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2021 Senior Bowl recap: QBs falter, DL dominate

With this year’s Senior Bowl in the books, Lead Draft Analyst Jacob Infante gives his final thoughts on Saturday’s action.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

After an exciting week of practices, interviews, and meetings, the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl has come to an end.

The National team, coached by the Miami Dolphins, came away with a 27-24 victory over the American team, who was coached by the Carolina Panthers. Both NFL teams had a first-hand look at some of the top 2021 NFL Draft prospects, and after seeing what many of them could do all week, both teams put forth quality play.

This week was a fun one from both a football perspective and a personal perspective. As I sit in my hotel in Mobile for the last night of my stay, eager to get deep into some Bears draft coverage in the coming weeks and months, here are my takeaways from this year’s Senior Bowl action.

Senior Bowl notes

All told, this year’s group of Senior Bowl quarterbacks didn’t do a whole lot to boost their draft stock.

The lone exception would be Kellen Mond from Texas A&M, who was named the game’s MVP. He went 13-for-25 with 173 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for the American team. Though his completion percentage isn’t pretty, some of the throws he made on Saturday were. He showcased above-average velocity behind his passes, as well as the touch and accuracy needed to hit receivers in stride and, on occasion, thread the needle to make tough throws in tight windows. If any quarterback came away a winner from the game, it was Mond.

The rest of the group was generally so-so. Arkansas’ Feleipe Franks started off the game poorly, going 4-for-9 for 56 yards in the first half and throwing multiple balls into the dirt. He was able to pick up steam in the fourth quarter, however, finishing the game 9-for-16 with 122 yards and a touchdown for the victorious National team. His accuracy was inconsistent, but when he was on his game, he showcased a strong arm and the ability to hit receivers with good placement in contested situations.

Jamie Newman from Wake Forest had one of the better stat-lines of the day, going 10-for-14 with 118 yards, a touchdown and an interception for the American team. Perhaps a more telling statistic is the four sacks he took under center on Saturday. He had some nice plays, to be sure, but his pocket presence wasn’t ideal, and his accuracy proved to be somewhat inconsistent. Newman had a strong Day 1 of practice, but seemed to cool off from there, and his play in the Senior Bowl itself didn’t do too much to inspire confidence.

Sam Ehlinger from Texas and Ian Book from Notre Dame didn’t see as much playing time as the aforementioned three quarterbacks, but when they were on the field, neither were able to stretch the field much. Ehlinger had 42 yards and a touchdown on four completions out of 10 attempts, while Book had 48 yards and an interception while throwing 5-for-11.

Both offensive lines had issues with blocking on the edge: of the six total sacks that were accrued on Saturday, 5.5 could be tallied towards edge rushers. Among those to struggle at offensive tackle was Brenden Jaimes from Nebraska, who had three penalties over the course of the afternoon. The credit belongs heavily to some of the interior offensive linemen: Grambling State’s David Moore, Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, and Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey were among notable performers at first glance. Dillon Radunz from North Dakota State does deserve credit, though, as he was rock-solid at left tackle for the National team.

With some inconsistency along the offensive line, it’s understandable that both teams were inefficient running the ball. The National team averaged 3.3 yards per carry, while the American team had just 1.6 yards per carry. While most of the backs had very few chances to make anything work, the big winner out of the backfield was North Carolina’s Michael Carter for the National squad. He finished with 60 rushing yards and a touchdown on eight carries and added 15 yards on two catches. He was able to stand out using his agility and dual-threat ability as a runner and a pass-catcher.

Several wide receivers used this week’s practices to stand out, and while some of those standouts didn’t play on Saturday, other receivers took advantage and played incredibly well. Louisville’s Dez Fitzpatrick had six catches for 90 yards for the National team, getting open consistently and playing with good physicality in tight coverage. UCLA’s Demetric Felton and Ole Miss tight end Kenny Yeboah were the recipients of their team’s two passing touchdowns. One receiver who struggled a bit was Frank Darby out of Arizona State, who followed a solid week of practice with just one catch on six targets.

For the American team, Amari Rodgers from Clemson led the way with four catches, turning them into 23 yards and a touchdown. He was athletic off the snap and proved to be a reliable target for his quarterbacks throughout the day. Shi Smith out of South Carolina was dynamic out of the slot in a three-catch, 57-yard outing. Quintin Morris from Bowling Green led all tight ends with three catches and 52 yards, including a 35-yard reception that saw him hurdle a defender. He showed that he was every bit athletic as his tape showcased. Tennessee’s Josh Palmer scored a touchdown in a continuation of his strong Senior Bowl week, as did Florida’s Trevon Grimes.

Many of the big plays from this year’s Senior Bowl came in the front-seven, particularly along the defensive line. On the National side, Patrick Jones from Pittsburgh was among the top performers, notching a sack and a quarterback hurry off the edge while playing a vital role in another sack. He looked explosive off the snap and proved to be a handful for the American team’s offensive line whenever he was on the field. Ta’Quon Graham out of Texas also had a full sack, and the likes of Notre Dame tandem Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes, Ohio State’s Jonathon Cooper, and UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa all came away with half-sacks. Odighizuwa, Tarron Jackson from Coastal Carolina and Pittsburgh’s Rashad Weaver all had hurries, in addition to the aforementioned Jones.

The American defensive line had just two sacks, but they were still able to generate pressure well. Quincy Roche from Miami (FL) was a beast off the edge, notching two quarterback hurries and looking explosive in his first steps on a regular basis. Tulane’s Cameron Sample continued his strong week of practices with an impressive Senior Bowl, leading his team with seven tackles and notching half a sack. He proved athletic, powerful and polished in his rushes, solidifying himself as one of the biggest winners of the week. Janarius Robinson out of Florida State led the team with 1.5 sacks and had five tackles, looking like the physical specimen he was on tape.

With a lack of consistent tackling drills over the week of practices, Saturday was a chance for linebackers to showcase their skills in a more realistic, game-like situation, and many of them did so. South Alabama’s Riley Cole dominated on his college team’s home field of Hancock Whitney Stadium, finishing with six tackles for the American team and looking instinctive and athletic in run support. He also tallied a breakup in coverage. Cole’s American teammate, LSU’s Jabril Cox, put forth a strong, five-tackle outing that saw him play with impressive athleticism. Auburn’s K.J. Britt also had five tackles, adding a pass deflection and showcasing versatility on passing downs. Ohio State linebackers Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning were among those on the National team who looked good at the position on their roster.

As a result of a somewhat disappointing quarterback performance from both teams, defensive backs had plenty of opportunities to make some plays, and make plays they did. The biggest standout out of the secondary was Minnesota’s Benjamin St-Juste for the National team, as he had two pass deflections and was able to shut down the opposition in a press-heavy boundary role. Darren Hall from San Diego State and Keith Taylor from Washington also played well for the National squad, each tallying pass deflections. Hall was versatile as a tackler and a reliable coverage hand, while Taylor was a shut-down force for much of the game. Pittsburgh’s Damar Hamlin had the team’s lone interception, making a nice heads-up play picking off a pass deflected by Taylor.

The American secondary was headlined by Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu, who followed in his older brother Obi’s footsteps in not only playing at the Senior Bowl, but dominating the stage, as well. The younger Melifonwu had two pass breakups on Saturday, and he was able to display great fluidity and route recognition skills as a boundary cornerback used primarily in press. Bryan Mills out of North Carolina Central had a somewhat up-and-down game—as was the case with his week of practice—but his highs were impressive. He finished with a pass deflections and had a few quality reps in coverage.

There were no major issues from either team’s specialists. Memphis’ Riley Patterson went 2-for-2 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points for the National team, while Jose Borregales from Miami (FL) saw purely kickoff duties, as the American team went for two after all of their touchdowns. Max Duffy from Kentucky nailed a punt downed a punt at the 10-yard line for the Americans, while James Smith from Cincinnati had one punt go for 52 yards. None of the long snappers had any difficulty with snapping, either.

This year’s Senior Bowl proved to be yet another entertaining one, and I’m glad I was able to head down to Mobile to check out this year’s action for myself. Here’s hoping that this week serves as the kickoff to an exciting pre-draft process.