, “He has quick feet and good knee bend — all the way to 90 degrees — and he’s able to keep his chest upright while bending.”
That coach said Turner, who helped the Bison win three straight FCS championships, was the one lineman in the group who had impressed him the most on the first day of drills. Here’s video of Turner going against Kansas State in 2013:
Michael Campanaro, WR, Wake Forest
Campanaro (5-11, 190) is one of the best pure slot receivers in this year’s draft class and set the all-time Demon Deacons receptions record with 229 grabs. He knows how to get open and wreak havoc on defenses.
He ran sharp, crisp routes and looked incredibly quick coming out of his breaks on the first day in Mobile. He’s the type of receiver who will present a big challenge for nickel backs in the NFL and will make most safeties who have to cover him in the slot look silly.
I was talking with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney as we watched 1-on-1 drills, and he said he was so glad his Tigers would not have to see him anymore. Chad Morris, Clemson’s offensive coordinator, smiled in agreement and exhaustedly proclaimed, “He’s everywhere.”
Campanaro broke his collar bone during his senior season at Wake Forest and was fully cleared just a couple weeks ago, which makes his first workout even more impressive. We’ll continue to follow Campanaro in practices and check in with NFL officials on him, but he’s a name to file away for the later rounds as someone who could provide great value in the draft.