The Reese’s Senior Bowl is an audition of the highest order.
“This is the ultimate job fair for college prospects trying to transition to become a professional player,” Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. “These players get to come down and compete against some of the best in the country.”
Players have had to show their best throughout this week. The hashtag #competeandconnect says it all as NFL team representatives make comparisons and draw conclusions from what they see in practices.
“But off the field, these kids get a chance to connect with 32 potential employers,” Savage said. “In many cases, it’s the first time that they’ve been in front of these teams to talk to them face to face. They get a chance to sell themselves with their personality, their leadership, their intangibles.
“It’s truly the bridge between college and pro,” Savage said. “Those two worlds merge right here in Mobile.”
‘100 percent football’
Players must be in interview mode every waking moment. In the mornings, the coaching staffs – this year from the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans – have meetings with the players. These are team meetings and position meetings where they go over video from the day before and install the practice plan for the upcoming afternoon.
The afternoons are devoted to practices for the North and South squads that will square off Saturday. Evenings are set aside for the other 30 clubs to get access to the players for interviews, psychological testing and the like.
“It’s their first step in their journey to the draft, and there is no rest for the weary,” Savage said. “Sandwiched between some of those things, we have some sponsorship events and training, trying to help these players become a pro.”
There is media coaching, financial education and a community service day.
“It’s a very busy week,” Savage said. “Their focus, honestly, is 100 percent football and the things that come with that. It’s a challenge, but that’s part of the test, quite honestly, to see how guys handle things when they’re starting to wear down a little bit.”
In college, players had to balance their on-field responsibilities with academics and other obligations. At the Senior Bowl, Savage said players have to approach their off-the-field duties like an academic subject.
“Our event gives them a real glimpse of what NFL life will be in terms not just of your play on the field but all the responsibility off the field that comes as well,” he said. “We try to get them headed in the right direction so when they are drafted ultimately at the end of April, they have a good sense of what they’re about to get into, what they’re going to experience when they get to their respective clubs.”
Alabama talent on display
There is plenty of state-connected flavor among the players invited to this all-star game, including:
- Four from Alabama: center Bradley Bozeman, defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand, cornerback Levi Wallace and punter JK Scott.
- Four from Auburn: inside linebacker Tre’ Williams, safety Tray Matthews, long snapper Ike Powell and kicker Daniel Carlson.
- Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers, from Gulf Shores.
- South Alabama safety Jeremy Reaves.
- Jacksonville State cornerback Siran Neal.
- Penn State cornerback Christian Campbell, from Phenix City.
The Mobile area has five players who have come home to play in the Senior Bowl: Auburn’s Williams, Troy’s Silvers, South Carolina cornerback Jamarcus King, inside linebacker Myles Pierce of The Citadel and Southern Miss running back Ito Smith.
Neal, a native of Eufaula, is just the fourth player in JSU history to be invited to this all-star game. He joins Dieter Brock (1974), Jesse Baker (1979) and Sean Richardson (1994) as the only Gamecocks to play in college football’s premier senior showcase.
Coincidentally, 1994 is the year Neal was born. Despite playing for a Football Championship Subdivision school, he doesn’t wonder if he belongs.
“If you’re a baller, you’re a baller,” Neal said.
Campbell is among the players who have caught Savage’s eye.
“Christian Campbell has had an impressive couple of practices,” the executive director said. “He has the ability to press one on one. He’s tall. He’s got long arms. He’s been able to run downfield. He’s done quite well.”
Other state-connected players have all held their own, Savage said.
“They’ve all competed and mixed in well,” he said. “(That’s) one of the goals that we have as an organization as we’re trying to invite players. The truth of it is no one will hurt their stock here that belongs. The only ones who hurt their stock at the Reese’s Senior Bowl are the guys that don’t belong.
“And if they don’t belong here, they’re not going to end up belonging in the National Football League,” Savage continued. “It’s really on us if we ever bring a player here who doesn’t have a reasonable chance to show up at the next level, either as a draft pick or even as an undrafted player that goes on to become a candidate for a team.”
$30 million impact
Savage was in the NFL as a coach, scout and executive for 20 years. But his fascination with the Senior Bowl goes back to his youth in Mobile.
“I can remember coming to Senior Bowl practices when I was 6, 7, 8 years old,” he said. “Those were fun days, trying to get autographs. Then coming back here as a scout, general manager and a coach, trying to find players. I definitely enjoyed that.”
This year’s Reese’s Senior Bowl has an estimated economic impact of more than $30 million on the Mobile area.
“It’s pretty special to bring virtually the entire National Football League to Mobile and try to entertain them off the field and serve a purpose for them on the field as far as watching these prospects,” Savage said.