Importance of Senior Bowl increases for NFL teams, prospects

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MOBILE, Ala. — With whistles blowing and players moving from station to station, everything appeared to be business as usual Tuesday at the Senior Bowl – even if things are anything but normal.

NFL coaches, scouts and executives watched prospects like Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, Sam Ehlinger of Texas and others try to improve their draft stock on the field.

The football aspect hasn’t changed, but the importance of this weeklong audition for senior NFL prospects is magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic with no NFL draft combine this year.

“This is a great opportunity for us to see the players live, up close, meet with them, talk to them,” said the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores, who is coaching the National team. “Get some face time with them. Not on the iPhone but actual face time, literal face time, and get to know them as people, as players, things that make them tick. And we get to coach also. That’s always fun.

“We’re excited about this week and I think we’ll get a lot out of it.”

Among those going through practices are Heisman finalist Jones, who is vying for first-round status – along with players like Crimson Tide tailback Najee Harris, North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt and Wake Forest defensive lineman Carlos Basham Jr. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, another Heisman finalist, pulled out of the game because of an ankle injury.

There’s a dose of normalcy, on the field at least, in an abnormal pre-draft process.

The combine workouts will be held at schools’ pro days, scouting trips were more limited during the fall, and it remains to be seen how much time teams will get to spend in person with prospects leading up to the draft.

So this is a critical stretch for some prospects and teams.

“This’ll be the first eyeball test for them, and it will be the first time that anyone at the league level has actually sat across from any of these players,” said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout. “Now that the combine’s been canceled, pro days are a little bit up in the air what that’s gonna look like. The rest of the spring could be strictly Zooms again.

“For our 130 players, this is an opportunity to sit across from these NFL decision-makers with a nice 8-foot piece of plexiglass between them, safely, and share their stories. Kids will let the teams get a feel for who they are as people.”

And they’ll have the chance to meet plenty of top brass on hand – though handshakes and bro hugs are forbidden under the new rules of social distancing.

Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby considered it the “biggest opportunity” of his life, especially with the pandemic limiting the showcase opportunities for some others.

“I feel sorry for the people that aren’t here today,” Darby said. “Due to the combine going down, pro day for certain people, they don’t get this opportunity to get looked at and seen by all 32 teams.”

Each NFL team is only allowed to bring 10 officials into the bubble. So Nagy believed “the vast majority” of general managers would be attending, with a number of head coaches.

“The Senior Bowl always has tremendous value in the scouting process and this year probably even more so,” Nagy said.

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who is leading the American team, certainly agrees.

“I think that this is invaluable this year to have this opportunity,” Rhule said. “No one knows what will happen after this. I think it’s really smart of these guys to play in this game.

“I think we’ll leave with a really good sense of these guys.”

There are plenty of behind-the-scenes – and behind-the-screens – differences. Players, coaches and support staffers within the Senior Bowl bubble will be tested daily for the coronavirus.

The Senior Bowl is allowing a handful of injured players – including Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith and Ohio State tailback Trey Sermon – to attend practices and meetings and visit with officials from each NFL team.

Nagy makes it clear that’s a onetime COVID-19 exemption not a precedent setter. Players also won’t have roommates for a change and will eat meals in their hotel rooms instead of mingling with other players and coaches in the dining area.

Underclassmen like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the likely No. 1 pick, and Ohio State’s Justin Fields won’t be allowed to take in practices and rub shoulders with NFL brass like some have elected to do in the past. They’re not in the bubble, so NFL teams aren’t allowed to meet with them leading up to Saturday’s game.

The pandemic has already had an impact on preparations.

The Carolina Panthers staff, which is coaching the American team, couldn’t all make it. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady, linebackers coach Mike Siravo and cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper are not attending the Senior Bowl due to COVID-19-related reasons.

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”