MOBILE, Ala. -- Baseball folks talk often of how the ball sounds different coming off the bat of true hitters. Only the very best can generate that pure, echoing crack.
The Senior Bowl practice collisions between Duke guard Laken Tomlinson and Washington DT Danny Shelton produced a similar auditory phenomenon. When Tomlinson, at 323 pounds, and Shelton, at 343, butted heads, the pads popped with enough force to turn heads.
Tomlinson stood out as one of the best offensive linemen during the three days of workouts. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock singled him out as a rising prospect following Thursday's action, which again featured several showdowns between Tomlinson and Shelton. When asked to name his toughest foe this week, Tomlinson picked Shelton. And Shelton returned the favor.
"Low leverage, strong off the ball" was Shelton's scouting report on Tomlinson.
Shelton's showing for the North team solidified his status as a likely first-round pick. "The 3-4 teams are really going to try to pick me up," Shelton said Thursday, though he added that franchises using 4-3 schemes also had reached out to him..
"Real physical kid," said Tomlinson of Shelton. "Low center of gravity, real tough kid to block honestly."
Tomlinson's stock is a little tougher to pin down because of his position, but he's drawn comparisons to Detroit's Larry Warford (Round 3, No. 65 overall in 2013) and Dallas pulled off a coup with Zack Martin last year (Round 1, No. 16 overall). The path Tomlinson took to a potential NFL career will not hurt his cause, either, when it comes time to interview with teams. Tomlinson trudged an hour via bus and train to Chicago's Lane Tech College Prep, and he was a pre-med double major (psychology and evolutionary anthropology) at Duke.
Last summer, he even shadowed Dr. Carlos Bagley, a former Duke linebacker and current neurosurgeon at the university's hospital.
"There aren’t many that know they have that NFL career on the table kind of right in front of them but still have the forethought to be looking at, ‘OK, what’s next for me?'" Bagley told SI's Colin Becht.
For both Tomlinson and Shelton, what's next is continued preparation for the draft: Saturday's game, the combine, pro days, etc. Their next head-to-head meeting will occur in the NFL.
And you'll know it when it happens. Just listen for the sound.
The Nate Orchard bandwagon is filling up
No player did more for his NFL hopes on Thursday than Orchard, a 6-foot-3 edge rusher from Utah. Orchard's pass-rush skills match up with the 18.5 sacks he produced this season -- he showed a variety of moves off the edge, though his speed and length did the job on their own several times.
He also displayed improvement dropping in coverage, something teams that may see him as a 3-4 OLB surely noticed. An interception of a screen pass from Bryce Petty was Orchard's signature moment in that respect.
Orchard concurred with most of his scouting reports in that his best position is as "a 4-3 DE, for sure".
"Been doing it for 10 years, it's where my heart's at," he said. "But if I had to play OLB, it wouldn't be a problem."
Praise for Garrett Grayson
All in all, the quarterback play during Senior Bowl practice was subpar. There were myriad interceptions and mistimed throws (caused, in part, by unfamiliarity between receiver and quarterback). There was some progress on the South side, though, as the week progressed.
Bryan Bennett's arrival added some juice to Wednesday and Thursday's work, while Alabama's Blake Sims displayed his skill on the move.
But the "winner," if there was one: Colorado State's Garrett Grayson. The 6-foot-2 Grayson, who threw for 4,006 yards and 32 touchdowns this season, was handed the top quarterback award at the event's Thursday night banquet.
A month removed from a disappointing bowl performance vs. Utah, Grayson inched his game forward each day in Mobile, culminating in a sharp 11-on-11 drive to close out the final South practice. Earlier, in 7-on-7 work, Grayson landed a beautiful fade to Rannell Hall between CB Nick Marshall and S Anthony Jefferson.
While it was far from a perfect week, Grayson did stand out a bit as his counterparts, including Baylor's Bryce Petty, slumped.
An under-the-radar linebacker
There was a lot of chatter this week surrounding guys like Denzel Perryman, Jeff Luc and Hayes Pullard, and then Texas' Jordan Hicks starred Thursday. Martrell Spaight's name did not seem to come up much in the linebacker discussions, and it's kind of hard to figure why.
Spaight measured in smaller than he would have liked, at 5-foot-11 and 232 pounds (he had been listed at 6-foot-1), but he did produce 123 tackles for Arkansas this season, his second after a transfer from the Juco ranks.
In Mobile, Spaight kept on display his willingness to shoot the gaps and find the ball. During the full team drills, he stonewalled Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne as Artis-Payne tried to slip between his guard and center. Spaight also chased down a rolling Blake Sims off a play-action fake, forcing the speedy Alabama quarterback out of bounds.
Spaight has not yet received a combine invite. He should soon.
DIII lineman draws rave reviews
The question on Hobart guard Ali Marpet at the start of the week was: "Can he hang with these guys?" A few days later, it had shifted to: "How high will he be drafted?"
Kudos are due to Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage and his staff for plucking Marpet from the DIII ranks. Marpet (6-foot-3, 307 pounds) more than looked the part, with an eagerness to play through the whistle -- Wednesday, he kept churning until Pullard was on the ground during a run play. He moved well, getting himself in position to deliver a punch from a balanced base.
In talking with the scouts, coaches and analysts in attendance, Marpet's name came up time and again as a surprise star along the O-line.
Money-making week for Sammie Coates
Cards on the table, Coates was far better this week than I expected him to be. His time as an Auburn wide receiver showed a home-run threat with plenty to work on, both as a pass-catcher and route-runner, before becoming a reliable NFL receiver.
The gap has closed some now, thanks to Coates' strong week of practice. He still leaves some plays on the field -- i.e., a fade route that fell right through his hands and an underthrown deep ball that he was unable to adjust on in time -- but Coates also won several heads-up battles vs. cornerbacks. Above all, he flashed more reliable hands than he had during his Auburn days.
Case in point: On a slant route during those one-on-one drills, Coates moved his well-built frame (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) in front of CB Imoan Claiborne, then reached out to grab a pass thrown slightly in front of him. Coates is clearly a threat in the red zone, too, as evidenced by a brilliant body-control catch over top of Miami's Ladarius Gunter.