The 2021 Senior Bowl might look different in a number of ways than it has in the recent past, most of the changes necessitated because of COVID-19 restrictions.
There also will be a venue change, as the practices and game have been moved from rickety Ladd-Peebles Stadium to South Alabama’s impressive new on-campus facility and Hancock Whitney Stadium. (Practices were moved for one day to the USA campus when heavy rain hit in 2020.)
But one other big change from last year’s game: more quarterbacks. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy announced on Twitter that there will be eight quarterbacks heading to Mobile, Alabama, in January.
Last year, we had six.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert was the showcase, Utah State’s Jordan Love was the enigma and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts was the wildcard of the group. Those three were all gone in the draft’s first 52 selections.
The other three QBs down there — Michigan’s Shea Patterson, Washington State’s Anthony Gordon and Colorado’s Steven Montez — all went undrafted.
We’ve had an 8-man class before
Nagy actually recruited an eight-QB group in his first year running the game in 2019. It was a deeper lot, even if there was only one eventual first-rounder. That group: Daniel Jones, Drew Lock, Gardner Minshew, Jarrett Stidham, Ryan Finley, Will Grier, Trace McSorley and Tyree Jackson. A ninth quarterback, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, was selected but was recovering from injury and couldn’t play.
So eight is not new. But it was two years ago, and we’re happy there will be more QB talent down there. The only downside to more quarterbacks is fewer reps for each in practice, but it didn’t seem to be a major concern in 2019, and the coaches actually were able to split up their groups and get more done at times.
Five quarterbacks have said yes to attending in 2021 — Kyle Trask (Florida), Kellen Mond (Texas A&M), Jamie Newman (Wake Forest, Georgia), Sam Ehlinger (Texas) and Ian Book (Notre Dame).
If I had to guess now, I’d say all five have a really good chance of being drafted. Trask is gunning for a shot in Round 1, with more work to be done toward that effort. Mond, Newman and Ehlinger all figure to go in the middle rounds, but the game week could be really big for their final grades.
Book entered the season with mostly Day 3 grades but has had a strong final season for the surging Irish and has rightfully earned his spot.
The selections this season carry extra weight because of the cancellations of other all-star events such as the East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA game. Only one senior quarterback (James Madison’s Ben DiNucci) last year was drafted outside Round 1 despite not competing in an all-star game.
So who gets the final three Senior Bowl spots?
If we had to tap into Nagy’s brain for a minute, we think he might have a few tricks up his sleeves. As in, non-seniors.
The Senior Bowl changed a rule a few years back where underclassmen who have graduated by December can be eligible for the game; it’s how Love and others have attended in recent years. It can be a tricky process to determine which underclassmen are eligible, but that information usually starts to trickle in around this time of year.
And we’re not holding our breath here, but Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence would be eligible if he indeed graduates next month, as he’s said he would. In the end, he’ll get an invitation — and Lawrence would be the biggest-name prospect to play in the game since … Tim Tebow? (That’s name value, folks, not pro potential.)
In the end, we suspect Lawrence would give Nagy and his staff a thanks-but-no-thanks reply. We’ll happily admit we were wrong if Nagy somehow can reel in his white whale.
But like LSU’s Joe Burrow a year ago, Lawrence easily could pass on the game and still be the No. 1 overall pick; no one would hold that against him. The best chance for convincing Lawrence to come play down there might be for Clemson’s season to end prior the national championship game, which is scheduled for Jan. 11 — less than two weeks before the Senior Bowl, which starts the week of Jan. 24.
We’re still checking on the academic statuses of Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson — if they are eligible, Nagy will invite them. Alabama’s Mac Jones would be eligible, as he’s already graduated, but he has yet to declare for the draft. (Our belief, based on talking with some industry sources, is that Fields likely won’t be eligible, for what it’s worth.)
We can all dream of a Lawrence-Fields-Wilson final three, or even a Lawrence-Wilson-Jones trio, but the odds of either of those parlays hitting might be, as Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein character in “Casino” said: “It cannot happen. It would not happen.”
Jones would be a natural, of course, as Crimson Tide starters are almost handed out invitations on the first day of class in the summer. Getting him there would be a big deal for the local folks, too, but Jones is playing terrific football and would be more than worthy. He’d be one of the best QBs down there if he went.
Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Nagy can lure one eligible underclassman to the game; that would leave two spots and perhaps as many as four if any of the five QBs who have committed get hurt or otherwise opt out of the game. There’s almost always some sort of attrition at that position after invitations are originally accepted.
Here are how we’d order the likelihood of those final spots being filled, outside of the underclassmen:
1. Feleipe Franks, Arkansas
Franks’ exit from Florida marked the end of a disappointing spell with the Gators, and he arrived in Fayetteville with mostly PFA or late-round grades this summer. But even though he wasn’t able to outplay his former backup (Trask) last week, there has been some fascination in Franks’ rebirth this season.
He takes too many sacks and has a fumbling issue (27 in four years). But you don’t see 6-foot-6, 236-pound quarterbacks — those are verified numbers — with cannons for arms and running ability (a sub-5.0 40 time) come along too often.
Franks has played really well this season and is deserving of a spot, we think. We’d rather see more of the uber-talented, somewhat flawed prospects there than the low-ceiling players. But maybe that’s just us.
2. Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Back from midseason ankle injury, Pickett is a player we like. Even if he only projects to being an NFL backup (with possible starter potential), he’d make a good addition to the game. Pickett has improved markedly over his 2019 performance and has some fans in NFL circles, too. We wrote about his matchup against Virginia Tech this weekend and how every game counts for Pickett down the stretch.
3. Shane Buechele, SMU
He’d be a solid choice, and it would lead to some fun media angles with Ehlinger, the man who replaced Buechele at Texas and led to his transfer, both in the same game. Like Pickett, Buechele projects to be a QB2 at the next level, but his aggressive temperament could win over some practice observers.
4. Dustin Crum, Kent State
A terrific wildcard choice, Crum is a somewhat unorthodox performer, but that only increases his intrigue. In three games this season, he’s completed 61 of 82 passes, good for 74.4 percent (and that includes six dropped passes), for 838 yards, nine TDs and only one INT.
Crum also has run 31 times for 164 yards and three scores. He’s got sort of an elongated, slightly awkward throwing motion, but boy, does that ball arrive where it needs to be. We’re going to give Crum a draftable grade when it’s all said and done, so he’s certainly worthy.
5. D’Eriq King, Miami
Something tells me Nagy wants to give King a shot. Hurts was a big attraction a year ago, and King — whether he ends up a QB or something else — would be a popular figure on Mobile if he ends up there. Plus, he’s having a really good season for the Hurricanes, even with the blowout loss to Clemson.
We suspect the 5-foot-8 King would want to join the quarterbacks in Mobile as his first preference. But switching back to receiver (where he played in 2016 and 2017 at Houston, with Greg Ward Jr. as his QB) would certainly be an option. Some NFL scouts believe that might be his path to the league, more so than at quarterback.
6. The field
The initial Senior Bowl Top 250 watch list included several quarterbacks, including some fairly well-known names: Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson, Utah’s Jake Bentley, Baylor’s Charlie Brewer and Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello.
Of those, Thompson — if he’s healthy — intrigues us the most now. Brewer’s upside is limited, Costello has been benched since his LSU showcase game, and we don’t even know yet if Bentley has even won the Utes’ starting job.
Others listed include Louisiana’s Levi Lewis, Jacksonville State’s Zerrick Cooper and Illinois’ Brandon Peters. Lewis, another player we like, appears to have the best shot of those three; he’s small, a lefty and also a bit unorthodox, but there’s talent there.
And from the pool of players outside that list who have played well this season, we’d offer up Liberty’s Malik Willis, Temple’s Anthony Russo, West Virginia’s Jarret Doege and San Jose State’s Nick Starkel (who played previously at Texas A&M and Arkansas).
Willis, a redshirt junior and former Auburn transfer who might be eligible but who also could return to school, is having a brilliant season. He easily would be our pick from that last group if he ends up in the 2021 draft mix and has met the criteria to play in the game.
The 6-foot-1 Willis is a dual-threat QB who isn’t getting nearly enough love for the nationally ranked Flames. He’s racked up a 15-1 TD-INT ratio, plus a stunning 700 rush yards and nine more scores in seven games.
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