MOBILE, Ala. — While the Senior Bowl game does not begin until Saturday afternoon, the competition began on Tuesday afternoon with practices for both the North and South teams.
In many ways, the practices can be considered almost more important than the game itself. Much of the NFL has descended on the southern Alabama city of Mobile, with scouts, general managers, and coaches coming in to watch some of the nation's best in a practice situation.
These sessions are physical, with players donning full pads. That's part of the reason why NFL personnel watches the practices so intently — it's where the players will perform drills that more or less translate to wherever they may end up around the league.
Unlike last year on Day 1, both the North and South squads practiced at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where the game will be held on Saturday. The Browns' staff is coaching the South and the Bears' staff is coaching the North this week.
After taking in both practices, here are some thoughts and observations from Day 1 of Senior Bowl week.
ALABAMA DIFFERENCE MAKERS
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has once again become the premiere college football program in the country. The Crimson Tide has won four national championships under Saban since 2009, and was close to winning a fifth just a few weeks ago against Clemson.
But today Saban was at the South practice, supporting the four Alabama players who are participating in this week's event — linebacker Ryan Anderson, tight end O.J. Howard, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, and long snapper Cole Mazza.
"I think the Senior Bowl is a great opportunity for our players, especially being in our state here in Mobile," Saban said. "A lot of our fans have a lot of interest in what our players do in this game."
While Alabama has four players in the Senior Bowl, it also has plenty who decided to sit this one out. According to Saban, those who made that decision did so for good reason, as they were banged up after a long, tough season.
As for the players in Mobile this week, Saban was reticent to say Howard would be a first-round pick — though that is where he's being projected by many analysts.
"I can't really make a comment on that — I think it's all speculation," Saban said. "I don't know, really, the other people in the draft at every position. … There's a lot of factors that goes into where somebody gets picked. I think we should actually think a lot less about where you get picked and a lot more about what you do after you get picked in terms of what kind of career you develop for yourself."
Anderson has also drawn rave reviews for his play, having recorded 128 career tackles, 19.0 career sacks, and 39.5 career tackles for loss in his four years with the Crimson Tide. But according to Saban, it's Anderson's versatility that makes him an even better prospect.
"Ryan Anderson played great for us," Saban said, touting his sack numbers and calling him a good leader for the team. "Very, very consistent performer. He can probably play inside 'backer or outside 'backer, and he's got some pass-rushing ability. So I think his versatility as a player creates a lot of value for him."
With a championship pedigree, any Alabama player who makes it to the highest level has a strong chance to be a difference maker.
QUARTERBACK HAND SIZE
It's around this time of year that hand size becomes a topic of conversation in the NFL, particularly for quarterbacks. The thought process being, the bigger a quarterback's hands, the better chance he has to protect the football. Larger hands are also more helpful in throwing spirals.
So as the players weighed in and got their measurements taken, there was one QBs hands that stood out above the rest — the mitts of Colorado's Sefo Liufau.
He measured in at 10 and 7/8 inches. For some perspective, only one other quarterback at the Senior Bowl measured in at 10 inches — and that was just 10 inches, even.
So what does Liufau think about the size of his paws?
"I've never measured them before, so it was news to me, too," Liufau said with a laugh after the day's practice.
This will probably come up again at the Combine, because that's how draft season works.
I'M NOT A SCOUT, BUT…
We'll do this for the three days of Senior Bowl practices. I'll make a quick observation that you're free to hold against me. But you probably shouldn't because, as the header says, I'm no scout.
I think Alabama tight end O.J. Howard will be a matchup nightmare for defenses perhaps for the next decade, barring injury. He's a big guy — weighing in at 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds — and has the soft hands to match. Watching him today, it's easy to see not only why he recorded over 200 yards receiving in the national championship game a few weeks ago, but also why he's a likely first-round pick in this year's upcoming draft.