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Quarterbacks struggle mightily in Senior Bowl, but defenders shine from start to finish

MOBILE, Ala. -- Going into the week of the Senior Bowl practices and game, the primary narrative was the one you'll hear throughout the NFL draft: A year after seven different rookie quarterbacks found themselves in NFL starting positions, the follow-up talent at the position in the 2013 draft class is subpar in comparison, to say the least.

The performances of all six quarterbacks during the game did little to dispel that notion, though there were good moments for some of the signal-callers. The real story of the South team's 21-16 victory over the North squad was the defenses for both teams, and no player better personified that better than game MVP Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, the BYU sensation and former track star from Ghana who exploded off the snap over and over again.

Though he appeared to have issues maintaining leverage in practices this week, Ansah really showed up when it counted, grabbing six solo tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. At his best (which he most certainly was on Saturday evening), Ansah validated the comparisons to current New York Giants and former South Florida end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants took Pierre-Paul with the 15th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he's proved that freakish athleticism and hard work can overcome limited experience in the game. Ansah looks to be on that same high-drafted path.

Exekiel Ansah shows Denard Robinson who's boss. (USAT Sports Images)

"It was a little bit crazy this week, with all the GMs and coaches all over the hotel getting hold of you," Ansah said after the game. "But when it was time to practice, kit was time to practice."

Ansah knows there's still a lot of work to be done -- as far as he's concerned, today's game is no more than an incentive to continue the journey.

"Now, it's time to stay focused -- today will be gone, and tomorrow, I've just got to start training again. In life, no matter what you do, there's going to be something that will take your focus away. But I will stay focused. I came here to work hard with a bunch of great players -- everyone here is an MVP; that's why we all came together to play here. I came here to learn and to be better."

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Of course, getting tutoring all week from NFL coaches for the first time in his young football career was a huge benefit, and Ansah took a lot away from his time with the Detroit Lions staff, which coached the South team.

"Pro coaches have been around for a long time, and my job is to learn," Ansah said. "I just try to get what I can and add that to what I already know about the game. I'm still in the building process, but I've loved this week. I just love the competition. It was fun to make new friends, and just to move forward from here."

Ansah wasn't the only defensive star by a long shot -- just the most visible. Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore showed impressive closing speed on a sack, UCLA defensive lineman Datone Jones rounded off a very impressive week of practice with a half-sack, and Utah State cornerback Will Davis not only grabbed an interception and returned it 25 yards, but showed some nice hitting ability for his size (5-foot-11, 182 pounds).

"They wanted us to come out here and be physical," Davis said of the Oakland Raiders' staff, who coached the North team. "That's what they wanted to see, and you're never going to have this experience again."

Part of the experience that helped Davis was that the North cornerbacks were very strong all the way through the lineup. Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant and Florida International safety Jonathan Cyprien had especially strong weeks, and that made Davis and his comrades even more intent on keeping pace.

Landry Jones was under the gun on every throw. (USAT Sports Images)

"Me and Trufant, we came from [training at] API in Arizona, and we're both from Washington. Seeing what he did this week -- he had a killer week, and that's his game and his confidence. I was really feeding off of him. I started off a little slow, but seeing my boy do what he did made me raise my level, because I wanted to be on that level, too."

There wasn't much to talk about from the quarterback perspective -- many of the senior quarterbacks looked overwhelmed by the pressure brought from each defensive line, and there will be many questions in NFL front offices when teams break down the All-22 tape of this game and the practices. North Carolina State's Mike Glennon finished with a lot of reps and little to show -- just eight completions in 16 attempts for 82 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Syracuse's Ryan Nassib threw a terrible pick to Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo, and completed just 4 of his 10 attempts.

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Michael Williams provided one of the game's few offensive highlights. (USAT Sports Images)Arkansas' Tyler Wilson looked tentative for most of the day, throwing checkdown after checkdown, and he was nearly intercepted on one his few long passes. Oklahoma's Landry Jones may have had the worst day, completing 3 of 9 passes for 16 yards. Miami (OH)'s Zac Dysert, who was perhaps the most underwhelming quarterback through practice week, padded his stats late in the game with throw after throw to Oregon running back Kenjon Barner when the South team was playing not to lose and had basically vacated the middle zone.

The only passing down that wasn't a screen from Dysert to Barner came halfway through the first quarter, when Florida State's E.J. Manuel connected with Alabama tight end Michael Williams for a 20-yard score. As Williams recalled after the game, it was the exact same play in which Manuel threw a nice touch pass during Wednesday practice.

"It worked out much the same way," he said. "I had a corner route on that play, and if I see myself get even with the safety, I just take it to the backside pylon. I got even with the safety and headed toward that pylon, and E.J. threw a perfect pass. It fell right into my hands, so I had no choice but to catch it."

Indeed, but that was the rare occurrence in which a quarterback and receiver hooked up on what might be called a "wow" play. Defense will rule the 2013 draft, and the Senior Bowl simply forwarded that narrative.

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