Buccaneers Running Backs Coach Art Valero calls Texas FB Will Matthews a
Art Valero and Nehemiah Broughton shouted in unison Wednesday morning, both men frustrated that Broughton had failed to sustain a block against a linebacker as long as was necessary.
It was early in the third full practice of Senior Bowl week for the South squad, which is being coached by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff. Valero, the running backs coach, had Broughton and his other five runners paired up against a group of linebackers, working on protecting the quarterback.
After the play, Valero grabbed Broughton by the front of his jersey and demonstrated the technique he was hoping to see. Valero then gave the young man from The Citadel a pat on the back and both men smiled.
In truth, there have been a lot more smiles than shouts for Valero and the five South squad running backs this week. Widely considered one of the strongest positions at this year's Senior Bowl, the South running backs have made a very favorable impression on the hundreds of scouts and coaches lining the sidelines and filling the stands. The group is headlined by Auburn tailback Cadillac Williams, but all five players have been impressive. Joining Williams in the tailback role are West Virginia's Kay-Jay Harris and Tennessee's Cedric Houston, while Broughton and Will Matthews of Texas have shared the fullback duties.
Valero has helped his temporary charges by giving them a crash course in an NFL offensive system, but the players have made his instructions count with a tireless work ethic and a shared aptitude for learning quickly. The common thread in Valero's praise of the five backs is his pleasure in how rapidly they've translated the lessons from the meeting room onto the field.
As the assembled talent evaluators of the NFL look on, all five backs are striving to answer questions of varying importance about their talents. Even Williams, an exciting runner and a possible high first-round pick, was something of an unknown commodity when it came to catching the ball out the backfield.
According to Valero, those doubts should be forgotten.
"If there was a question about his receiving skills, I haven't seen it," said the Buccaneer coach. "He's caught everything we've thrown to him, and he runs routes like he's done it before. Certainly, there's going to be a lot more that he needs to learn the more that he plays and the older he gets, but he's a good football player. He's a natural football player right now."
Williams certainly understood that his receiving skills, if not impressive to the scouts, could have affected his eventual draft status. As such, he's pleased with his decision to come to Mobile – many top players decline the opportunity and even skip next month's NFL Scouting Combine – if for no other reason than to show he is a complete back.
"I think the main thing I've shown is that I can catch the ball," said the Auburn star. "Catching the ball is not a problem for me. I basically can be an every-down back. I've done it all. I can also play on special teams, punt return and kickoff return. I bring a lot to the table."
At the end of each Senior Bowl practice, when media and NFL reps are allowed on the field, Williams is immediately surrounded by reporters. He's a soft-spoken young man, but he clearly came to Mobile with something to prove. Valero thinks Williams has done just that.
"He's just a football player," said Valero. "He's just so effortless and smooth. He's going to make a very, very good football player for some team."
West Virginia's Harris is also pleasant and open with questioners but the chip on his shoulder is more obvious. Early in the 2004 college season, after Harris ripped off an incredible 337 rushing yards in the Mountaineers' opener against East Carolina, he was hot on many scouts' radar screens. The attention cooled a bit when a hamstring injury limited Harris to a string of unremarkable efforts, but he finished strong with 134 yards against Florida State in the Gator Bowl.
"I definitely want to remind everybody: Hey, don't forget about me," he said of his trip to the Senior Bowl. "I was slowed down by the injury, but I just want to let everyone here know that if I had been healthy through the season I would have been up there at the top with all of those guys they consider first-day running backs. All I can say is, if they let me slip, I'll make them pay. I'm writing it down. I'm making a list of everybody who passes me up to draft another back."
Harris came to Mobile hoping to rekindle some buzz, and he's certainly caught the attention of Valero, who knew little about the former Bay area prep star.
"I didn't know anything about him other than him being a Tampa kid and a former baseball player, but he has impressed me," said Valero. "He runs hard, he's got good hands and he's a quick study. He learns very quickly. I'm excited about Kay-Jay."
Houston, who rushed for 1,005 yards as a senior and averaged 5.2 yards per carry during his Volunteer career, could have lagged behind all week given some travel issues that got him into Mobile late on Sunday. Because he missed the "insertion" meetings in which the Bucs' offensive playbook was introduced, Houston went to practice on Monday with a lot still to learn. But he has caught up quickly and looked good on the practice field.
"He's been very, very quick to catch up," said Valero. "He's a natural ballcarrier. He's still learning a lot about running routes and such things, but that will come with time. He's done a good job."
Of course, what Valero doesn't say is that he had a big hand in getting Houston into the flow of the offense. The young back was quick to give his coach credit, however.
"He's a fun guy, but at the same time he demands a lot from us out there when he's teaching us what to do," said Houston. "These are great coaches out here, and they have us working hard and competing.
"I've been working hard, catching the ball, running it pretty good. I'm competing against some of the best running backs in the nation, but I think I've made a pretty good impression on all those scouts and coaches up there [in the stands]."
If Williams or his Auburn teammate Ronnie Brown isn't the first back drafted in April, it could be Cedric Benson of Texas. Benson isn't in mobile, but the man who helped pave the way for his 1,834-yard senior season is.
That would be the 260-pound Matthews. While Broughton may be just learning the fullback position, Matthews looks and plays the part like a natural.
"He's a thumper," said Valero. "He is a fullback. He's a get-yourself-in-the-hole, go-cause-a-wreck, light-your-hair-on-fire kind of guy. Will's done a good job. He's a little bit raw in terms of catching the ball and coming out of the backfield because they never threw him the ball at Texas. He was Cedric Benson's escort. And he's learned well, too."
And then there is Broughton, who has a heavier burden than most of the players in Mobile. While Williams is simply trying to build on an already favorable scouting report, Broughton is converting from his natural tailback position and playing against a higher level of talent than ever before.
"I know coming out here I had a lot to prove," said the compact, 240-pound back. "First of all, it's this I-AA guy coming up here to play against the big boys, and I'm the only 1-AA player on my team. So I know I have a lot to prove in that area, and also with the switching of positions. I've played tailback almost my whole life, so coming in here and trying to learn the fullback position is a real challenge. That's something I have to step up and show everybody I can do. But I feel real confident about the situation. I think I'm doing pretty good, and I'm getting real good feedback out here."
Valero added to that feedback with a glowing report. The Buccaneer coach has been particularly impressed with how little the change in competition level has affected the Citadel runner.
"You've got to hand it to him, the kid's a stud," said Valero. "Here he is, a guy from The Citadel, and he's in with all these SEC guys and it doesn't faze him. He just goes out and plays hard, and he learns every day. He is extremely bright. He is a very bright young man. He's got pretty good hands coming out the backfield. He's done a good job this week."
Broughton said he is still getting used to delivering a hit in the hole rather than trying to burst through it. He said he is working on squaring up and getting leverage as he makes his blocks. Valero's tutoring has been invaluable, and Broughton feels as if he has been treated very fairly in competition with the I-A players.
And in the end, regardless of where they have come from, all five of these backs are trying to end up in the same place. The Senior Bowl, and a week with the Tampa Bay coaching staff, is going to help them get there.
"This game is real important," said Broughton. "This whole week is important. It's for the love of the game, and everybody is out here trying to make a living. Fullback, tailback, whatever…just get a job."