MOBILE, Ala. –The 2015 Reese's Senior Bowl officially began Monday with executive director Phil Savage welcoming reporters and previewing the week of college football's premier all-star game played annually in Mobile, Ala.
Joining Savage at Monday's press conference were some of the game's top participants -- Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates and Pittsburgh tackle T.J. Clemmings -- all of whom told reporters what they're looking to gain out of the week.
Each player will spend the week with NFL coaching staffs – the North team with the Titans and the South team with the Jaguars – attend meetings and interview with NFL scouts they're trying to impress.
Savage said the Senior Bowl is a great opportunity for players to perform in front of NFL coaches, general managers and scouts, showing why they belong at the next level and can play in the National Football League.
"You have to practice well and produce on game day," said Savage. "If you do those things in professional football, you've got an opportunity to make a living. This is the first time for these players to experience that in this type of setting."
Practices begin Tuesday and continue through Thursday. All 110 players will partake in a community service event on Friday before playing in the 66th Annual Reese's Senior Bowl game on Saturday from Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
The game itself will feature a few new rules. Similar to what the NFL did with the 2014 Pro Bowl, the Senior Bowl will have a two-minute warning at the end of all four quarters. This will give quarterbacks extra opportunities to operate the two-minute drill.
Defenses will also be allowed to use nickel packages. This allows teams to match slot cornerbacks against slot receivers. The rule change will even the playing field when the offense uses three- and four-receiver sets and limit matchups with linebackers on receivers.
Savage also threw out a few storylines to set the tone for the week, most notably the competition between the six quarterbacks participating. He challenged all six to separate from the group and establish themselves as the third-ranked quarterback in the 2015 draft class.
"I think it's a foregone conclusion that Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are the top two, but the race is on to be number three," he said. "I've had a number of scouts tell me the last few days that someone is going to emerge as the third best quarterback in this draft. Everyone is anxious to find out who that is."
Petty took Savage's remarks (among others he's heard recently) as extra motivation for what he said is a weeklong business trip.
"There was something said at some point that I won't be anything more than a career backup in the NFL," he said. "I have high expectations for myself, more so than what anyone can say about me. I try to not pay too much attention to it, but it's reality. Hopefully at the end of this week it will be Petty and the other guys."
The Baylor quarterback enters the week as one of the players with the most to prove. As a Baylor Bear, Petty played primarily out of the shotgun in a spread offense. Scouts want to see that he has the ability to play under center as well.
Footwork is a large part of that equation in regards to three, five and seven-step drops – all things Petty says he is comfortable showcasing.
"From what I understand, Baylor's offense isn't high on the leaderboards in terms of transitioning to the NFL," Petty said, acknowledging that he's at a disadvantage. "For me, it's an opportunity to show that I belong and that I'm relevant. In terms of dropping back and reading coverage's, it's not a different language for me…Just because I wasn't asked to do things (at Baylor) doesn't mean I can't do them."
Two years ago the Senior Bowl passed an exemption for redshirt juniors who have already graduated to be eligible for invitation. This year, three such players are attending the Senior Bowl, including Auburn's Coates.
Some of the top receiving talent in this year's draft pool (West Virginia's Kevin White being one example) opted out of the Senior Bowl, but not Coates, who made playing in the game a priority.
"I love competing," he said. "Anytime I get a chance to compete against some of the top players in the country I'm going to do it. I'm the type of guy that if you say you're one of the best in the country I want to go against you. It's a great opportunity for me to showcase to the scouts what I can do on the field."
Clemmings was the highest ranked of the three players to speak Monday and some project the Pittsburgh tackle to go as early as the first round. He's an impressive player with a superior story. Until his redshirt junior season, Clemmings played defensive end.
The trend of spending most games on the sideline sparked his transition to offense. Former Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst (now the head coach at Wisconsin) knew he had to get more out of Clemmings' athleticism.
"He told me, 'I feel like we're wasting your talent. Your jersey is clean and you're not getting in the game. I think you could be a great offensive tackle for us,'" Clemmings said of their conversation.
He told Chryst he'd need some time to mull over the potential change – a deliberation process that turned out to be rather brief.
"I wanted to be on the field," Clemmings said. "I knew that would be able to happen if I moved to tackle. I went home, made a few phone calls and about 10 minutes later I told coach Chryst that I was in."
Clemmings and the rest of the 110 players participating this week get the unique chance to showcase their skills in front of all 32 teams. Never again will they be performing with this type of ratio between players and pro-personnel.
"I told them, 'Look, we feel like we're offering you a gift here – a gift to showcase yourself and build your brand starting today,'" Savage said. "The exposure that these players get to all 32 teams and the media, this is a tremendous run-through for a player before he ever gets to the combine."
Savage said he consistently notices players who participate in the Senior Bowl having an edge in February's combine. The trial run of the week in terms of team interviews, workouts and media obligations make the combine less overwhelming.
In addition, the relationships players make this week could pay dividends in years down the road, if not in the coming months. Scouts today could be future general managers. That makes these first impressions crucial.
"It's the greatest job fair in the entire football world," said Savage. "You can make some hay here, absolutely.
"The only players that hurt themselves are the ones who didn't belong and were going to be found out anyways. If you belong in the NFL, then you're going to show up and you're going to play and do well here."
The Senior Bowl is these players' last chance to play competitive football before the draft. On Tuesday, the competition begins.
Director Phil Savage and select participating players address reporters at the start of the 2015 Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. (Photos: Gary Glenn)