Monday, January 28, 2008

Going out in style | by Pat

In their final game wearing an Irish helmet, the trio of Zibby, Laws, and Sullivan all had great games in the 2008 Senior Bowl that in all likelihood improved their draft stock.

The main star was Trevor Laws, who was named Most Dependable Linemen for the entire Senior Bowl week. After earning positive reviews all week for his effort and energy in practice, Laws didn't wait long to make an impact. On his first play from scrimmage, Laws beat the South OL and sacked Colt Brennan. In the next series, Laws snagged a fumble from South QB Andre' Woodson in mid-air that was more interception than fumble recovery. You can check out highlights of the grab,as well as the rest of the game highlights here. Overall, Laws finished with six tackles, and tied Dan Connor and Gary Guyton with a game-high five solo tackles.

Laws's play was no surprise to ND fans, but his output impressed NFL scouts, both professional and of the online armchair variety, who looked more at his "measurables" than actual college production.

"There was some concern coming in about his size and his short arms (33 inches), and he's not going to fit into every scheme," Coyle said. "But there's a lot to like. He just makes an awful lot of plays. He gets off blocks. He's quick and explosive. I think he's gone from being a real late-round guy to at least the fourth and maybe more likely third."
Zibby had a solid performance in the game as well, notching five tackles, recovering a fumble, and a 38 yard punt return that earned him the game's Long Distance Play award. Still, it sounds like Zibby's spot in the NFL Draft will come down to his performance in the NFL Combine. In an article that details Tommy's week at the Senior Bowl, Oakland Raiders DB Coach Darren Perry had the following to say about #9.
"Tommy takes great angles to the ball and he's real sharp," Perry says. "He's very fundamentally sound. Now it's just understanding the pro game, the formations and adjustments.

"The speed level of the game is another issue. Obviously, in an environment like this, we don't get too exotic from a coverage standpoint.

"After this event here, it's all about workouts. And people put a lot of stock into that."
Zibby's first crack in the pros will likely come on special teams as a kick returner and his big punt return no doubt helped his cause. There will be questions about his ability to play defense in the pros until he gets a chance to prove himself at training camp somewhere. It probably doesn't hurt that Nedu made an instant impact with the Bengals this year after hearing similar criticisms of speed and college production heading into last year's draft.

The final ND player in the game is the one who surprised me the most. While watching the game, John Sullivan looked like the All-American center many ND fans had hoped he would become. He was a rock in pass-protection, punished in the run game, and was exceeding positive and energetic the whole game. Yes, there were two fumbled snaps and whether they were his fault or that of John David Booty -- BGS guidelines force me to blame the Trojan -- they will likely stick with Sully as will his few, but notable, misguided shotgun snaps in 2007. Still, it was a revelation to watch Sullivan not only pancake opposing defensive linemen, but also get out to the second level and make the block on the opposing middle linebacker. He even de-cleated Georgia Tech's Philip Wheeler on one block that honestly had me wondered where this guy was all season. It was the best game I've ever seen him play.

I know that the play of the offensive line was exceeding poor in 2007 and Sullivan turned into one of the larger scapegoats, but on Saturday he appeared to be well on the way to reviving his pro chances.

As a final aside, while watching the Senior Bowl, I came to the conclusion that it is one of the very best football games to watch from a college football fan perspective. It seems like an odd thing to say about an exhibition game that ultimately means nothing, but no other college game is like it. In addition to the fact that it is a de facto college All-Star game, the game and the way that the NFL Network presents it is very transparent and honest. Rather than heaping the usual platitudes and healthy doses of hyperbole found in a typical Musburgerian broadcast, the announcers were critical of the players when appropriate and offered plenty of constructive criticism.

Issues with technique and fundamentals that might escape the grasp of the average football watcher were highlighted, even if the player ultimately made the play. Making it even easier to play along from home was the wired up coaching staff. Play calls from the coach to the QB were broadcast over the air and translated into plain english by one of the announcers before the snap. So when it was announced that a whip route was coming, you knew what to expect and could watch the receiver try to make his cut and shake the defender. Likewise on a running play you could watch the OL attempt to open the correct hole in the defensive line. It was a unique experience for any fan that wants to get an inside look at a play developing and made the game enjoyable to watch. Hopefully by next year's game more than just a handful of households will have access to the NFL Network.

With the Senior Bowl week festivities over, Trevor, Sullivan, and Carlson will return to California to continue their draft prep training. Zibby will go back to his training center, which I imagine is a log cabin somewhere in the Siberian wilderness. The next big step for the players will the NFL Combine, starting on February 20th.