When the Under Armour Senior Bowl needed a cornerback two years ago to replace the University of Cincinnati's injured Mike Mickens after the week's first practice, Bengals director of football operations Jim Lippincott went to the next name on his list.
Morgan Trent, Michigan.
"Maybe that's the call that got me drafted when you come right down to it," Trent said Friday, recalling how three months later the Bengals took him in the sixth round.
This is why Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis loves to coach the game. This is why for the third time in seven years he's rounding up his coaches Sunday morning to make the trip to Mobile, Ala., and spend the week coaching the North in a game to be played a week from Saturday at 4 p.m. on the NFL Network.
"Morgan is the best example of a guy we really got to know a little better than we ever would have known," Lewis said. "It gives us a great chance to get to know the young prospects. How they learn, how they compete."
Coaching in Mobile gives an NFL team a variety of hidden advantages culling this year's draft prospects, a process that began for the Bengals a few weeks after the last draft when they first set their board, and ends the last weekend of April in the draft.
Not only does the Bengals staff get to spend all week with one team, but they also get to spend a good chunk of the week with the other team, allowing them to interview more players in-depth at next month's NFL scouting combine. While most NFL coaches and scouts leave Wednesday after the bulk of the heavy practices, later in the week the coaching staffs get to meet parents, relatives and friends. Or as Lewis says, "The people that mean something to them." And it gives the staff a jump-start on their combine work because they can compare the seniors to the juniors that aren't allowed to play in all-star games.
For instance, when Lewis got back from Mobile after coaching the game two years ago, he watched tape of three players he didn't even coach that week: Alabama junior tackle Andre Smith, USC linebacker Rey Maualuga who played for the South, and Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson, who chose not to play in the game but came to visit some NFL teams and met with the Bengals for an hour the day before the game. At one point they were all supposed to be first-round picks, but they ended up being the Bengals' picks in the first three rounds.
After looking at the grades, Lewis has decided this is the best roster of his three North teams, anchored by Washington quarterback Jake Locker. The Bengals also get Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas, coming off a huge year with nearly 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns, as well as two University of Wisconsin offensive linemen projected as NFL guards.
Yes, first impressions are still the best impressions, even in Mobile. Lewis still remembers the 6-7 Johnson filling his doorway as he came in for the interview.
"God dog," he said. "When he opened that door…"
And Lewis thinks he might get a similar meeting this week with Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a Mobile native projected so high the Bengals probably won't get him with the fourth pick. But due diligence is due diligence. The Bengals weren't supposed to be able to get South standouts Maualuga, Louisville center Eric Wood, or USC linebackers Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, in the second round.
"Those are guys we targeted," Lewis said of the Thursday night the staffs trade teams to interview. "We spent a lot of time with Rey that night … the three USC kids, how they prepared for the game was impressive. I'm not surprised that all three have been successful. At the beginning, Rey was getting most of the attention and now it's flipped. But all three are going to be playing in the NFL for a long time."
It's just not the drafted guys they see. Lewis remembers enjoying his talk with South wide receiver Quan Cosby, just days removed from beating Ohio State in the last minute of a bowl game. Of which Lewis and everyone else reminded him that week. After Cosby signed as a free agent, he's been one of the top Bengals special teams players the past two years.
And the coaches go back to read their notes. Which helped when they claimed backup running back Cedric Peerman off waivers last spring, a good 15 months after he led the North in rushing with 34 yards on five carries.
Trent passed "the scared test." When Lewis coached the North for the Ravens in 1998, he worked with University of Cincinnati cornerback Artrell Hawkins, a guy the Bengals ended up taking in the second round.
"I remember cornerbacks we had big grades on who were scared to death of playing one-on-one coverage," Lewis said. "I remember Artrell not being afraid. It was him and Brian Kelly and Allan Rossum and they weren't afraid."
Trent was too busy to be afraid. He had been back from the Shrine Game on the Coast for just a day when the call came to head to Mobile. Agent Doug Hendrickson had been trying to get him into the Senior Bowl for weeks and he wasn't going to let the chance slide by. He got there in time for the Tuesday night meetings and immediately felt the up-tempo of the game, helped along by the presence of the NFL Network cameras and so many famous faces.
"The Shrine Game was a great experience, but there was a little more intensity at the Senior Bowl," Trent said. "There are a lot more head coaches in Mobile and the fact your practices are televised on the NFL Network, that really made it exciting. And we watched more tape that week. A lot of tape. Attention to detail. It turned out to be pretty much what we do now, so it gave you an idea of what to expect."
Of course, that's because it's the same staff. Secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi were already well aware of Trent because they scouted teammate Leon Hall two years before.
"You always have to be on because everybody is watching you on and off the field," Trent said.
And Lewis is going to make certain the NFL gets to see everything it wants. After working two weeks of practices, he's made some changes.
"We're going to make sure everybody is moving through practice the whole time so the other scouts and coaches get a good look," he said. "We're going to do any kind of walkthrough or installation prior to the start of practice. As you go into practice, you break up the special teams period into two five-minute periods. The less movement time is somewhat eliminated … boom, you go right into practice.
"I want to make sure they get more of what they want to see, so there are no lulls where you see people holding up cards. The kids are young and energetic and they can go for an hour-and-a-half pretty good."
Lewis isn't so sure he wants to see the game turn into the Junior-Senior Bowl. A record number of 56 juniors have declared and he thinks more would come out of school if they were allowed to play in the bowl games. He thinks scouts would like to see the juniors play because they've already studied the seniors all season.
"I don't think that's what the NFL wants," he said. "That would take away from what it is."