The Buccaneers' coaching staff had a better feel for Tanard Jackson's ability to handle the safety position after the 2007 Senior Bowl
On January 30, one week before Super Bowl XLIV is played, a collection of some of the most notable football talent from across the country will gather for an all-star game at a popular Southern destination.
No, not the NFL's Pro Bowl, though that will also take place the weekend before the big game. The top stars from the AFC and NFC will square off in Miami on Sunday, January 31, as the league tries out a new Pro Bowl format after decades of post-Super Bowl play in Hawaii.
One day prior, dozens of the top college players in the land will play the 2010 Senior Bowl, as always pitting a squad of North All-Stars against a group of South All-Stars. As the name of the game attests, all of the talented players who will participate have just finished their senior seasons, meaning their shared goal is to convince the NFL scouts on hand that they might one day be worthy of a spot in the NFL's all-star game.
The Senior Bowl actually has a much longer history than the Pro Bowl, or even the Super Bowl, having played its first iteration in 1950 with stars like Doak Walker and Eddie LaBaron on the field. After one year in Jacksonville, the Senior Bowl moved to Mobile, Alabama, where it has been played ever since. And that is why this Southern port city can accurately be called a popular winter destination. No NFL team would dream of missing the scouting opportunities that a week in Mobile offers every January before the Super Bowl.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers certainly won't miss it. On Sunday, a corps of 13 Buccaneer coaches, scouts and administrators will fly to Mobile for the beginning of Senior Bowl week, which includes gatherings with the players in the evening and the beginning of practices on Monday morning. General Manager Mark Dominik, Head Coach Raheem Morris and Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey will head up a group that also includes Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson, Special Teams Coordinator Richard Bisaccia, Assistant to the Head Coach Jay Kaiser and all seven college scouts - Jim Abrams, Frank Dorazio, Brian Hudspeth, Byron Kiefer, Tony Kinkela, Tom Throckmorton and Seth Turner.
"The Senior Bowl is a great opportunity to see guys play live," said Hickey. "We've watched them on tape, we've been to the schools, now we get an opportunity to see them versus good competition, quality opponents and live in a practice setting.
"You have to see a guy live. Sometimes a tape can be misleading, especially when a player is from a small school. You don't know what kind of competition he's playing against. It's just always better; it's part of the process. You need both, but to put all the pieces together about the puzzle of the player you really need to see them live, and this is a great opportunity for the coaches to do just that."
Each year, the two Senior Bowl squads are led by the coaching staffs of two NFL teams; in this case, the staffs of the Detroit Lions (North) and Miami Dolphins (South). Tampa Bay's staff has coached a team in two recent Senior Bowls, in 2005 and 2007, and in both cases found the week to be particularly rewarding. Following the 2005 Senior Bowl, Tampa Bay spent the fifth overall pick in the draft to snatch up a player they had grown to admire in the all-star game, Auburn running back Cadillac Williams. In 2007, Morris, then the Bucs' defensive backs coach, spent the week determining if Syracuse cornerback Tanard Jackson could play safety in the NFL. The Bucs eventually drafted Jackson in the fourth round later that spring and he has excelled at his new position.
Though the Senior Bowl itself is often entertaining (and quite often very rainy), it's the week of practice leading up to the game that really attracts coaches and scouts from around the NFL. Drills that pit offensive and defensive linemen against each other one-on-one, or star cornerbacks in coverage against star receivers, offer a look at the relative talents of each player that can sometimes be more informative than game tape from the just-concluded season. This is particularly true for small-school standouts who get a Senior Bowl invitation and thus an opportunity to test their skills against a level of competition they didn't find during the season. This year, players like Wayne State running back Joique Bell and Alabama Birmingham wide receiver Joe Webb will try to take advantage of that opportunity.
Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour certainly faced big-time competition during his collegiate career - including Arizona, Michigan State and Boston College this past fall - and he is considered a possible early-round draft pick. Still, scouts will be interested to see LeFevour work side by side with some of the other quarterbacks on hand for this year's Senior Bowl, including Florida's Tim Tebow, Cincinnati's Tony Pike and Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson.
Other players of note who have accepted Senior Bowl invitations include Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas, Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody, Florida wide receiver Riley Cooper, Idaho guard Mike Iupati, LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell, Ole Miss wide receiver/running back Dexter McCluster, Auburn running back Ben Tate, TCU linebacker Daryl Washington, Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams and former Florida State cornerback Myron Rolle. Rolle's participation in the game is particularly interesting in that the Rhodes Scholar hasn't played football in a year while studying overseas.
A trio of South Florida players were also invited: defensive backs Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy and defensive end George Selvie.
Each squad practices once a day at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where the game will be played on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. ET (all practices and the game will be carried live on the NFL Network). Evenings are busy for the participating players, too, as teams take advantage of a chance to get in the one-on-one interviews that are a critical part of each young man's evaluation.
"It's very important," Hickey said. "That's the second process. There's the evaluation part of their ability, their talent on the field. At nights the personnel staff interviews all of these kids in a setting that we can control. We can ask the questions. You really get a feel for them in that manner. We just kind of run them through the rigors to see what they're made of."
For all of the eager participants in Sunday's game, the pre-draft work is just beginning. Many of these players will show up in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, and their respective schools will schedule Pro Days for the spring. Few of the coming weeks, though, will offer as many opportunities to prove themselves on and off the field as the one about to take place in Mobile, Alabama.