Justin Senior will begin his off-season audition for NFL employment against pretty stiff competition.
The six-foot-five, 310-pound Mississippi State offensive tackle will participate in the Senior Bowl next week in Mobile, Ala. Senior had originally committed to playing in the East-West Shrine Game, which goes Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., before accepting an invitation last week to the Senior Bowl, the annual showcase event for American college football’s top seniors.
“The East-West Shrine game is a great bowl,” Senior said in a telephone interview. “If I could play in both I would but the Senior Bowl gave me more of an opportunity to train longer and it has a bit more notoriety so I decided to go there.”
Senior and the other invitees arrive in Mobile on Monday and begin practising the following day. Senior will play for the South squad, which will be coached by the Cleveland Browns’ staff, while the Chicago Bears coaches will handle the North team.
The NFL Network and ESPN will both broadcast daily practices with the NFL Network carrying the Jan. 28 game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Senior, a native Jamaican who grew up in Montreal, was a three-year starter at Mississippi State. He received the 2016 Kent Hull Trophy as the state of Mississippi’s top offensive lineman and was named a first-team Southeastern Conference all-star by Pro Football Focus.
Senior was also the CFL scouting bureau’s top-ranked prospect for this year’s draft. But any team taking Senior will likely have to wait because the 22-year-old is projected as a fifth-round NFL selection and could improve his stock with solid off-season performances.
In 2014, McGill tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was the top-ranked CFL prospect but went in the sixth round, 200th overall, of the NFL draft to Kansas City. The six-foot-five, 321-pound Duvernay-Tardif is now the Chiefs’ starting right guard.
“I’ve been dreaming about (an NFL career) basically my whole life,” Senior said. “But there’s still plenty of work to do . . . it’s just that kind of sport.”
Senior isn’t afraid of a little hard work. He’s spent a lot of time at Mississippi State learning the nuances of offensive-line play in the four-down game while continually having to perform well for a high-profile school playing in a premier conference.
“Always learning something new is a lot more fun,” he said. “I’m constantly striving to improve in every part of my game.
“I don’t really think I’m at the level where I could start saying I’m an expert in anything.”
Senior has a definite goal in mind at the Senior Bowl and isn’t fazed by the prospect of being under a microscope before pro scouts, GMs and coaches.
“I just want to dominate at the Senior Bowl,” he said. “I definitely want to put on my best performance, play my best football and I want them to be impressed.
“This is what you play football for, these games. It’s an honour.”
The Bulldogs’ program gained much national notoriety this season thanks to former quarterback Dak Prescott. The 2016 fourth-round pick led the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 regular-season record as a rookie before last weekend’s 34-31 playoff loss to Green Bay.
“What Dak is doing is great, he’s a great player,” Senior said of his former teammate. “But we have a lot of dudes (in NFL) right now who are also good players.
“That definitely creates a lot of expectation. But whether or not there was that tradition, the pressure to perform is always there.”
Despite owning an impressive football resume, Senior wants to show this off-season he’s ready to become a pro.
“I’d like to show my ability and effort to always learn and get better,” he said. “I can bend well and I can run.
“I can’t say I’m the most powerful because I played with people like Gabe Jackson (former Bulldogs offensive lineman now an Oakland Raiders starter). But I’m always chasing it, I’ll always try to be as powerful as him.”
The Senior Bowl kicks off what will be a busy off-season. A solid performance there could earn Senior a spot at next month’s NFL combine to again perform for and meet with league brass.
Mississippi State’s pro day is March 10, another opportunity for its seniors to impress NFL officials. And there’s also the grind of daily workouts, which for Senior begin each morning at 7 a.m. and involve both on-field and classroom sessions, leading up to the draft April 27-29.
“It will be a long process,” Senior said. “But I think I’m prepared.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly spelled Duvernay-Tardif’s last name.