MOBILE, Ala. — Tuesday’s National Team practice at the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl, coached by the Detroit Lions, was just about on the verge of ending. The game clock at Hancock Whitney Stadium had stopped counting down, and there were no more periods left to run. The roster of 50-plus NFL draft prospects huddled in a group near midfield.
Duce Staley, the Lions assistant coach who is inheriting the role of National Team head coach this week from the Lions’ Dan Campbell, started making some noise, audible to those watching even 50 yards away in the stadium stands.
Then Staley pointed to two players and called for an old-school showdown. It would be two of the best trench performers from that day’s practice — Florida State EDGE Jermaine Johnson II and Kentucky OG Darian Kinnard — going mano-y-mano.
With the entire team watching and goading them on.
“I was like, ‘OK, here we go,’” the 6-foot-4 3/4, 324-pound Kinnard said.
Added Johnson: “You have to enjoy the journey. And to be called out like that, after my first practice down here, it obviously shows my coaches feel a certain way about me and what I did in practice.”
Practices had started some two hours earlier, and the offensive and defensive linemen had gone through a spate of one-on-one pass-rush battles, along with the “half line” drills that matched three offensive linemen trying to block three defensive linemen.
For football junkies and scouts alike, this is the good stuff. Sure, the quarterbacks earn a lot of eyeballs, as do the skill-position performers. It’s not hard to understand why in this fantasy-football era in which we reside.
But the trench battles are the real meat and potatoes of the practice show here.
And Johnson and Kinnard weren’t just selected randomly. They both had stood out in the earlier drills, setting up Staley’s midfield challenge between them.
“It was mostly because during our one-on-one reps before that, I think I had the best reps out of everybody else,” Kinnard said. “I didn’t lose a rep. I just felt comfortable and confident. I just felt like I put the team in the best situations. Everyone picked me, so I wasn’t about to lose that.”
Arguably the best player at this year’s event, Johnson also had dominated, flashing some of the best quickness, pursuit and disruptiveness of all the defensive players on the field. He’d go on to own Wednesday’s practice as well, setting himself as a clear winner for the week and a possible top-20 landing spot in April’s draft.
Plus, both players have let it be clear that they are intense competitors who are highly confident in their own abilities. Staley couldn’t have picked a better matchup.
“I’ve played like Jermaine Johnson this week, I know that much,” Johnson said Wednesday.
The three-rep showdown worth the price of admission
The two competitors lined up and squared off. The National Team squad was split into two factions — offense and defense — with each unit cheering their guy on. For the first time all day, after drills had been going on all over the field, all eyes in the stadium focused on one spot: this battle.
The 6-foot-4 3/8, 259-pound Johnson came off the ball and was about to hit Kinnard with a speed bull rush, the move that perhaps was made most famous by former Steelers legend James Harrison. After five speed steps upfield, Johnson was ready to go to the “bull” portion of the rush.
Just as a Lions coach shouted “power!” Johnson instantly converted his speed to power and barreled through the chest of the massive Kinnard, earning a clear victory for Johnson and nearly taking out the legs of Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe in the process. The defensive contingent watching went nuts.
“I was excited,” Johnson said. “But also for my teammates, I didn’t want to let them down. I came off the ball as violent as I could and got after him.”
Kinnard, despite outweighing Johnson by 65 pounds, got whipped.
“For that split second I was pissed,” Kinnard said. “But at the end of the day I was like, ‘alright, we’ve got a couple more snaps.’”
While Johnson and his defensive teammates celebrated, Kinnard gathered himself for the next battle. Instead of turning to pure anger, he summoned his cerebral side.
“I knew after that first play when he embarrassed me, he was going to try to set me up and try to get me lunging,” Kinnard said. “So I was going to use that and try to do the best I could.”
The second rep appeared to be something of a stalemate, and the two went back at it for a third crack. And on that one, Johnson did almost exactly what Kinnard predicted he would, showing the burly offensive lineman a quick jab step inside before spinning outside.
Engaging his length (an 83-inch wingspan) and absurd core power, Kinnard was not going to let it happen. He didn’t overplay it and parried Johnson’s counter move, stymying the rush and earning the offense a much-needed victory.
Kinnard got the last laugh. After his victory, Kinnard threw up goat horns with his right hand and then waved goodbye to Johnson and the defense.
“Just says a lot about my mentality,” Kinnard said. “In games you have many plays — many snaps where you mess up or just flat out get embarrassed. You just have to go onto the next play.
“In that moment, I was like, ‘OK, he got me once, let me get him that next rep.’ And then worry about the next one. I just wanted to make sure I win the next two reps.”
Johnson’s view: “He battled, I battled. I got him, he got me once and we just wanted to show what we were made of. We’re competitors.”
It was thrown back to Staley for a ruling. Staley eventually gave the narrow victory to Kinnard and the offense, forcing the defensive players to engage in a round of post-practice pushups.
Campbell might be taking a backseat this week, but Staley has carried on the Lions head coach’s energy in two spirited practices.
“It’s competition. Everything is about competition,” Staley said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got to get them to compete. That’s the one thing: digest the information and compete.”
Those were a handful of the only reps Johnson didn’t win this week. Kinnard also has acquitted himself well. And for those who got to witness the terrific post-practice melee, it was a pleasant capper to a great day of football with an extra dollop of competition thrown in at the very end.