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2021 Senior Bowl: Recapping Day 1 of practice

Lead Draft Analyst Jacob Infante shares his thoughts from watching Tuesday’s Senior Bowl practice in Mobile.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Practices for the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl kicked off today, and it proved to be an entertaining day of action from start to finish.

It was an exciting feeling being down at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, and watching the drills proved to be as exciting as anticipated. With the Bears’ offseason underway, they would be wise to pay close attention to this year’s group of Senior Bowl prospects.

Tuesday marked the first day of practices leading up to Saturday’s game. Here are some of the key takeaways from today’s action.

Senior Bowl Day 1 Notes

The quarterbacks were generally good, but not great. With Kyle Trask being unable to participate with an ankle injury, the top-end value in the group diminished, but there is some Day 2-to-3 talent to be had in this group.

Mac Jones was the consensus top quarterback prospect to head into Mobile, and while the Heisman finalist looked solid, he didn’t do a whole lot to improve his stock. He showed good ball placement on shorter throws, but his velocity looked relatively average, and he had some instances of miscommunication on routes with his receivers.

Of the other quarterbacks to partake in drills, Jamie Newman arguably looked the most impressive. Having opted out of the 2020 season, the Wake Forest-turned-Georgia transfer showcased very nice velocity behind his throws and was able to hit his receivers in stride more often than not. Not playing this year made the Senior Bowl incredibly important for Newman, and he’s certainly off to a good start with his performance on Tuesday.

The Bears find themselves with needs along the offensive line, and with plenty of hype surrounding this year’s Senior Bowl class of linemen, it was exciting to watch this group go to work.

Among the biggest winners was East Carolina’s D’Ante Smith. He measured in at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, which was one inch and 16 pounds bigger than he was listed in college. He looked powerful at the point of attack in one-on-one drills, and he also showcased very good agility in space.

Other notable offensive linemen who played well include Western Michigan’s Jaylon Moore and Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks. The former looked powerful and mobile at the point of attack as a tackle, while the latter showcased a nasty edge as a guard. Both are currently being projected as Day 3 selections.

One of the most entertaining aspects of the Senior Bowl is the one-on-one drills that takes place between wide receivers and defensive backs. The receivers seemed to get more of the edge this year, as several wide-outs put on incredible performances.

The first half of practice saw Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge tear it up on a regular basis. Known as one of the more explosive receivers in the 2021 class, Eskridge was able to consistently create separation in one-on-one drills, using his explosiveness and a refined arsenal of releases to make plays. I have him as an early Day 3 prospect on my board at the moment, but with more strong practices like the one he had on Tuesday, he could very easily be drafted on Day 2.

Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt was another big winner, showing off incredible hands and body control for a 6-foot-2, 215-pounder who didn’t play at all in 2020. Tylan Wallace out of Oklahoma State was another standout who looked shifty in his routes and displayed his strong hands that were apparent on tape.

In the second part of practice, UAB’s Austin Watkins and South Carolina’s Shi Smith were the two biggest winners I noticed. Watkins measured at 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, and while that was two inches shorter than he was listed in college, he made up for an underwhelming measurement with a strong day of drills. He looked explosive coming out of his breaks and showcased route-running refinement to get open. Smith was able to get open constantly, and he had one of, if not the best catch of the day, extending fully on a Jamie Newman deep ball and coming down with the difficult grab.

That’s not to say there weren’t any strong defensive back performances, though. Thomas Graham Jr. from Oregon battled hard in one-on-ones and looked very good in terms of his route-recognition and fluidity. He was sticky in coverage on nearly every rep and held his own against quality competition. Michigan’s Ambry Thomas was another cornerback who looked pretty solid in drills.

As for safeties, Hamsah Nasirildeen from Florida State was the biggest standout, no pun intended. Not only did he measure in at 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, but he looked incredibly fluid and proved that he has the fluidity to play in single-high shells as the centerfielder, as well as perform reliably in the box. Missouri’s Tyree Gillespie also looked fluid in drills and was able to hold his own when asked to charge closer towards the line of scrimmage.

This year’s Senior Bowl has a loaded group of defenders up front, and they certainly came to play on Tuesday. UAB’s Jordan Smith was a bigger winner of the day, measuring in at 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds while looking explosive and slippery in drills. Wyatt Hubert from Kansas State was quick, flexible, and powerful in his jabs, while Carlos Basham Jr. out of Wake Forest had arguably the strongest hands in the class in bag drills, delivering a strong pop that was audible throughout the stadium. Quincy Roche from Miami (FL) also stood out with his well-rounded skill-set, as he was able to shed blocks with ease using both power and quickness off the snap.

Along the interior, Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike proved to be dominant at the point of attack. He was a powerful forced to be reckoned with in one-on-one drills, and he required double-team blocks often in scrimmages. Seen as a fringe Day 2 prospect earlier in the draft process, he could be playing himself into high Day 2 territory with some more strong practices. Florida State’s Marvin Wilson looked powerful at the point of attack, too, while Osa Odighizuwa from UCLA proved explosive off the snap and was a handful for opposing blockers in one-on-ones.

Tuesday was an entertaining start to practices, in more ways than one. Though it appeared that practices would initially be closed off to the media due to inclement weather, said weather didn’t end up affecting practice until the very end, and I, for one, am glad to have been able to watch it live. These next few days should shape up to be a fun week.