Photos |  Jacksonville State University / University of Louisville / Auburn University

Blount High School alum BJ Autry from Jacksonville State, Vigor High School alum Deshaun Davis from Auburn University and Pascagoula native Jaylen Smith of the University of Louisville are three local standouts seeking a spot in the NFL at the 70th annual Senior Bowl this weekend.

On Jan. 7, 1950, the first Senior Bowl all-star game kicked off in Jacksonville. Auburn’s Travis Tidwell was named the Most Valuable Player as he threw for two touchdowns in a 22-13 win for the South squad.

However, fewer than 17,000 fans made it to the Gator Bowl stadium that day. A group of local civic leaders, led by Finley McRae, got the contest moved to Mobile the following year.

The 70th annual Reese’s Senior Bowl takes place this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The action will be broadcast nationally on the NFL Network.

“I’m really excited about this being the 70th Senior Bowl,” said Jim Nagy, who took over as executive director last June after spending 18 years in the NFL. “We are adding some special things this week to help drive people to Ladd-Peebles Stadium.”

The University of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band will perform in pregame and halftime festivities for the seventh time. Something new will be the appearance of numerous college mascots from across the country at fan events and during the game.

Perhaps the most spectacular will be a $10,000 giveaway event sponsored by Joe Bullard Automotive. Two random ticket holders at Saturday’s game will be selected to participate in a skills challenge with the winner taking home the grand prize.

“We want this to be the best thing we can offer,” Nagy said. “I feel really good where the roster is at. I expect this to be the highest number of draft picks ever for the Senior Bowl.”

Nagy said he wants the Senior Bowl to be a Gulf Coast event. He hopes to attract fans from Pensacola to New Orleans.

“We are the only city this size with a connection to the NFL,” he said. “Selling out a 40,000-seat stadium one day a year is not too much to ask.”

Local flavor

Despite the presence of stars from across the U.S., the highlight for many fans is when a Gulf Coast-area player makes it to the Senior Bowl. This year, several of our own will be in the game.

“I feel if a local player doesn’t deserve to be here, it is a disservice to invite them,” Nagy said. “But there is no doubt that the group we have this year all deserve to be a part of the Senior Bowl.”

Linebacker Deshaun Davis, a former Vigor High and Auburn standout, is coming back home to play. A first-team All-SEC performer, Davis had 107 tackles this season, including 14 for loss. He received a special invitation to play from fellow Vigor alum and Pro Football Hall of Famer Robert Brazile.

Another local player is offensive guard BJ Autry from Jacksonville State, who graduated from Blount High. A first-team FCS All-American, he started his career at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He transferred to Baylor, but left Waco after spending just a spring there when they changed coaches.

The final Gulf Coast gridder is wide receiver Jaylen Smith of Louisville. The Pascagoula native made an impact for the Cardinals since his freshman year. He earned first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors thanks to career totals of 152 receptions for 2,505 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Coaching staffs

California’s Bay Area will be well represented in Alabama’s Bay Area. The NFL choose the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers to serve as the two coaching staffs.

The 49ers, which will lead the South team, have coached the Reese’s Senior Bowl five times. The Raiders, who will direct the North team, also previously coached in the game five times.

Both the Raiders and the 49ers finished with 4-12 records in 2018. The 49ers hold the second overall pick and the Raiders will select fourth in April’s 2019 NFL Draft.

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden will be in the Reese’s Senior Bowl for the fourth time. He led the North team as the Raiders’ head coach in 1999, falling to Bucs’ coach Tony Dungy and the South, 31-21. He then coached in the game twice as the head coach of the Bucs in 2005 and 2007, going 1-1 in those games.

Kyle Shanahan, 39, who will be with the South, is making his head coaching debut in the Senior Bowl. However, he previously coached twice in the game as an assistant.

Ironically, Shanahan’s first coaching experience in the Reese’s Senior Bowl was in 2005 as the offensive quality control coordinator for Gruden. In 2012, he returned to Mobile as the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins under his father, Mike Shanahan.

Honoring the past

The Reese’s Senior Bowl will welcome three new members into its Hall of Fame this Friday with the addition of Oakland Raiders center Rodney Hudson, former Auburn standout DeMarco McNeil and former Alabama great Billy Neighbors. Last year’s top pick in the NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield, will be honored as the Senior Bowl Rookie of the Year.

As a two-way lineman at B.C. Rain High, Hudson had 47 pancake blocks as an offensive lineman and 55 tackles as a nose guard during his senior year in Mobile. At Florida State, where he started 48 straight games at guard/center, he earned all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors four times. After becoming the Seminoles’ first unanimous first-team All-American, he played in the 2011 Senior Bowl. After four seasons with Kansas City, in 2016 Hudson signed with Oakland, where he has been named a Pro Bowler twice (2017 and 2018) and is widely considered one of the top centers in the NFL.

McNeil played in the 2004 Senior Bowl after a stellar career at Auburn, where he was an All-American and later named to the Tigers’ All-Decade Team. He played high school football at Blount, helping the Leopards win three straight Class 5A championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998. In his senior season, McNeil was the first interior lineman and first defensive-only player to be named “Mr. Football” in Alabama. On the Plains, McNeil was a defensive tackle from 2000-2003, earning freshman All-American honors in 2000. He earned All-SEC honors his final season. He played two years in the NFL, but his career was cut short by a knee injury.

Neighbors, who will be inducted posthumously, played in the 1962 Senior Bowl and was one of the top players on the 1961 Alabama team that won the first of six titles under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Neighbors went on to play four seasons in the American Football League with the Boston Patriots — where he was a Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro — and four years with the Miami Dolphins. He was the first of three generations of Neighborses to play in the Senior Bowl, joined later by his son Wes (Alabama, 1987) and grandson Connor (LSU, 2015).

Fan events

• All practices will be open to the public at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The North squad takes the field Wednesday and Thursday, 12:30-2:30 p.m. The South team follows each day, 3-5 p.m. ESPN and the NFL Network will cover the workouts.

• The FCA Chick-Fil-A Senior Bowl Rally will be Wednesday at the Mobile Convention Center, 6:30-8 p.m. The event attracts more than 2,000, making it the largest Fellowship of Christian Athletes rally at any bowl game. For information, visit

• One of the highlights of Senior Bowl week is the Coca-Cola Meet the Players event. It will be Friday, 3:30-6 p.m., at the Mobile Convention Center. Fans have the chance to interact, get an autograph and snap a picture with their favorite player in the Exhibit Hall.

• Also at the Convention Center from 3-6 p.m. is the Reese’s Senior Bowl Experience. Fans can run through drills on the indoor football field and check out interactive displays from Reese’s, Adidas, the New Orleans Saints and AT&T, among others.

• The Piggly Wiggly Tailgate Party returns on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the East Parking Lot of Ladd-Peebles. Passes are limited to the first 3,500 fans who purchase a sideline seat to the game. In addition to free food and drink, tailgate attendees will enjoy face painters, clowns, interactive inflatables and the Coca-Cola Family Festival game trailer.

• The Baumhower’s Tailgate Challenge will be from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the stadium. Competitors could win the Ultimate Tailgate Prize Package worth $3,000, containing an all-terrain portable grill, a satellite TV tailgate bundle, outdoor chairs and more. The top tailgater will also be recognized on the field during the game and receive a custom trophy.

• A complete roster of players can be found at Game tickets ($30 for sideline seat from the 10-yard line to 10-yard line; $20 for sideline seat from the 10-yard line to end zone; $10 for general admission in end zone) can be purchased at the Senior Bowl headquarters at 151 Dauphin St. in Mobile; call 251-432-4109 for information.