The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Big hits are discouraged at the Senior Bowl. So how do big hitters stand out?

Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown participates in a Senior Bowl practice this week. (Butch Dill/AP)
6 min

MOBILE, Ala. — During the week of practice leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl, as the prospects learned the schemes and the speed of play revved up, the physicality of the drills and scrimmages approached the level of a live game. Collisions in the trenches sharpened from crunch to CRUNCH, from pop to POP. Cornerbacks jammed wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and hand-fought down the field. Linebackers thudded tight ends after the catch, and running backs, when they burst through a hole, didn’t hesitate to lower their shoulders, sprinting through contact that normally would have brought them to the ground.

But the biggest hits never happened. The players with the speed and power and angles to deliver the thunderclap blows that would make a packed stadium go “OOOH!” showed obvious restraint, veering off course at the last second. They wanted to highlight their strengths, to push the boundaries like everyone else, but in a college all-star game, they felt an acute pressure to juggle the competing desires of proving themselves and protecting the health of their peers.

“It’s hard,” said Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, one of the most physical prospects eligible for this year’s NFL draft. “These [are] my teammates, and I know guys got their futures, and I’m not trying to hurt nobody, so …” He paused. “It is hard playing fast and not trying to be too hard on them. But that’s just my game. I’m going to keep going until the coaches tell me to pull off.”

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Over three days of practices, Overshown, Florida State safety Jammie Robinson and the other big hitters lived in a liminal space. They said that even though they have played football for years, even though they understand how to practice a violent game safely, the Senior Bowl was still a challenge. Many hadn’t worn shoulder pads for a month or more, and these were not normal practices. They were a chance to compete against some of the best players in the nation, and their performances could help or hurt their résumés ahead of the draft in April, which will determine how much money they will make over the early years of what could be a short dream career.

During practices, coaches yelled, “Stay up! Stay up!” in hopes of reducing injury. But it was obvious they still wanted to see physicality, too. As former all-pro cornerback Samari Rolle wrote in a recent article for the football website the 33rd Team, teams value players who can make “receivers think twice about coming across the middle.”

In the article, Rolle pointed out the stakes are high for a player such as Overshown, a converted safety trying to prove he is heavy enough to play linebacker in the NFL at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds.

“He has the most upside,” Rolle wrote. “He needs to put on some weight because the quality of backs he will go against in the NFL will improve, and he might not be able to get those guys down.”

Robinson, the thumper from Florida State, said he tried to reduce the temptation to deliver big hits by focusing on the pass. He rotated between safety alignments and concepts — center field and the box, zone coverage and man-to-man against tight ends — and concentrated on being a ballhawk. He wanted to prove his ball skills and make plays without doling out physical punishment.

“But if I’m breaking on a run play, I’m going to show you that I can get to the ball fast from 15 yards deep,” he said.

Robinson admitted he had to sometimes consciously remind himself not to make big hits. When asked whether that was hard, he started to nod, then hesitated. It looked as if he realized in real time that speaking to reporters at the Senior Bowl was one component of the larger job interview.

“It’s not hard at all. It’s not hard at all,” he said. “It’s really easy because I pride myself on being fast and being physical, so whenever my number’s called and it’s time to be coachable, [I] fly around, [and] I’m always going to be smart with it.”

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But sometimes the frustration with the level of physicality seemed palpable. During one-on-one coverage drills, Robinson thought Iowa State wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson committed pass interference, but the referee didn’t throw the flag. He had a similar situation a few reps later with Dontayvion Wicks from Virginia.

“Y’all love pushing off, huh?!” Robinson yelped.

As the week progressed and the defensive backs maintained their restraint, the linemen got more physical. McClendon Curtis, an offensive guard from Chattanooga, said he felt prepared because the coronavirus pandemic actually helped him get better at finding the right level of physicality for practice. He said his school zip-tied shields to players’ face masks to prevent spit from accidentally passing from one player to another, which made it harder to breathe and forced him to focus.

“Your technique has to be good because you’re not able to be yourself,” he said. “You got to be more mentally into it.”

Sometimes, when the physicality spilled over, it didn’t seem to hurt prospects’ stock. In a late period during the last practice of the week, Indiana linebacker Cam Jones met Curtis in a gap and delivered a hit Curtis felt was over the line. Curtis shoved Jones, who shoved him back, and the two had to be restrained by their teammates.

“Getting chippy,” a grinning scout exclaimed on the sideline. “I like that kid [Curtis].”

It was a reminder of the tenuous and temporary boundary the all-star game had created and the inevitability that it would disappear. Overshown, who said he never ended up being reprimanded for playing too physically, said he couldn’t wait to get back to the style of play he has had since his junior year of high school, when a coach moved him to safety.

“I got to start 15, 20 yards back and just get a running head start and just hit people,” he said. “Ever since then, I loved it. People used to say: ‘How do you do that? Like, you just throw your body around like you don’t care for it.’ But I love football so much that, if I was to get hurt on the football field, I know I gave it my all. So that’s just something I don’t even think about. I just play hard.”

But for a few days, they mostly kept it in check. During one red zone period late in the week, the linemen were crashing into each other and the wide receivers were jockeying with the defensive backs when Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh took a handoff. Robinson flew in from the deep middle of the field and lined up what could have been a bone-crushing hit. But at the last minute, he peeled off course, letting McIntosh sprint into the end zone. And while the running back celebrated, Robinson walked back toward the sideline, shaking his head.