MOBILE, Ala. — It's a classic case of who the players are and what they may be able to do in the NFL.
Vikings assistant coaches Daronte Jones, Imarjaye Albury and Michael Hutchings have an up-close look this week at interacting with draft-eligible prospects in meetings and on the practice field.
Jones, Albury and Hutchings were selected as part of the 2024 Reese's Senior Bowl "Coach Up" format that is in its second year of elevating coaches above their positions with their respective NFL teams.
Presently the Vikings defensive backs/pass game coordinator, Jones is the defensive coordinator for the National Team this week at the annual college all-star game that is celebrating its 75th installment. Albury, a defensive assistant with the Vikings, is working this week as the National Team's linebackers/edge coach, and Hutchings, Minnesota's assistant defensive backs coach, is the defensive backs coach this week.
Their roles come at a time when the Vikings are amidst a competitive rebuild, having gone 20-14 in the first two seasons of Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, and are set to pick 11th overall in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Minnesota is heading for its third season with O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah in their roles and second with Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores, who attended the 2023 Senior Bowl before his hire by the Vikings.
The goal from that continuity and current up-close access to prospects on the field is to gain a deeper knowledge of potential additions to the Vikings.
"Getting to see these guys, you hear secondhand from their coaches in college how they are, but then you get to see it right in front. Look, there is an element of, 'This is a weeklong job interview,' but I think you can see how people take coaching, what they do when they've lost the reputation, how they interact with their teammates, things like that," Adofo-Mensah said. "It's invaluable, and it is fun to see these coaches, they're so passionate about the game. I don't know if they're supposed to be on vacation or not, but they're here and they're going to talk to these guys about setting an edge, and that's the best thing they want to be doing."
There's a strong record of Minnesota selecting Senior Bowl participants, with at least one player from each of the past six years having been drafted by the team and remaining on the roster.
In 2023, the Vikings selected Mekhi Blackmon, Jay Ward and Jaren Hall with three of their six selections. Minnesota also added undrafted free agents Ivan Pace, Jr., and Andre Carter II after each participated in the Senior Bowl.
Twelve years ago, the Vikings entire coaching staff led prospects through three practices and the game. Harrison Smith made such an impression on Vikings decision makers that they were able to keep contact thenceforth minimal and surprise some by trading back into the latter part of the first round to select the eventual six-time Pro Bowler and team record-setter.
"You've got Harry that played in this game," Hutchings said Tuesday. "It's funny, they were showing film of Cam Bynum that played in this game. The other DBs coach here coached Cam Bynum in this game, so just seeing that and what we've used this game for is great for us as reference, as well."
Vikings Director of College Scouting Mike Sholiton, who joined Minnesota in 2004, recalled the added benefit of coaches working with Smith in 2012.
"It's helpful, going all the way back to when Harrison Smith was in the Senior Bowl," Sholiton said. "We had the entire Vikings coaching staff there and we knew about him from the scouts in the fall, but just having a week, it's one thing to hear about how great a person and player is. It's another thing to have access to them behind the scenes, in the meeting rooms, eat meals together, spend time where you come out of there with some convictions, saying, 'This is a great fit for us, and he's been an unbelievable player for a long time for the Vikings."
The NFL structure is set up where college scouts survey the full landscape, building reports in a multistep process. Members of personnel department, who are focused on other aspects during an NFL season connect to assess each year's potential draft pool. Teams also incorporate input from what position coaches have seen in their film evaluations.
Now the Vikings will have more direct information, based on how several players have performed in meetings and on the field.
"In this setting here, you get a real, true feel of the person," Albury said. "They kind of let their wall down in the meeting rooms, the interacting with teammates, you get a good feel for how they are in the locker room, the kind of questions they ask.
" 'Are they note-takers? What kind of plays?' From a leaning standpoint, how do they learn? What works best with each guy? You get to see the interactions, how they carry themselves," he added. "You just get a good feel for what it's going to be like day-to-day and week-to-week with each player."
Jones added: "Anytime you have a chance to get a hands-on look to see how these guys learn and see how they are in the classroom, how they pay attention to detail, it's always an advantage."
Hutchings was a high school senior 12 years ago on his way to playing four seasons at USC before working in commercial real estate (2017) and returning to the sidelines as a graduate assistant with the Trojans in 2018.
"The hardest thing about this process is just getting eyes on people and working them out and seeing the things you want to see," Hutchings said. "The combine is a bit different. It's a professional setting. I think this is a more raw setting, and I think that's the cool thing about it. You get them to be themselves a little more, don't treat it like a job interview, and that's what I've really enjoyed about this so far."
In addition to working hand-in-hand with players, the nature of practices and the game (which has rules to limit the exotics by the offense and defense) lead to direct assessment of players against others who are likely to be drafted.
"It's good for [the participants], because now it takes off some thinking in the game and they can focus on the fundamentals and techniques," Jones said.
Albury said he wants to learn how each player "attacks the day from a preparation standpoint, how he learns."
"From a technique standpoint, you don't want to change too much of what they're doing, just work on the key fundamentals, the key basics for how to rush at our level," Albury said. "The biggest thing is to get a good feel for these guys."
Hutchings described the evaluations as "on the hoof, all about football."
"Seeing these guys' skill sets, how they learn and just getting to do a deep dive before they go into combine training and really get prepared for all this," he added.
While they are learning lessons about each player, they also are learning more about themselves.
"It's been tremendous. The thing that's different from the combine is coaches are in football mode, so whenever we have free time, coaches are getting together, watching tape," Albury said. "That's been really big for me, getting together against some guys we played against, 'Hey, we saw this against you guys.' We're just sharing ideas and feedback, and that's been really, really good.
"Then, being able to apply my drills and things I believe in that I do, it was a fresh start with new guys, so teaching from the ground up, and fresh start, fresh legs, being able to apply those things but continue to craft and fine-tune those things I already do from a day-to-day, so it's been good," Albury added.
Jones was mic'd up for Wednesday's session by ESPN's live broadcast (and by Vikings Entertainment Network). Near the end of the session, he tried to field multiple punts from a mechanical launcher, but the trajectories were a little off the mark on several. Although he didn't field one cleanly, he'll come away from the collective experience with multiple benefits.
"I think this format is phenomenal, just the networking with other coaches, getting to know guys from other teams, watch how they coach, watch their process, how they prepare for meetings, how they communicate to players, in terms of techniques, it's been phenomenal," Jones said.
Hutchings added: "You see Imarjaye and I go from assistant position coaches to position coaches here and seeing Daronte go from position coach to coordinator, really just getting ready for the next step in your career. I think it's a great week for that, just to test ourselves out and get used to something that we're not usually doing during our season, which is hopefully the next step for us in our careers, as well."