After scouts and NFL teams dissected a week of practice in Mobile, Ala., the touted college football Senior Bowl game Saturday was even more anticlimactic than usual.
Creating especially bad optics after the event finally managed its first sellout since 2010, the No. 2 and No. 3 Heisman Trophy finishers chose not to play or to play very little and led a parade of All-Stars to sit out the game, which was won by the National Team, 16-7, over the American squad.
Washington quarterback and Heisman runner up, Michael Penix Jr., who had a few good moments in practice, did not suit up and the Heisman's No. 3 finisher, Oregon quarterback Bo Nix played only two series. In all, about 25 players who took part in practice to some degree during the week did not suit up for the game (see list below story).
Senior Bowl officials downplayed the incident, but it did devalue the game itself for those who wanted to see certain players in live game conditions against other all-stars. Ironically, Penix and Nix were two such players.
For most, the reason for not playing was to avoid injury so close to the Indy Combine at the end of the month and the draft itself in April. Many players thought they already proved enough during practices. That makes sense, but the stature of the game takes a hit, nonetheless.
Nix, who started his career a few hours away at Auburn, completed 4-of-5 passes for 21 yards in two series for the National team. His final play was a two-yard touchdown to Minnesota tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford when he rolled out before firing up the middle. It was the team's only TD.
Interestingly, the fact that other QBs were MIA or limited helped resurrect attention for a quarterback name that was once at the top, as a preaseason Heisman favorite in 2020. That is when Spencer Rattler was at Oklahoma and projected as a sure-fire top draft pick some day. Rattler, who finished his career with sporadic success at South Carolina, arrived in Mobile projected as a low-round pick.
Playing for the American team, Rattler was clinical as he completed all four passes for 65 yards. He capped his first drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Georgia's Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. This was after Rattler looked pretty good in practice.
"I felt like I wanted to come out here, create relationships and have fun," Rattler said, who won his team's MVP Award. "This was just the cherry on top." More on Rattler below.
None of the other quarterbacks were as effective.
Tennessee's Joe Milton III was 9-of-13 passing for 80 yards for the American team but was intercepted twice. Notre Dame's Sam Hartman played most of the way for the National team. He went 7-of-25 for 69 yards with an interception.
The biggest play of the game was by Washington State cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who returned an interception 83 yards in the final two minutes to set up a decisive score and secure the National win.
In a game dominated by the defenses, Smith-Wade sprawled out to pick off a deep ball from Milton III. He hesitated momentarily before realizing he wasn't officially down under NFL rules. Then he shook off one tackle attempt on the right sideline and cut back across the field before TCU running back Emani Bailey stopped him at the 1-yardl line with 1:38 left.
"I got up and it's not college anymore where you're down," said Smith-Wade, who was named the National's player of the game. "You've got to be down by contact now. So I got up, I started to celebrate a little bit and my teammates were like 'Go, go, go.'"
The offense couldn't punch it in, but Joshua Karty of Stanford made his third field goal, finishing with makes of 19, 37 and 52 yards.
Smith-Wade then snatched his second pick on a Hail Mary pass into the end zone by Tulane's Michael Pratt.
Taking advantage of the slew of MIA players, Florida State defensive tackle Braden Fiske switched sides Saturday morning to the National team because of roster attrition. He had four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and was in on a sack.
After a decent week in practice and a solid game, Rattler (NDS No. 236 overall, No. 11 QB, in the 6-7 round area) should move up the draft list, perhaps as high as the third round, in sort of a Back to the Future move.
Lest we forget, Rattler's roller-coaster career included being the No. 1 recruit from the 2019 high school class, when Oklahoma beat out a long list of top schools to sign him. By 2021 Rattler was a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy. But he was benched in a game against Texas when Caleb Williams — yes that Caleb Williams — took the job. Rattler transferred to South Carolina where he has showed flashes of greatness over the last two seasons.
Rattler was especially impressive Thursday in red zone 7-on-7 drills. He wowed onlookers with a back-shoulder fade to Louisville receiver Jamari Thrash (NDS 106 overall, No. 19 WR) for a touchdown. Rattler squeezed the ball into a tight window. That helped validate a a strong Wednesday performance as he showed a strong arm and accuracy.-
Southern Cal wide receiver Brendan Rice, son of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, arrived at Mobile ranked No. 87 overall, and the No. 16 WR held is ground or improved on some lists.
Based on viewing practice and game tapes and input from reports and scouts from the scene, here is a quick list of players who helped themselves during the week or in the game:
Jackson Powers-Johnson, G/C Oregon
The big man showed off his big game. “JPJ”, as he’s known in scouting parlance, brought a very impressive combination of short-area strength and outstanding range in run blocking. Pass protection wasn’t quite as clean of a slate, but Powers-Johnson proved he can anchor well inside. Some quality reps at guard showed off a versatility to start as a rookie at either spot.
Quinyon Mitchell, CB, Toledo
The best player in Mobile. Mitchell showed everything a team can want in an outside corner, including a short memory to recover from a rare lost rep. Mitchell elevated himself into the conversation to be the first CB drafted, perhaps as high as the top 10. He was that exemplary.
Christian Jones, OT, Texas
Jones was at his best in 1-on-1 pass protection drills. He used his massive wingspan and quick feet to absolutely eliminate the outside rush. Jones also devoured some bull-rush efforts. Aside from his onfield play, Jones proved to be one of the best interviews. The sincerely jovial big man would have been Mr. Congeniality if such an award existed; even his college rivals from Oklahoma and Texas A&M showed Jones a lot of love throughout the week.
Carter Bradley, QB, South Alabama
Bradley was something of an afterthought coming into the week. Playing on his home turf, the Jaguars quarterback proved he deserved to be here. In fact, Bradley was the most consistent passer on the American roster all week. Bradley played his way into consideration of being something more than a priority free agent. At the very least, teams and scouts will be more curious about the strong-armed Bradley, who also did a solid job of handling the near-constant pressure up the middle from the pass rush.
Dylan Laube, RB, New Hampshire
All-star games like the Senior Bowl can be a great crucible for small-school players like Laube. Coming up from the FCS level, Laube needed to show that what worked at New Hampshire could work against higher-level competition. The speedy Laube checked every box. He was the most polished receiver of the running back crop on either team. Laube’s open-field speed and ability to stay in top gear while making a move was very impressive. It feels that Laube, at worst, can be a third-down weapon and return specialist as a rookie.
Ray Edwards, RB, Kentucky
Evaluating running backs in these events can be tricky because there isn’t the opportunity to break tackles (the same is true for LBs and making them). It is still an effective medium to look at things like footwork, vision, acceleration and work in the receiving game. Edwards checked every one of those boxes. He might not have been the best in Mobile at any one of those, but I’d confidently say the Wildcats RB was in the top three in all of them.
Darius Robinson, EDGE, Missouri
Robinson was the most consistently effective pass rusher in Mobile. He was certainly the most consistent at translating wins in the 1-on-1 reps into wins in the full team drills. He uses his length very well to give himself options as a rusher. Robinson flashed a nice up-and-over move and also a quick inside spin. He did get caught playing too high a few times, but Robinson fought to the end of the whistle even if he didn’t win the rep — and that was not true of some of his competitors at EDGE.
Jarvis Brownlee, CB, Louisville
Brownlee was very impressive overall, but he really thrived in the red-zone drills on Wednesday and Thursday. His length and anticipation of ball placement was very sharp. He controlled the release of the receiver in press coverage. Doing it without tipping his hand prior to the snap — which would allow the QB and WR to maybe make a sight adjustment — is a nice way to buy an extra half-count off the line. Brownlee did that very well in 1-on-1s all week.
Gabe Hall, DL, Baylor
A relative unknown before the week, Hall seized attention right away. His burst off the line was impressive, and he showcased strength and leverage. Moreover, he was one of the few interior rushers who seemed to have a real plan as a pass rusher but also could react and improvise if the initial plan didn’t work. During Tuesday’s team session, he was largely unblockable and very disruptive. Hall made himself some bigger draft fans in the week.
Brenden Rice, WR, USC
Rice came in with little question about his hands, burst and quickness. The son of GOAT Jerry Rice, with his father in attendance, came through, using his size better (6-3, 217) and displayed improved route-running and body positioning.
Ladd McConkey, WR, Georgia
McConkey already came in with smooth reliable hands and but also great quickness and decisiveness in his route-running. He proved just how savvy he is by working over cornerbacks and getting open consistently.
Michael Hall Jr., DT, Ohio State
Powers-Johnson and Hall both boosted their stock going after each other in drills. There was a question as to where Hall fits best on a defensive line but that was answered with his suddenness and quickness inside, suggesting some good pass-rush juice. Hall's 'tweener status makes him tough to evaluate, but based on his performance in Mobile, he now belongs in strong Day 2 (second- and third-round) consideration.
Players expected to sit out the Senior Bowl:
QB Michael Penix Jr.
WR Roman Wilson
WR Jacob Cowing
DB Quinton Mitchell
DB Khyree Jackson
WR Ricky Pearsall
LB Payton Wilson
WR Brenden Rice
DL Laiatu Latu
DL Braiden McGregor
RB Rasheen Ali
DB Johnny Dixon
DB Sione Vaki
OL Trevor Keegan
DL Michael Hall
OL Jackson Powers-Johnson
OL Zach Frazier
DL Brennan Jackson
DL Tyler Davis
RB Marshawn Lloyd
DB Max Melton
OL Ladarius Henderson
OL Taliese Fuaga
WR Malachi Corley
DL Brandon Dorlus