Head Coach Jon Gruden addresses the South team for the last time before Saturday's game
The Senior Bowl is contested with college players led by NFL coaches. The referees are supplied by the NCAA but the trainers are employees of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders. The game uses college rules – one foot in-bounds, down by contact, etc. – but the coaching staffs install their professional schemes and game plans.
It is very much a transition game, and Jon Gruden wants the South squad players to make that transition in the right way.
"Your amateur career ends today," said Gruden. "Finish it with authority."
This was the final thing Gruden, head coach of the Buccaneers and potentially a few of these same players by late spring, told the South squad during Saturday morning's team meeting. It the was last of many, many meetings held by Gruden and his staff over the course of the week, as the Buccaneers made it a mission to produce one of the most prepared teams the Senior Bowl has ever seen.
Only the Senior Bowl itself, which kicks off at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, will prove whether or not that goal has been accomplished. Gruden, however, had few doubts, given the players' focused efforts from Sunday through Friday.
"I just want to congratulate all of you guys, not only for being selected to come here, but for working your butts off," he told the 50 South squadders. "We've worked a lot harder than most Senior Bowl teams do. We wanted you guys to get an idea as to what it's going to be like when you go to mini-camp right after the draft."
Gruden has stressed the importance of winning the game to his crew, but all involved know that there is a secondary goal that may have more lasting effects. Senior Bowl players are on display all week, with every practice repetition graded by hundreds of NFL scouts and coaches. Videotape from the week will live on at 32 league headquarters for weeks to come. Saturday's game is the final piece of evidence during live competition that these players can provide before April's NFL Draft.
As such, Gruden urged his players on Saturday morning to keep their effort level high for a few more hours.
"I won't tolerate anything but your best stuff today," said Gruden. "Stay in the game. There's going to be a point in the fourth quarter where everybody's starting to wonder if their flights are on time. Don't be distracted by that or by anything else. We want to help you look as good as possible. And we want to win."
Gruden also knows that the players have the Weather Channel in their Riverview Plaza hotel rooms. The forecast calls for cold temperatures and a good chance of rain during game time, meaning Mobile's Ladd-Peebles Stadium may not be the most pleasant place to be on Saturday afternoon. Gruden doesn't want the South players using that as an excuse.
"I want this game to be physical, I want great communication, I want to feel your energy," he told his men. "Don't care about the weather, don't care about how we're rotating [players into the game]. Just care about busting your butt and doing what you're trained to do. You're all very good players and you've done a great job helping yourself this week."
Gruden's speech to the players was short but emphatic. It came at the end of an hour's worth of final, individual-position meetings, and before the players would get their ankles taped and their bags packed for the ride over to Ladd-Peebles. And it came with the thanks of the entire Buccaneer coaching staff.
"I appreciate the chance to work with you," said Gruden to the players. "Our coaches have had a great experience. We love you guys, and we want you to look good today."
Jason Campbell knows this game will be different than any he's played before. A voice in his head tells him so.
Or in his helmet, to be precise. It's one more transitional element to Saturday's game – NFL-style coach-to-QB radios.
Campbell, David Greene and Brock Berlin, the South quarterbacks, tried out helmets with receivers in them for the first time during Friday's walk-through. The college passers clearly got a kick out of the experience, though it wasn't without glitches. The reception cut in and out on a few plays, leading to some brief confusion.
The helmet radios will be used during Saturday's game, giving Campbell, Greene and Berlin a little head start on their NFL educations. However, Gruden told the three passers not to worry about any problems with the setup. If the radio goes out, the quarterbacks are to simply jog toward the sideline and Gruden will yell the plays in.