The college all-star game circuit came to a close on Saturday with the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. While fans keep an eye on the events happening at the Super Bowl in Miami, the Eagles and the 29 other teams not playing this Sunday are in the thick of their offseason planning. The next major event on the NFL calendar is the NFL Scouting Combine starting February 23, which will be followed closely by free agency on March 18.
As the draft comes more and more into focus, Chris McPherson and Fran Duffy present the players from the Senior Bowl who you will be hearing a lot more about in the weeks to come.
1. Who shined in Mobile?
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was not only named the Practice Player of the Week by the Senior Bowl staff, but was the game's MVP throwing for 83 yards and a touchdown, although his South team eventually lost 34-17.
Other standouts from the game: Quarterback Anthony Gordon threw for two touchdowns to lead the North. Running back Joshua Kelley gained 105 yards on the ground. Running back Darius Anderson had a 75-yard touchdown reception. The North had eight sacks in the game, paced by defensive ends Kenny Willekes, Alton Robinson, and Bradlee Anae, who had two apiece.
Below is who Fran Duffy and Chris McPherson thought was the best player at each position during the week of Senior Bowl practices, followed by who the players selected. Since Herbert was named the overall Practice Player of the Week, he was not eligible to be honored by the players.
|Fran's||C-Mac's||North Team||South Team|
|Quarterback||Justin Herbert||Justin Herbert||Jordan Love||Jalen Hurts|
|Running Back||Darius Anderson||Josh Kelley||Josh Kelley||Lamical Perine|
|Wide Receiver||K.J. Hill||Denzel Mims||K.J. Hill||Van Jefferson|
|Tight End||Harrison Bryant||Harrison Bryant||Brycen Hopkins||Jared Pinkney|
|Offensive Line||C Matt Hennessy||OL Lloyd Cushenberry||T Josh Jones||OL Lloyd Cushenberry|
|Edge Rusher||DE Jason Strowbridge||DE Bradlee Anae|
|Defensive Tackle/Lineman||DT Javon Kinlaw||DT Javon Kinlaw||DT DaVon Hamilton||DT Javon Kinlaw|
|Linebacker||LB Malik Harrison||LB Evan Weaver||LB Francis Bernard||LB Akeem Davis-Gaither|
|Cornerback/Defensive Back||CB Troy Pride||CB Troy Pride||S Jalen Elliott||CB Dane Jackson|
|Safety||S Kyle Dugger||S Kyle Dugger|
|Specialist||K Tyler Bass||LS Blake Ferguson|
2. Rocky resonates with RB Joshua Kelley
Before he transferred to UCLA, running back Joshua Kelley offered an interesting footnote at the end of his UC-Davis bio. It stated that Kelley said he would be the perfect lead for Rocky.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that he was asked about that by the Eagles' media contingent at the Senior Bowl.
Kelley identified with Rocky Balboa because he sees himself as an underdog as well. He didn't have a scholarship when he left UC-Davis for UCLA. He wasn't highly recruited to begin with coming out of Eastside (California) High School.
"It was his underdog mentality and the fact that he was really overlooked a lot, whether it was people in his neighborhood or even boxer Apollo Creed," Kelley said. "I just thought it was amazing how his work ethic, his relentlessness, and his toughness ... I resonated with that."
Kelley first saw the movie as a 13-year-old in eighth grade and was inspired to work out immediately after watching it. He's never been to Philadelphia to see the Rocky statue up close or run the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In his two years at UCLA, Kelley amassed 2,303 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns in 22 games. He became just the eighth running back in school history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Last week in Mobile, he wanted to showcase his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He rushed for a game-high 105 yards in the game on Saturday.
3. Which offensive lineman does Lane Johnson follow on Twitter?
Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones remembers sitting around with his Cougars teammates when he got a notification on his phone. It was Twitter alerting him that he had a new follower: Eagles All-Pro tackle Lane Johnson.
Johnson messaged Jones and said that he'd been watching him and was a fan of his game. The feeling is mutual, as Johnson is Jones' favorite player. Jones loves Johnson's story from junior college quarterback to walk-on at Oklahoma to now a three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle.
"He's a true technician of the game," Jones said. "He attacks the game with a different mindset. He goes out there every time and he's dominant. He goes against the best guys. He doesn't shy away. He wants the best guy on his side."
A four-year starter for the Cougars, Jones was named the Practice Player of the Week for the North offensive line by the defensive linemen he faced in Mobile.
4. Temple's Matt Hennessy's secret weapon
During his redshirt freshman season, Temple center Matt Hennessy was looking for a way to maximize his mobility. Similar to the All-Pro NFL center who also plays his home games at Lincoln Financial Field, 6-3, 295-pound Jason Kelce, Hennessy is 6-4, 302 pounds and likes to get on the move. With the weather getting colder, Hennessy enlisted the help of a hot yoga studio. When he first started attending classes, he was the only male in the room. Forget the fact that he's a big football player. But he said the class was incredibly welcoming and it proved to be a huge asset in his development.
"It definitely helped improve my mobility as well as my strength through full ranges of motion as well as balance," Hennessy said. "Those are traits that I was able to develop and that helped me as I physically developed. When I was a smaller guy, that was really how I got by."
In 2018, Hennessy earned a single-digit jersey number, given to the toughest players on the team. According to Pro Football Focus, Hennessy had the lowest rate of pressures allowed (0.6 percent) in the regular season among all FBS centers, allowing zero sacks and just two pressures in 329 pass blocks that season. He followed that up by earning midseason All-America honors from both PFF and The Associated Press.
Hennessy said it was a dream to represent Temple at the Senior Bowl, seeing pictures of former teammate cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, who was a standout during last year's Senior Bowl and became a second-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts. A native of Bardonia, New York, Hennessy is looking to not only follow in Ya-Sin's footsteps, but in his brother's as well. Thomas Hennessy is the long snapper for the New York Jets. North Carolina defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge called Hennessy the toughest player he faced in Mobile. The next challenge is if Hennessy can tear up the turf at next month's NFL Scouting Combine.
5. How Herman Edwards won over the players at Arizona State
Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin freely admits that he was skeptical.
Following the 2017 regular season, the Sun Devils hired Eagles Hall of Fame cornerback Herman Edwards to be their new head coach. Edwards was never a head coach at the collegiate level and worked as a TV analyst for eight years. The students at Arizona State knew Edwards for his energetic TV personality and the video clip of him screaming during a postgame press conference, "You play to win the game!"
"All you heard was, 'This is a terrible hire. He's an old man. He's not gonna know how to work with young kids.' I kind of got scared," Benjamin said. "He comes from a military background. I thought he was going to be strict, this NFL guy, but it turns out he's the opposite way."
Benjamin recalled the first team meeting where Edwards stated that he was going to let the players be themselves.
"He's a guy who really doesn't yell much. He's a guy who sets expectations and you know he's serious. Everyone abides and respects those expectations and no one really crosses the lines and goes above and beyond those boundaries," Benjamin said.
Edwards constructed a coaching staff that includes former NFL players Kevin Mawae and Antonio Pierce and former head coach Marvin Lewis.
"I think the coaching staff that he put together really kind of helped set the foundation and made the transition easier for seniors that are departing, going to the next level what they can expect from those coaches," Benjamin said. "Everything we did was pro-like. He treated us like professionals and he expected us to be professionals."
The Sun Devils finished the 2019 season 8-5 with a win in the Sun Bowl over Florida State. Benjamin gained at least 1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 1,083 yards on the ground, 347 receiving, and 12 total touchdowns in 2019.
6. Learning how to deal with success
LSU's Stephen Sullivan looked to set the tone early. The wide receiver to tight end convert sported a bright yellow Friday the 13th hoodie at Media Day, looking for continued success after being part of one of the most prolific offenses in college football history.
"What we did was special and a lot of offenses, a lot of teams, couldn't do what we did. We got the job done," Sullivan said of the National Champions. "We left out on top, but making the adjustment, jumping right into it (the pre-draft process), it's not a problem for me.
"I grew up kind of rough, so I'll have no problem staying humble with anything that I do," added Sullivan, who grew up in Donaldsonville, Louisiana where, according to Wikipedia, about 1/3 of all families are below the poverty line. "I don't brag about success. I don't brag about anything of that nature. I just try to stay humble and be the best person I can be."
The 6-5, 254-pound Sullivan wasn't used much as a pass catcher. His best season was in 2018 when he had 23 receptions for 363 yards and two touchdowns. Very similar to the stats that former Tigers teammate Foster Moreau posted that same year. Moreau went to the Senior Bowl, showed his ability to make plays, and was drafted in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders. Moreau had 21 receptions and five touchdowns as a rookie.
Moreau spoke with Sullivan prior to the Senior Bowl about what to expect. Sullivan said that the biggest thing is that he wanted to showcase his willingness to block in the run game.
The Tigers entered the 2019 season projected to be one of the top teams in the nation, but not in the mix for the championship. Sullivan said the hire of Joe Brady as the passing game coordinator combined with Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow's talent took the offense to unprecedented heights.
"I knew he was good. I knew right from the jump that he was a tough guy," Sullivan said of Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State in 2018. "As soon as he came in, he went straight to work. He came in from Ohio with three quarterbacks that were already here. He just came in, ready to compete. I felt like he already was that guy. But now he's THAT guy."
7. Eighty pounds later, Ben Bartch is a legit NFL prospect
Every morning, at 5 a.m., Saint John's offensive tackle Ben Bartch made his smoothie concoction that he readily admits was so gross that many times he just pinched his nose and chugged.
Bartch arrived on the Collegeville, Minnesota campus at a lean 220 pounds. At the Senior Bowl, Bartch was 6-5, 308 pounds. The Dayton, Oregon native was blunt about why he didn't get looks from any FBS programs coming out of high school – he wasn't very big or fast.
"That's all it is. I tried my best to get attention but didn't get any big offers and decided to go to Saint John's and that was a great decision," Bartch said. "In life, you can either accept it, or you can react. That's what you can control. You can't control the circumstance, just how you react, so I was going to a Division III school and I decided to react accordingly and work my tail off."
A second-team Division III All-America selection in 2019, Bartch thought that the NFL was a possibility at the end of his sophomore year. He's spoken with former Senior Bowl standout Ali Marpet, a former second-round pick out of Division III Hobart who signed a lucrative contract extension in 2018. Bartch more than held up his own against the top talent from the Power 5 conferences.
"It's really just noise," Bartch said of the jump in competition. "There are certainly a lot better players and admittedly, these guys are really good players. That's obvious, but I didn't really pay a lot of attention to it."
8. Pride should feel proud of his draft stock following the Senior Bowl
Cornerback Troy Pride was a high school state champion sprinter in South Carolina, winning two titles in the 400m event and capturing the 200m and 100m crowns as well. Pride continued his track career at Notre Dame, while carving out a four-year tenure on the football field. Pride was recognized as one of the preeminent athletes in the country on the Freaks List put together by The Athletic's Bruce Feldman.
In Mobile, Pride showed that he's very much a football player. He flashed all week in one-on-one drills against wide receivers and capped off the week with an interception in the game.
"I would not reach my full potential if it weren't for me working through my technique because God gives you different talents and gifts, but it's the hard work that you put in with that that creates something really special," the 5-11, 193-pound Pride said. "And that's what I'm attempting to do each and every day."
Pride finished his collegiate career with 40 tackles and an interception for the Irish in 2019. The fact that he was on the field was a miracle in and of itself.
In early June, Pride was driving with his parents from the family home in South Carolina back to the South Bend, Indiana campus. The compact car was hit by an RV and flipped into a ditch. Pride escaped unharmed. His father suffered a shoulder injury while his mother had a bruise.
"It was a realization that everything could be taken away at that instance. And at this point, I'm still here. I'm still fighting, so I'm going to keep glorifying the Lord and keep competing," Pride said.
"I'm just blessed to be standing right here in this ambiance, just practicing in Mobile, Alabama. It doesn't matter what the weather is; it's an amazing opportunity to be here. I'm blessed. I thank the Lord for each and everything he's given me. It's just amazing. I've always said I want to compete and to have the opportunity to do so is a blessing."
9. Kobe's influence was felt in Mobile
Even though Kobe Bryant's untimely passing came the day after the Senior Bowl, one player in Mobile explained why he sported the No. 24.
"I always honor Kobe," said Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis on the Move the Sticks podcast with Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks. "The way he goes about his business; the way he attacks things. He thinks about the game deeper than just I'm better than you. There are a lot of fine details. You can tell with Kobe that every decision is calculated when he plays. That's how I try to approach the game."
Lewis met Bryant as the NBA legend spoke to the Crimson Tide before the 2018 season.
"It made me feel like a little kid," said Lewis, who admitted that he turned into a fan.
Lewis took advantage of the opportunity. Sidelined with a torn ACL, Lewis sought Bryant's advice on how to take care of his body. Bryant is one of only two players in NBA history (Dirk Nowitzki) to play at least 20 seasons, all with one team. Bryant is the only guard to play 20 seasons.
10. Scouting reports from the Senior Bowl prospects
Washington center Nick Harris on his toughest matchup during Senior Bowl week: Defensive tackle Davon Hamilton from Ohio State. "Strong guy, physical hands."
Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore on his toughest matchup: Ben Bredeson, Michigan – "He was strong. Played with low pad level. He was consistent and had a strong punch. He gave all-out effort, for sure."
Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia on who during the season gave him the most fits: "I played some good guys like (Michigan wide receiver) Nico Collins, but definitely Michael Pittman (who was at the Senior Bowl). With his size, he also has really good speed. He's really physical. I faced KJ Hamler, but I didn't see him as often in the game, but I definitely saw a lot of Michael Pittman."
Ojemudia adds a draft sleeper from the previous week's Shrine Bowl: "I'll tell you, there's a guy I'm training with right now, the RB from Western Michigan, LeVante Bellamy, he doesn't even have a Combine invite yet! MAC Offensive Player of the Year, led the nation in touchdowns. I met him a couple of weeks ago, but people are still sleeping on him!"
Michigan safety Khaleke Hudson on the leadership of his teammate Ben Bredeson: "He's a two-year captain. You can tell the guys on the offensive side just listen to what he's saying and respect him as a captain."
Evan Weaver on Eno Benjamin: "Eno is good. He's quick. He's fast. Nothing stands out except that he got the best of us early in the game this season."
Utah linebacker Francis Bernard on Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin: "It's weird, you'd hit him in his legs and he's still up somehow. He's so hard to bring down. You need three guys to get down."
Four Utah defensive players were at the Senior Bowl. When polled which teammate they'd bring with them to the NFL, defensive tackle Leki Fotu was the unanimous choice: "Leki Fotu can eat up the blockers and free stuff up for the edge guys," said edge rusher Bradlee Anae.
Who did Fotu select? "I'm bringing John Penisini, my best friend, the chemistry we have. If you watch the tape, the way that we play is pretty similar. The only thing that's different is the way we look. He killed it down at the Shrine Bowl. He's a really talented guy. He's very strong. That's what some people misevaluate when they see him because of his body type, but put someone against him and then you'll see the type of player he is."
Colorado linebacker Davion Taylor on Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert: "We underestimated him a little bit athletically. We knew he could pass but we didn't know he had the speed that he does. He can get to the sideline and pick up a first down. He's accurate. It seems like he doesn't make mistakes. He's not perfect obviously, but he's a perfect kind of player because of all of that."
Eno Benjamin on teammate and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who did not participate in the Senior Bowl due to injury: "They're going to get an explosive guy who can run very good routes and then also burn you with speed. You're also going to get an explosive guy in the return game – punt return, kick return – he's shown that all."