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Ella on the Scene: DeVonta Smith's lasting impact

TCU's Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson
TCU's Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson

INDIANAPOLIS – We are full-steam ahead here in Indianapolis as the defensive linemen and linebackers kicked off the workout portion of the week's festivities on Thursday night. It was an exciting night with some eye-popping performances. Day 4 is set to be another busy one.

7 AM – Fran and I ate an early breakfast. Quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends began speaking at 8 AM, so we had to get to the Indiana Convention Center quickly.

8 AM – What a circus! Alabama quarterback Bryce Young took podium No. 1, and it was mayhem. Media packed the area around his stand and he fielded a ton of questions. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud followed him at 8:20 AM. Both quarterbacks exemplified poise and humility – two impressive prospects who will draw attention throughout the draft process.

Nebraska wide receiver Trey Palmer was high school rivals with Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Both growing up in Louisiana, Smith attended Amite Magnet High School while Palmer was a student at Trentwood High School.

Palmer's face lit up speaking about Smith, saying Smith's high school recruitment, followed by his successful college and NFL careers really motivates him. Growing up in the same small town and "making it" has served nothing but inspiration for the young receiver.

Cincinnati tight end Josh Whyle joined a college position group with a successful history, which includes former Eagles tight end Brent Celek.

"It really made me feel like, 'Oh, I can do this,'" Whyle reflected. "We have a sign up in our room that says: 'Through these halls walk the best tight ends in the country,' and that's just kind of a belief, and that's just kind of how I tried to go around the building for my five years there. And just continue it on for the younger guys so they feel the same way."

In 2022, Whyle broke Celek's UC record for most career touchdown receptions by a tight end (15). He initially didn't know he broke the record, but said it was a "pretty cool" accomplishment.

Whyle went on to share that he finally got to meet Celek this week at the Combine. His eyes got a bit bigger and his smile was wider thinking back to the moment.

The parallels don't stop there as Whyle and Celek both attended the same high school, La Salle High School in Cincinnati. Whyle noted that he was not only familiar with Celek and his success, but there is a banner of Celek hanging in their high school that he would see during his teenage years.

Other players who impressed me in their media sessions, based on the ones I attended, were WR Quentin Johnston (TCU), TE Michael Mayer (Notre Dame), and WR Tank (Nathaniel) Dell (Houston).

Dell certainly had one of the funnier moments when he was asked about his nickname Tank. He shared that it was a nickname his mom gave him when he was a baby because his head was so big. He went on to say that it now reflects his style of play – "I play bigger than what I look like for sure." He won't take official Combine measurements until Saturday morning, but he is listed on Houston's website as 5-foot-10.

In 2022, Dell led all of college football in receiving yards and touchdowns, and in April will have a chance to be the first Houston wide receiver selected in the first two days of the draft in 15 years.

During his media session, Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt was asked what he thinks his NFL comparison is. Hyatt mentioned DeVonta Smith because of his long arms and his ability to catch everything with his hands. "He's dynamic, explosive; that's what I try to be," Hyatt said. "And not only that, he balled out in the SEC, and obviously what he's doing with the league is something I want to do as well."

Hyatt was wildly successful against Smith's Crimson Tide this season when the Volunteers beat Alabama for the first time in 15 years – Hyatt scored five touchdowns that night.

1 PM – Lunchtime. Fran and I are undefeated in lunch selections this week. Important. Just after our meal, it was back to Lucas Oil Stadium.

3 PM – Defensive backs took the field for workouts. The players were split into two groups: cornerbacks and safeties.

Cornerbacks were up first. This group was flying in the 40-yard dash. Michigan's D.J. Turner clocked the fastest unofficial time of 4.27. Here are some of the noteworthy performers in alphabetical order:

Brian Branch (Alabama), Christian Gonzalez (Oregon), Clark Phillips III (Utah), Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (TCU)

Hodges-Tomlinson, nephew of NFL legend LaDainian Tomlinson, was my winner of the night. Undersized at 5-foot-8, he was a bowling ball shot out of a cannon. He was unbelievably polished and sharp with burst, speed, and strength.

Branch looked like an experienced pro on the field tonight as Alabama players usually do. He played safety in Tuscaloosa but worked out with the cornerbacks which showed his versatility. He was smooth, displayed a ton of balance, body control, and flexible hips. His gauntlet drill was perhaps the most impressive exercise I saw all night – I called it "a work of art" on the Journey to the Draft podcast. He was catching balls like an elite receiver.

Next, the safeties took the field. This workout had a bit of a different feel in that there were quite a few players with very solid performances that gradually built to success with each passing exercise. Here are some of the noteworthy performers in alphabetical order:

Jordan Battle (Alabama), Sydney Brown (Illinois), Chamarri Conner (Virginia Tech), DeMarco Hellams (Alabama), Brandon Hill (Pittsburgh), Jordan Howden (Minnesota), Antonio Johnson (Texas A&M), Jartavius Martin (Illinois), Kaevon Merriweather (Iowa), Gervarrius Owens (Houston), Jammie Robinson (Florida State)

Martin had an outstanding 44-inch vertical jump. In his career at Illinois, he played a variety of roles in the secondary, which is a testament to his versatility. He was clean, smooth, athletic, and an excellent tracker of the football. He had control of his acceleration, good change in direction, and impressive footwork.

Illinois' secondary is well represented at the combine this year and their most notable player, cornerback Devon Witherspoon, didn't participate in the on-field workout. I was looking forward to seeing what he could do.

That's a wrap on the defensive side of the ball for the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Saturday will be another big one: quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends take the field. We'll talk with offensive linemen and running backs in the morning. Be sure to tune into the Journey to the Draft podcast every day as we have you covered from Indianapolis.

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