MOBILE, Ala. — The fate of the 2018 Senior Bowl hung on Phil Savage’s decision to finally get to the University of Richmond. He had heard plenty about senior quarterback Kyle Lauletta, and had even included Lauletta on his preseason watch list. But he had not found an excuse to get out to see the Spiders captain in person until he put together a three-city road trip in November.
Out east, Savage, the Senior Bowl executive director, went to practice and pored over three games of Lauletta’s tape.
His assessment: “He doesn’t have a rocket of an arm, but he’s got touch and timing. He can throw it short, intermediate, deep. He’s got accuracy. Again, not a shotgun of an arm, but he’s got a sense of awareness.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but Savage — who served as an Alabama graduate assistant from 1987-89 and on Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns with Nick Saban from 1993-94 — had just found his 2018 MVP. Lauletta completed 8 of 12 passes for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns as the South blew by the North for a 45-16 win on Saturday.
“What he did out there doesn’t happen,” Savage said.
Lauletta wasn’t alone in the underdog role. South starter Mike White (Western Kentucky) helped the squad get off to a strong start, completing 8 of 11 passes for 128 yards and the opening touchdown.
“We kinda felt like we were the underdog,” White said. “If there weren’t as many people out at our practice, so what, that’s fine. We came here to play football and show scouts [what we could do].
“I came down here with a chip on my shoulder and said, ‘Listen, you guys might be focusing on the North quarterbacks, but I’m over here on the South and I’m doing my thing and I’ll get your attention one way or another. I thought I did that [Saturday].”
There were some big names on the other sideline: Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Josh Allen (Wyoming), both of whom are in contention to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Mayfield, who spent much of the week concerned for his mother’s health, turned in a forgettable performance before leaving at halftime.
That’s when Allen got hot.
The 6-foot-5 rocket-armed passer completed 3 passes for a combined 36 yards before lofting a perfect throw to tight end Tyler Conklin (Central Michigan) for the North’s first touchdown. On the next drive, he needed just 2 throws — a 31-yard strike to Michael Gallup (Colorado State) and a 27-yard score to Durham Smythe (Notre Dame) — to tighten the gap to 18-16.
But Lauletta immediately responded with a 75-yard touchdown pass to DJ Chark (LSU) on the first play of the North’s next drive. It was the first of his 3 scoring throws.
ANOTHER ONE!@kylelauletta throws his 3rd TD of the game.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 27, 2018
“It doesn’t matter, FCS, FBS, wherever you are,” he said afterward. “If you can play, you can play. I think Mr. Savage did a great job finding those guys this year.”
In all, the Lauletta-White-Allen trio of small-school quarterbacks combined for 25 completions on 36 attempts, 484 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions.
In Allen’s words: “Those guys balled out.”
They served as a reminder that much can change in the four or five years between Signing Day and the NFL draft.
“It’s really difficult,” Savage said. “These big schools have so much pressure to commit to young 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids. You don’t know what they’re gonna turn out to be. Then there’s other young guys that develop later. And by the time they show up as a [high school] senior, there are no scholarships left at the biggest school level, so they have to go find another place to play.
“That’s why you’re seeing this small-school number in this game. It’s increasing every single year because the overlooked players or the late bloomers go somewhere, they develop over a four- or five-year period and then they find themselves here in Mobile.”
The latest edition of the Senior Bowl was proof of many things. For one, Savage is still one of the college game’s most trustworthy talent evaluators. For another, it’s still one heck of an opportunity to play at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“That’s what we came out here to do, is make a name for ourselves,” White said. “I think we did.”