Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thoughts on Spartans' performance in Senior Bowl

On Saturday, the North won the Senior Bowl, or as I like to call it, the Bowl of Southeastern Conference Aggression (a little Civil War joke for ya).

The score was 23-13, but that's not what matters. In fact, the game isn't even as important as the practices in the week leading up to the game. Still, plenty of NFL coaches and scouts attend the game, evaluating prospects.

(For practice recaps: Here are Day 1Day 2 and Day 3.)

All three Spartans in Mobile, Ala., for the game — Kirk Cousins, Brian Linthicum and Trenton Robinson improved their stock in practice. In the game, scouts look for decision-making, along with the physical tools they saw in practice.

Cousins confirmed his strong practices with a solid performance in the game. He went 5-for-11 passing for 115 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two drops. Linthicum had one catch for nine yards and Robinson had two tackles and a fumble recovery.

Sports Illustrated's Tony Pauline listed Cousins among his risers, saying:

"Cousins completed 5 of 11 passes for 115 yards, yet the stats tell a fraction of the story. Cousins made all the NFL throws from the pocket, displaying great speed on the ball while also putting touch on passes when required. His timing and accuracy was right on the mark as Cousins always gave his targets a good opportunity to make the reception. When he did miss on throws more times than not it was due to receiver error. It was important for Cousins to have a good game, as scouts questioned his judgment under center. At the Senior Bowl, decision-making was right on the money."

(For more analyst reactions to Spartans in the Senior Bowl, click here.)

I missed the live broadcast of the game, but recorded it on my DVR and decided to go through the whole thing and break down the plays in which a Spartan made an impact. I'm no scout, but tried to look at this like a scout would, since this game is like a job interview.

The game's rules make it a little more difficult to judge a player compared to game film. Defenses could only play Cover 1 or Cover 3, so Robinson's defense couldn't blitz and offensive players couldn't go in motion, so that affected Linthicum and Cousins as well. As South and Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said: "It's pretty easy (to call plays) when they can only play two coverages.

On Robinson's fumble recovery on the third play from scrimmage, it was more right spot, right time. Robinson moved in on the play-action from the South squad, but recovered decently to get to his man. He slowed up as the Arkansas receiver Joe Adams was being tackled, the ball came out and Robinson was right there to recover it.

On Linthicum's only catch of the game — the first offensive play for the North — he initially set a block before moving out into the left flat. He didn't get a great piece of the defensive end on the block, but pushed the end inside, making it easy for quarterback Russell Wilson to get outside the pocket. Linthicum did get good separation on the linebacker and showed his speed with solid yards after the catch.

On the North's first drive, Linthicum showed the ability to get to the next level to make blocks, but there was only one running play to his side, so he didn't hold his blocks for very long.

Linthicum seemed very fluid in his route-running, especially downfield. Based on the limited view I had on my TV, he appeared to get to the second level fairly quickly and easily, although I'm sure that was partly because of the defensive rules.

On the South's second drive, Robinson gave up a completion to Alabama tight end Brad Smelley. Robinson was closer to the line of scrimmage pre-snap and got caught inside on play-action, but he recovered nicely. Smelley ran a crossing route from the opposite side. Oklahoma State and South quarterback Brandon Weeden threw the ball short, forcing both to adjust. Because Robinson had coverage over the top,  Smelley made a nice catch on a throw Robinson had no chance to get to.

Later in the drive, Robinson was burned by Baylor running back Terrance Ganaway. Robinson was playing deep in the middle of the field when Ganaway came bursting through the line. Robinson came rushing up, but took a really bad angle and next thing you knew, Ganaway was past him for a 15-yard gain. NFL Network broadcaster Mike Mayock of NFL network did not like Robinson's effort nor angle on the play.

Robinson also was on the punt-return team, and had some decent blocks on some returns.

Cousins entered the game with a little less than a minute remaining in the first half. The North was a midfield after a good punt return, so it was a great opportunity for Cousins, who thrived in the two-minute drill at MSU. After a short incompletion and a running play, Cousins delivered a beautiful pass to a wide open DeVier Posey (Ohio State) for a 32-yard gain across the middle of the field. Mayock said Cousins does everything pretty well, but nothing great. However, he has great intangibles. "He will compete," Mayock said.

After a short completion to Ohio State's Dan Herron in the flat, Cousins had a pass batted into the air and backward. He smartly batted the ball to the ground, to make it an incompletion. On 3rd-and-5 from inside the 10, Cousins threw an interception in the corner of the end zone. But it wasn't really Cousins' fault, as Posey broke off the route and sort of gave up when he reached a defender.

In the second half, Cousins' first pass was right on the money to Arizona State's Gerell Robinson on a curl, but Robinson dropped it. On the next play, Linthicum had a nice block to spring a first-down run for the North.

On 3rd-and-10, Cousins stepped into the pocket and delivered a great pass to NC State's T.J. Graham for 22 yards across the middle. But on the next play, Cousins overshot a wide-open Gerell Robinson on a stop-and-go after a good pump-fake.

Linthicum couldn't block Texas linebacker Keenan Robinson a few times on running plays during he drive, as Robinson was able to shed Linthicum fairly easily.

On 3rd-and-4, Cousins stepped up and delivered a short pass to a crossing Gerell Robinson, who took the ball the rest of the way for a 40-yard touchdown. Robinson was sprung by a pick made by Linthicum on the cross. After the play, Cousins delivered a monstrous spike in the end zone. I hadn't seen him do that since his unsportsmanlike penalty against Central Michigan.

The next drive, Trenton Robinson was a hair too slow coming around the corner as Vick Ballard ran past Robinson up the middle for five yards. On another drive, Robinson showed some good speed, catching a receiver. He was lined up close to the line of scrimmage pre-snap, but when the fullback didn't run downfield, Robinson turned and caught the speedy Adams, who had made a short catch and broken a tackle down the sideline.

In the fourth quarter, Cousins threw a nice pass to the flat while rolling out to his right with pressure coming.

It's hard to get a good read on players in a format like this, but Cousins and Linthicum looked good in the game. Cousins showed solid decision-making skills and Linthicum showed some good route-running and decent blocking.

Cousins and Robinson will have the NFL Combine in February to show some more to scouts, while Linthicum only has MSU's Pro Day left.

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