MOBILE, Ala. -- The temperature dipped nearly 20 degrees Tuesday, and swirling winds factored into both practices. It was the first of two days in which both teams will practice in full pads, and the intensity level was ratcheted up a few notches as a result.
We have yet to reach the midway point of the 2009 Senior Bowl week, yet players are beginning to separate from the pack in positive and negative ways. Here's a quick list of some of the early-week standouts from both rosters:
1. Boston College DT B.J. Raji
2. Southern Miss TE Shawn Nelson
3. USC linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews
4. Western Michigan S Louis Delmas
5. California C Alex Mack
The South team's second day of practice at the 2009 Under Armour Senior Bowl was notable for a few reasons, including USC linebackers running wild, a Clemson QB frustrating scouts and an LSU lineman's surprising struggles.
• USC's Brian Cushing is the rare prospect who will fit in any defensive scheme in the NFL. He can play inside or outside in either a 3-4 or 4-3. Very few linebackers have that ability. Where he looked best, though, was over the tight end as a strongside linebacker in the 4-3. His body type, power and aggression lend well to doing battle with opposing tight ends. For a taller linebacker, he gets low and is not a leverage liability. He showed quick hips turning and running with the tight ends. The one area in which he didn't look quite as comfortable was in his read-and-react skills while working in zone coverage. But overall, Cushing's wide skill set drastically reduces his draft-bust factor. If anyone here is a great fit for New England, it's Cushing.
• Cushing's teammate at USC, Clay Matthews, continues to be extremely impressive. He bends very well and always seems to be in proper football position. His change of direction is abrupt yet smooth. As an edge rusher, he did not lose speed bending the corner and got his shoulder low to the ground, making him very difficult to block. His pad level is consistently exceptional and he is an excellent hit-on-the-rise player who makes contact with the same leg and shoulder when taking on blocks. Matthews is very fundamentally sound but also very athletic. He would be an immediate demon on special teams while learning the linebacker position at the NFL level. At this point, it won't surprise us if the USC trio of Cushing, Matthews and Rey Maualuga are all off the board in the first 40 picks.
• Southern Miss TE Shawn Nelson continues to turn heads. He isn't the biggest tight end and this type of forum plays very well to his skill set, but his tools are undeniable. He looks like a Dallas Clark-type prospect who can create a lot of schematic problems for an NFL defense if he ends up with a creative and innovative offensive coordinator at the next level. Nelson is a seam-stretching presence who is capable of plucking the ball outside his frame and presents a big target area for his quarterback. He covers a lot of ground and can run past linebackers in man coverage. More surprising, however, has been Nelson's effectiveness as a blocker, particularly in pass pro. His lateral agility and ability to recover were on full display during the one-on-one drills. He also was able to drop his hips and handle the bull rush from the linebackers off the edge. Needless to say, Nelson is climbing up NFL draft boards this week.
• There are some things that just make you scratch your head in wonder. Take Clemson QB Cullen Harper's Tuesday performance, for example. Harper displayed great balance in the pocket and the arm strength to make all the throws, including a deep out throw from the opposite hash to Arizona WR Mike Thomas that had plenty of zip and hit Thomas directly on the numbers during one-on-one drills. But Harper then missed wide-open South Carolina WR Kenny McKinley a few throws later. This is the same inconsistency that plagued Harper throughout last season. It is also evident he struggles with accuracy when he has to anticipate and throw to a spot. A clear example came during seven-on-seven drills when Harper was late anticipating Thomas on a deep dig route, forcing Thomas to open up and make a circus catch. Harper appears to have the physical tools for the NFL level, but it is his mental capacity that has scouts wary at this point.
• Speaking of Thomas, he has taken full advantage of the all-star game circuit, starting with the East-West Shrine game and continuing to add to his solid résumé here at the Senior Bowl. Thomas' consistency has caught the attention of scouts. He continues to display excellent quickness off the line of scrimmage that gives him an adequate initial cushion to work with against defenders. He also has been able to create separation with quick and crisp cuts out his stem. His hands have been his most impressive trait, though. He's been able to haul in almost every pass he can get his hands on over the past two weeks. Thomas has a chance to make himself a lot of money coming out of this week if he can sustain his current level through Saturday's game action.
• Another receiver who flashed this afternoon was McKinley. He can be extremely dangerous after the catch and shows good wiggle in open space to leave defenders reaching for air. However, there are concerns about his ability to get open. McKinley is raw with his routes and at times appears to get lazy and rises up coming out of his breaks. This tips off defenders, allowing them a quicker jump on the ball. Scouts have also expressed concern about the 182-pound McKinley's ability to get off the line against the more physical corners he will face at the NFL level. He was rerouted by press coverage at times during today's practice.