Three HBCU players at the Senior Bowl are proving they belong in the NFL
Players from Southern, N.C. A&T and S.C. State measure themselves against players from bigger, better-known schools
MOBILE, Alabama — Coming out of high school, Danny Johnson (Southern), Brandon Parker (North Carolina A&T), and Darius Leonard (South Carolina State) were snubbed by big schools. They were either too short (Johnson), too slow (Parker), or not smart enough (Leonard). The stereotypers of football had their chance. It’s too late now.
Johnson, a 4.0 GPA student who finished with a criminal justice degree in 3½ years, speaks for all three alums of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) here at the Reese’s Senior Bowl when he says with a smile, “I know my rights.”
And, those are? “I have a right to be here.”
It’s a play off the Colin Kaepernick Foundation program and it has to do with self-empowerment. Johnson, Parker, and Leonard were jets of enthusiasm this week at the Senior Bowl, the college football all-star game that attracts entire scouting staffs from NFL teams. You show out here and you enhance your draft status.
Johnson, Parker and Leonard spent four seasons proving they belonged in college football. This week, they are proving they belong in the NFL.
Here is a snapshot of each player’s week:
There was the 5-foot-9 defensive back Johnson, getting a hand up to distract J’Mon Moore, the 6-foot-3 receiver from Missouri and causing an incompletion. That was Johnson swiping a ball away from Marcell Ateman, the 6-foot-4 receiver from Oklahoma State.
Moore and Ateman combined for 124 catches during the 2017 season. It was exactly the challenge Johnson was hoping to get here this week as NFL scouts went to work determining his draft worthiness.
“I fought against the big guys today,” said Johnson, who had 18 career interceptions at Southern. “It felt great. I can compete with anybody.”
Johnson intercepted one ball and knocked away four others in Tuesday’s light scrimmage and one-on-one drills. He keeps height from being a factor because he gets position inside the taller receivers, making it hard for them to extend their arms and push him away. Johnson stays on their hip and does not allow them a clean takeoff to jump for balls he can’t reach.
“The height is no big deal,” he said. “Really, it’s not. They are longer than me, so they are trying to be more physical, so I have to get inside them. You have to have the right technique and stay attached.
“Things I was being taught out here today by NFL coaches, I learned at Southern.”
Johnson had his rough patches. He was turned in a circle on an out route by Oklahoma State’s James Washington, who is playing his way into the first round here. Johnson gave up a long touchdown pass on another play, and lost inside leverage on another pass completion.
Still, he kept charging back, picking up his tempo even late in practice when his legs should be weary.
If Johnson’s competitiveness does not impress you, this will: He played quarterback at his high school in Jackson, Louisiana, because his team needed him there. Johnson had no film playing defensive back and the major Division I schools were not going to recruit a 5-foot-9 quarterback.
“I wanted to play quarterback and help our school,” said Johnson, who led his team deep into the high school playoffs. “It’s what you do.”
Here’s more from the Johnson playbook: He fathered a child when he was 16 years old. In high school and college, he stayed connected to his son Aiden while family members helped him and the boy’s mother raise the child. Johnson finished second in his class in high school and had a 4.0 GPA at Southern in just 3½ years, which is extraordinary for a student-athlete.
Johnson has the quickness to play a slot corner and the competitiveness to play a traditional corner role outside. He can also return punts and kickoffs.
“He’s a really fun player to evaluate,” said Phil Savage, the executive director of The Senior Bowl and former NFL general manager and scout. “Plays outside and inside, returns punts. He is smallish, but as a nickel corner and punt returner, he’s got a really good chance to showcase himself here.”
Talk to any NFL executive or scout here and they are seeking high-character players. Johnson checks that box easily.
“He is a very impressive. Had a child when he was very young, but persevered and handled that situation remarkably well,” Savage said. “Good father and good son and they said he was one of the best teammates to come through Southern in a while.”
Johnson showed off one other skill Wednesday after he was beaten on a deep ball for a touchdown just inside the corner flag in the end zone.
“Short-term memory,” Johnson said. “I’m not afraid. I’ll make some plays, I’ll get beat on some plays. Move on when you get beat. Win the next one.”
From the looks of him here this week, an NFL team will give Johnson a chance to win some on Sundays, either as a draft pick or an undrafted free-agent invitee.
North Carolina A&T’s Parker, a 6-foot-7 offensive tackle, came face to face with an assortment of edge marauders this week, talent he didn’t see often, or at all, in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). He had to deal with the speed of Central Florida outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the one-handed quarterback-wrecker, and combat Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport, a 6-foot-7, 255-pound defensive end projected as a first-round pick.
“I live up to those challenges,” Parker said. “It’s nothing short of exciting.”
The duel with Davenport, which Parker won two out of three times in one drill Wednesday, was illuminating. They are both 6-foot-7, but Parker used leverage to stymie Davenport’s bull rush on one play. Parker outweighed Davenport by 50 pounds, but he got lower than Davenport and up under his chin and stood him up. It was quite impressive.
“I’m tall, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try and get lower than the guy you are blocking and use leverage,” he said. “He’s a monster. I love competing against the top competition.”
Parker was not so solid on Tuesday during the first workouts. As hundreds of scouts watched, he struggled to get up to speed in pass setting and pass protection. His run blocking was good, but he understands he has work to do.
“Pass pro was a little rough,” he said. “It’s just a matter of learning to play with better speed and how fast I can get adjusted. It will take a couple of days to get back into it.”
Still, there is no question Parker belongs here. Several NFL teams pulled him off to the side after Tuesday’s practice for quiet discussions. He has met with most teams at the hotel headquarters of the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Some of the talk has to do with his weight, 303 pounds, and how he may be expected to add 20 pounds or so.
“He’s got a frame that could carry another 20-30 pounds easily,” said Savage. “I think the biggest thing is if he can hold up against bigger competition in pass pro. This is obviously going to be a step up in competition from the MEAC.
“He is an intriguing offensive tackle prospect because of the height and the arm length. He is a very conscientious person. There will be a ton of NFL line coaches who will want to work with him next year.”
NFL scouts swarmed over North Carolina A&T practices this fall, just as they did a year go while scouting running back Tarik Cohen, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears. It can be distracting for a college player to glance at the sidelines and see scouts dissecting his movements.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing to know they are there for you, that you are getting noticed,” Parker said. “If anything, it motivated you. Not that I was going to take any plays off, but I might give an extra shove, or take an extra step, or make sure I finished in balance. Every little thing counts.”
It is not only unusual territory for Parker, it is unexpected territory. He was not offered scholarships by major Division I programs out of high school. There were doubts, not only by people around him, but within himself.
“It was a reality check, that maybe you are not as good as you thought you were,” Parker said. “It was motivating. I’m pretty sure once I didn’t get those big offers, a lot of people, even people in my corner, started doubting me a little bit.”
Any lingering doubts about Parker might have been shoved aside here at the Senior Bowl, just like the pass rushers.
The South offense lined up for third-and-goal from the 2-yard line Wednesday. The defense was in man-to-man coverage and South Carolina State’s Leonard, a linebacker, was locked on the running back.
Leonard had the play dissected before the snap.
“I knew it was coming by formation,” Leonard said. “I saw three plays when they did it against Dorian [O’Daniel of Clemson]. I saw the back split a little wider, and saw the splits by the receiver, so I knew they were going to run a pick route. I knew they were going to go to the running back.”
Sure enough, the short toss in the flat went to the running back. Leonard was there immediately to shove him to the ground, play over.
There are no issues as far as Leonard’s intellect for the game. He did not have high enough test scores in February of his senior year at Lake View (South Carolina) High School to be considered for a scholarship to his dream school, Clemson. Leonard got the test score in March and ended up at South Carolina State. He molded his body, worked on his grades, and devoted himself to X’s and O’s. That’s how he was able to sniff out that play in the Senior Bowl practice.
“My preparation came from being around my [S.C. State] coaching staff,” Leonard said. “I was in the office all the time and I learned the terminology, the defense, the schemes. I can sit there and talk with any coach and take over and talk about the defense.
“So when the scouts asked me questions about schemes, I could talk right along with them. I felt confident in drawing up a defense. The defensive staff at South Carolina State got me ready.”
Leonard is one of the most athletic players at the Senior Bowl. He had a slow start to the week in one-on-one drills after not having played since the end of South Carolina State’s season on Nov. 18. He had a lot of rust to bang off.
“I was off the first day, today was better,” Leonard said after Wednesday’s workout.
One of his areas of focus this week is stubbing blocks and two-gapping the tackle or guard who comes at him. Leonard said he watched film before getting here and saw himself run around some blocks. This week his focus has been to get off blocks quickly and make tackles.
Leonard arrived with solid tackling technique. He knows how important form is when your legs have been worn down.
“Late in the ballgame when you are tired, your athleticism can go away,” Leonard said. “That’s when technique comes into play. I want to show the NFL people I am more than an athlete.”
The film study and the attention to detail have been evident. The Senior Bowl will test his entire skill set.
“You know he has the athleticism and the speed, but he didn’t get a chance to cover one-on-one and do some of those things at South Carolina State,” Savage said. “He is really gifted as an athlete. I think people know who he is and who he represents. As far as his personality, they don’t know that. They will get some clues this week when they talk with him.”
Leonard used the missed opportunity with Clemson four years ago to propel his college career. He still has a grudge to see him through this week as he tries to make an impression. All around him are players from schools such as Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Auburn. He belongs on the field, Leonard said.
“Coming from South Carolina State, people are saying my talent level I played against wasn’t as great as the ACC or SEC, but I think the MEAC has great competition,” Leonard said. “I want to show I can play with these big-time names. I can’t wait to play against them.
“I still have that chip. I’m on the biggest stage now and I want to show I’m the best linebacker out here.”