MOBILE, Ala. - Mike Edwards loves what he loves. Ray Oliver, a fellow Cincinnatian and University of Kentucky icon, can see all the signs.
Like the one outside the Skyline Chili on Richmond Road near campus. The one that read something like “Mike Edwards, No. 1 Customer.”
“He loves Skyline,” Oliver confirmed the other day about the Wildcats safety dining out on his slot versatility. “Went there every day for like the first month. Even when it was being built he would stop by to check on the construction. I told him, ‘Mike, I like Skyline as much as the next guy, but I don’t make sure the guy is hammering in the nails.’”
Edwards also loves football, UK and “The Honey Badger,” and has come south to play for the South at the Senior Bowl this week, where no signs are needed to point the scouts in his direction. At least one of them charting the practices this week thinks the 6-foot, 200-pounder was the best player on his team in 2017. That might spark a debate in Lexington, but for Oliver it ends all questions why prospects should stay in school for that senior year.
If Edwards came out last year, he goes in the fifth, maybe fourth round. Now after a season he never came off the field for a 10-win, bowl championship defense playing safety in base and nickel on third down for a second straight year, there’s a shot he can go as early as the Friday night of the second round.
“That’s what happens when you physically mature,” Oliver said, “and you’re able to play in a lot of big games for a team that wins a bowl. I mean, you know what another season of SEC football can mean for a guy’s development? You can’t begin to calculate it … Guys like him and (pass rushing linebacker) Josh Allen not only got their degrees, but their draft stock went up.”
Oliver is a valuable resource for Edwards, Allen and a group of about 10 other teammates drawing pro scrutiny for the suddenly relevant Cats. He knows what the pros need and want after assisting head strength coach Chip Morton in the Bengals weight room for seven years before returning to Kentucky as an athletic administrator.
As the guy in charge of student engagement and the director of development, Oliver knows exactly who and who can’t fit in a college or NFL enterprise. He’s all in on Edwards, a guy that has already made some pretty solid decisions.
“A lot of people were like 'Why did you come to UK?' That's when they were going 2-10 and all that. The terrible years,” Edwards recalled before this week’s first practice. “But I know the team we could have with the guys coming in in my 2014 class. I was wanting to change the program around, and that's what we did this year. 10-3. A great bowl game win. It's exciting to have a great season like that.
A look at current Bengals players who have participated in the Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl features the country's best senior collegiate football players and top NFL draft prospects on teams representing the North and South that are coached by the entire coaching staffs of two National Football League teams.
“We went to three bowl games. So it was great. We lost both of them (first two). This year we played Penn State, one of the best opponents I've ever played. They were a great team and we beat them. For us to beat them to get our 10th win, that was huge for the organization, huge for our football team and for Coach (Mark) Stoops.”
Edwards says one of the reasons he came back for his senior year was to see the defense through what had been a rapid rise on the field and in the meeting room.
“It was just experience and chemistry,” Edwards said. “When I first got there (defense) was kind of an independent thing. Most people wanted to do it for themselves. People would make plays and all try to get stats, get picks. But this year we returned nine seniors on defense. That's big for us and we had a lot of experience back there. We didn't have guys that wanted to make just one play. We did for the whole team and the whole defense. We've got a lot of good players on our defense, a lot of players getting drafted, a lot of players on a high level. That's what we did.”
Edwards is hoping to show the scouts what isn’t on that defense’s film. He did draw good reviews early this week for his coverage.
“That I’m one of the best DBs in this draft and showcase my talent because a lot of stuff on my tape you can’t really see because a lot of people don’t throw my way or I’m in the back end and I can‘t make many plays,” Edwards said. “But going against a lot of great guys here in one -on-one coverage … going against guys that are good receivers and good quarterbacks we’ve got, I ‘ll try to showcase my talent.”
It’s hard to see the Bengals taking a run at a safety early in this draft after they selected Jessie Bates in the second round last year. He had a solid year starting all 16 games and Shawn Williams, the other safety, is a tenacious veteran that keeps things together in the back end. Of course, it’s hard to say anything about the Bengals defense right now since they don’t have a coordinator, never mind a head coach.
But Bates provides a pretty good baseline for comparison. He’s probably faster than the 4.5-ish Edwards while Edwards is more accomplished in the slot. The Cincinnati Kid, out of Winton Woods, is smooth and could be a better tackler than Bates, but that’s an ability Edwards wants to make sure he puts on display this week. Even though he’s only the second DB in Kentucky history to have more than 300 tackles.
“I really improved on my tackling this year from my junior year,” Edwards said. “Got a lot of tackles my senior year. I definitely improved some. I missed some. Coming down, not bringing them down. Thinking I had help inside, but it’s no excuse for missed tackles. I definitely improved over the years.”
Edwards clearly is no wall flower. His affinity for the aggressive way the famously undersized Tyrann Mathieu (“The Honey Badger”) plays NFL safety gas earned him his own nickname of “Badger.” He’s even got a streak of blond hair. And he honors Mathieu by wearing No. 7. He also wears 7 because of John Elway, the greatest player on his favorite team, the Broncos.
“My dad’s been a Broncos fan his whole life,” Edwards said. “All my friends and my uncles and aunts are all Bengals fans.”
Oliver, one of his biggest fans, is telling him not to change and keep ordering that big plate.
“He’ll be a guy they’ll love in an NFL locker room,” Oliver said. “He’s got some moxie to him.”