Senior Bowl Day 1: Southern Comfort Rules The Day In Fairhope; Other Notes

Posted Jan 23, 2012

MOBILE, Ala. – Two weeks ago Alabama and LSU met in New Orleans to decide the BCS National Championship. Eight players from that game got to show the NFL what they could do up close starting today.

The first practices of the 2012 Senior Bowl were held at two different locations, with the South team working out on a muddy track at Fairhope Municipal Stadium. The North team practiced at the site of Saturday’s game, Ladd-Peebles Stadium, so naturally a lot of attention was paid to the practice on the other side of the bay.

Five members of the Crimson Tide dressed out in their official Senior Bowl practice jerseys and three LSU Tigers joined them. Alabama wide receiver and kick returner Marquis Maze, tight end Brad Smelley, offensive lineman William Vlachos, defensive back DeQuan Menzie and linebacker Courtney Upshaw competed under the watchful eye of Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and his staff along. LSU cornerback Brandon Taylor, tight end DeAngelo Peterson and offensive lineman Will Blackwell represented the BCS runner-ups. “I haven’t been out of football as long as some of these guys so that was definitely a benefit having played for the national championship so recently,” Taylor said. “Getting back into football shape won’t be as hard for me as it is for some of the other players, but we’re all just out here competing hard.”

Maze was hoping to make a strong first impression but the hamstring injury he suffered on his first punt return against LSU was still bothering him so he had to sit out the practice. Just as he broke the huddle with the other receivers and one of Washington’s coaches he was besieged by media, but before he could finish his first answer he saw a familiar face. Alabama head coach Nick Saban reached out his hand and asked him why he looked so serious.

If there was a common theme among the Alabama answers during their interview sessions it had to with how this first NFL practice compared to what they went through in college. To a man they all agreed that this one was shorter.

“We have NFL practices at Alabama so it wasn’t too much different,” Maze said. “Actually, it was lighter than what we do at Alabama so I think I’ll adapt well to what they’re doing in the NFL.”

Tight end Brad Smelley estimated Alabama’s practices ran easily two-and-a-half hours and he and his teammates learned a lot of discipline there. He was prepared for the intensity and the fast tempo and showed off a sure set of hands in some of the passing plays. He also held his own blocking in 11-on-11 drills.

“I felt great and felt like I was playing fast,” said Smelley, who at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds is closer in build to Aaron Hernandez from New England than Rob Gronkowski. “I made a few plays and there are a lot of people out here so you don’t really get as much work as you’d like but I felt good about how I was moving and how I was playing.”

The level of the competition in the Southeastern Conference has reached such impressive heights that it should come as no surprise how quickly players from these schools make an impact in the NFL. The last six national champions have come out of the SEC and the quality of the players trickles down to the other schools in the conference.

Arkansas wide receiver and kick returner Joe Adams can appreciate that having helped the Razorbacks reach No. 3 in the BCS rankings and the SEC Championship. He was one of the most exciting returners in the country and is intent on showing he can succeed as a receiver.

“It’s helped a lot because the SEC is kind of the closest thing you can get to playing in the NFL,” Adams said. “The size and the speed and how aggressive the guys helped me a lot and now I hope to open up some more eyes around the NFL this week and show that I’m a great returner as well as a good receiver.”

Taylor was the physical and vocal leader of LSU’s secondary and to some extent the entire defense, but he also credits the competition within the conference for making him better and having him more prepared for the Senior Bowl and the NFL in general.

“Just playing in the SEC, you see so many great players and such great competitiveness and it turns over to things like this, playing against the best players in the country,” said Taylor, who registered 67 tackles (35 solo), one sack and one interception for the Tigers. “I’ve been doing that in the SEC and it just gives me a little more of an advantage.”

UM’S SPENCE FIGHTING LONELINESS: University of Miami Sean Spence is the only Hurricane in Alabama this week and one of only five players from the Big Three in the Sunshine State.

Running back Chris Rainey and defensive lineman Jaye Howard were the only two Florida Gators on hand and Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham and offensive lineman Zebrie Sanders were the only two Seminoles. So this is definitely one of the lighter years for the three state powerhouses and Spence wants to make his trip count.

“I wish I had more teammates here with me but I’ll have to hold it down and represent the University of Miami,” said Spence, who at 6-foot and 224 pounds will have to combat questions about his size. “I’m here to show everybody that I’m a three-down linebacker, I can stay on the field, I can run with tight ends and I can cover running backs out of the backfield. I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Tomorrow Spence and the rest of the South team will get to test the track at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in the afternoon as the North team will practice first in the morning. That same schedule will stay in place on Wednesday and Thursday, with both teams holding one-hour walk-throughs on Friday.

DOLPHIN SIGHTING: Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett was taking in the action at Fairhope with his younger brother, Kealin, and a friend. He was outside of the fence near the stands smiling as the SEC players showed off their stuff on the field.
Game Pass: Miami Dolphins