With the first wave of NFL free agency concluded, the focus towards the 2021 NFL Draft continues to grow.
This week features plenty of intriguing Pro Days at colleges across the nation, and among those to take part on Monday were Missouri and Alabama. Both SEC franchises with talented prospects on both sides of the ball, the two schools had opportunities for their players to showcase their skills to NFL prospects.
I had the opportunity to attend the virtual Pro Day press conferences for both schools. Here are some of my takeaways from talking with numerous top NFL Draft prospects.
Alabama finished off a historic season just two months ago, defeating Ohio State in the National Championship after an undefeated season. With such tremendous results in their 2020 campaign, it’s no surprise that their roster is stacked to the brim with talent.
A key component of their performance was wide receiver DeVonta Smith. He finished with 117 receptions, 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2020, becoming the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991. Smith is seen by many as one of, if not the best wide receivers in the 2021 draft class, and a major part of that is his ability to manipulate the alignments of cornerbacks to get open on a consistent basis.
“Really just seeing if they’re really comfortable with being in front of me,” Smith said to Windy City Gridiron when asked what he looks for off the snap. “You can look at some guys and tell if there’s something they really want to do or they don’t want to do, so that’s the first thing, and just seeing if they’re comfortable or not. Then, eventually, going along in the game, just finding things they aren’t comfortable doing and keeping them uncomfortable.”
Other weapons like Najee Harris and Jaylen Waddle get plenty of attention in draft circles, as does quarterback Mac Jones. A major and arguably underrated part of the Crimson Tide’s offensive success is the offensive line, a unit that featured three players looking to get drafted in 2021. Alex Leatherwood has been seen as a potential draft pick since his season at right guard in 2018. Finishing his last two seasons at left tackle, he claims that NFL teams have projected him at either position.
“Some teams like me at tackle, some at guard,” Leatherwood explained. “It just all depends on what team you’re talking about and what their team needs. I feel like most of them feel like I could play anywhere on the offensive line.”
Center Landon Dickerson was another key starter who has manned the middle of the interior for Alabama since transferring over from Florida State before the 2019 season. Though he suffered a torn ACL in the SEC championship game, he was able to suit up and deliver the snap in the team’s victory formation to close out the National Championship game. Considering all of the ups and downs of this season — both for him and his team — it was nice for him to be able to experience that.
“In the National Championship game, it was fun to live that moment,” Dickerson stated. “I don’t think there’s really any words to describe what happened there. So much happened with this year, the SEC schedule, COVID and not knowing if we were going to play, being able to go in for one snap and just be with my teammates one last time was just a special moment.”
Weighing in at 364 pounds at the Senior Bowl, guard Deonte Brown weighed in as the heaviest player down in Mobile in January. Since then, he has dropped down to 348 pounds. While still packing plenty of power in his frame, he has been able to drop some unhealthy weight and improve his agility.
“I just started to eat better,” explained Brown of his weight loss. “I was already eating good as it is, healthy-wise, but during these last two months, I’ve just been cutting back on a lot of things. I’ve been trying to eating more clean, I’ve been not eating that much pork, like red meat, and it’s really helped a lot. I don’t feel like I lost my strength. I’m still able to bench really good. I just had to slim down a little bit perform well and longer.”
With such a talented group of weapons, it can be difficult to carve out touches on Alabama’s offense. Tight end Miller Forristall may not have had the elite production some of his teammates had, but he is a toolsy player listed at 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds who offers very good length and solid athleticism for his position. When asked about pros and cons about his size and his athletic ability, he was particularly humorous about the way others perceive him.
“I appreciate that, not everybody thinks I’m athletic,” Forristall joked. “I think there’s pros and cons to everything. You get your smaller, faster guys: Irv Smith’s a shorter, muscle guy but he’s obviously super quick and is a fantastic receiver who’s played well in the league. I’m obviously a longer guy, so that has some pros and cons. You can gain ground of people differently, you can create a little bit more space, especially on contact. I’ve tried to play into both of those well, use the body, create a little bit more space here and there. That’s something else I’ve been working on.”
An unsung hero on Alabama’s roster was long snapper Thomas Fletcher, who proved himself capable to consistently deliver accurate snaps with great velocity. A four-year starter who delivered perfect snaps on every single down he played, the Patrick Mannelly Award winner still finds ways to improve as he prepares for the NFL.
“The little things I’ve been working on are matching laces,” Fletcher said. “Not a lot of people know that when you’re a snapper at the level and the level I just came from, it’s vitally important that when you’re snapping the ball on field goals, you want the holder to catch it where the laces are facing forward, because you don’t want them to have to put it down and spin it to get the laces around. The thousands and thousands of repetitions, figuring out, ‘am I going to hold the laces, am I not going to hold the laces’, making sure I’m capable of snapping the ball without the laces, and putting the ball in the position where he’s going to put it down and the laces are going to be forward.”
Missouri performed better than expected in the first season under new head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, finishing 5-5 against a difficult schedule and even being ranked for a portion of the year. A big part of their season was the stepping up of numerous key players, some of whom hoping to hear their names called as NFL draft picks this April.
Arguably their top performer in 2020 was linebacker Nick Bolton. A two-time first-team All-SEC player, he has been a key cog in Missouri’s defense since he entered the starting lineup to kick off the 2019 season. He is an athletic defender who offers very good closing speed and processes plays in a quick manner that allows him to have a great nose for the football and execute his run fits accordingly.
“More teams see me as a MIKE ‘backer,” Bolton told Windy City Gridiron. “But I consider myself as a linebacker, so whatever [position] I get the opportunity to play in, if I get the opportunity to call plays with the green dot, I would love to do so. But most teams see me as a MIKE ‘backer.”
Two of Missouri’s other key defenders can be found at the safety position in the form of Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe. With both players being invited to the Senior Bowl in January, the two of them have been able to make plays throughout the course of their collegiate career.
Gillespie offers an intriguing blend of range in coverage and physicality in the run game. When asked which aspect of the safety position he preferred, he found himself loving both parts equally.
“Man, to be honest with you, I can’t even choose,” Gillespie replied. “I love them both; they’re evenly loved. I love the physicality of the game, I love being in the post. Wherever you put me out on the field, let me go make plays.”
Bledsoe also can process plays well in the passing game, as well as charge downhill and take precise angles as a run defender. He states that he is naturally able to feel out the game, and he uses that to make big plays in the secondary.
“I have a natural feel for the game,” Bledsoe said. “And I can just read. The game’s like dominoes: once one person does one thing, you kind of know what the next person’s going to do. It’s like that in coverage. Having a good feel for the game and having a high IQ helps me play the way I play.”
Offensively, the Tigers featured a handful of NFL-caliber talents. Running back Larry Rountree III had the opportunity to perform at the Senior Bowl after tallying 3,720 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground in his four years on the team.
“Going down to Mobile, for me it was business,” Rountree explained. “I wanted to go down there and make sure that I was very sound on knowing the playbook, catching the ball, protection, and basically being coachable, and being tough. You’re down there, there’s a lot going on, you can make as many excuses as possible, but you got to find solutions. You’re tired and all that, but I think me going down there, I wanted to prove that I was sound on being coachable, being able to take accountability to learn things that they’re teaching me, and being early, being on time: they look at those little things. Obviously, they look at the football player, but they want to know the person.”
Along the offensive line, Missouri featured offensive tackle Larry Borom. On a unit that saw two players sign with NFL teams as undrafted free agents last offseason, Borom served as a veteran linchpin who has experience at both tackle and guard. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 332 pounds, his length allows him to lock out defenders at the line of scrimmage, and while being as tall as he is can make it tougher to keep his hips low, he doesn’t find himself struggling with that as much as some linemen do.
“I don’t really struggle with it that much,” Borom elaborated. “I just use my power to overtake for that — trying to get my hands on people and be violent with that. That makes up for that area, if I’m lacking in it. Just training, one thing I’ve worked on is lower pad level: essentially, that’s what that is.”
One of Missouri’s top weapons in the passing game in 2020 was Damon Hazelton Jr. A graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, Hazelton is a big-bodied weapon who offers tremendous ball skills, but he is also able to adjust his route patterns well in order to create separation based off of his opponents’ alignment.
“It starts with alignment, assignment, technique,” Hazelton explained. “Whatever the play is, you have a route. Whatever receiver I am, I have a designed route. It could be different options based on the leverage you get. I can’t really tell you a specific, but every play starts with going to the line and assessing. For me, I’m looking at the defense and seeing what they’re doing, seeing how they’re moving around, seeing how their guys are in position in relation to where I want to go at. I try to just assess it there. Like I said, it goes back to my craftsmanship and taking pride to work routes different ways, so based off of where they’re lined up, I know where I need to go, and how to manipulate that space so that I can get there.”
Monday’s Pro Day in Columbia didn’t just involve Missouri players. Central Missouri tight end and punter Zach Davidson had the chance to showcase his skills in front of NFL scouts, as well. Though he didn’t get to play in 2020, he caught 15 touchdowns in 2019 and finished with 40 catches for 894 yards. As a 6-foot-7 and 245-pound weapon, Davidson’s size gives him a large catch radius and value in contested situations, but he acknowledges that his height can make it tougher for him to get low. Said issue is something he has been working hard to improve upon.
“Early on, that was a huge emphasis for me,” said Davidson. “Just watching film and seeing what slowed me down coming in and out of cuts and my hips were a huge emphasis. Going through training and everything, it’s something I’ve really emphasized on and focused. I’m keeping my hips low, driving my arms, it just allows me to use my big frame to my ability to catch the ball, but also really surprise guys in how quick and fast I can move.”