When Laken Tomlinson was a mere pup at Lane Tech College Prep in Chicago, he was the rarest of high school football players — a freshman starting on the varsity.
He was big for his age — though the future guard had yet to grow into the 6-foot-3, 323-pound body he toted around at this week’s Senior Bowl workouts — but he was new to football. And he hadn’t quite embraced the physicality of it yet.
That is, until Lane Tech offensive-line coach Lou Munoz took up the matter after watching Tomlinson get pancaked in a one-on-one drill during practice one afternoon.
“I was doing really bad,” Tomlinson said. “And Coach was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He got mad and was like ‘Fluffy, you’re so soft.’ And then all the other guys were laughing at me.”
Tomlinson remembers feeling angry and embarrassed. He also remembers what happened next.
“I got angry and took it out on the next guy,” Tomlinson said. “ I did put a guy on his butt after that …
Once Munoz and head coach Rich Rio saw that, they knew how to motivate their talented big man.”
“Honestly, that’s kind of what I needed at that time to step my game up and take it to another level,” Tomlinson sad. “Once they saw I could do it, they said ‘Hey, see what you just did? We need you to do that every time. And whenever you don’t, we're going to start calling you Fluffy — everyday.’ ”
Tomlinson occasionally got the nickname dropped on him after that, but he eventually grew into a three-star prospect with offers from several colleges, including offensive-line factories such as Wisconsin, Stanford and Ohio State.
He chose Duke for the academics — he would like to become a doctor some day — and blossomed into a four-year starter at right guard. Now his massive base and strong punch — both of which were on display all week at Senior Bowl practices — are expected to propel him into NFL Draft. He is expected to go somewhere in the first two rounds.
“This is a kid that coming into it was described as a little bit heavy-footed, but I didn’t see a lot of that,” NFL.com analyst Charles Davis said. “I saw a lot of good hand punch, a lot of good anchor, I saw movement to dance with people, I saw power. And the times where I thought he got a little overwhelmed off the top, he would re-anchor and end up winning it late. So I think he had a very good week.”
Tomlinson’s battles this week (the Senior Bowl game itself will be Saturday) with massive Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton, who checks in 6-1 and 339 pounds, have been the stuff of legend.
“There’s times where he and big Danny Shelton got together where it looked like a Transformers fight,” Davis said. “It was big-time stuff.”
Shelton, by the way, possesses some pass-rush pizazz — he finished the year with nine sacks.
“In one-on-one pass rush (Shelton) has gone up against Tomlinson several times, and Tomlinson has done quite well against him because he’s got a base and an anchor,” said NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah.
“You have to get leverage on those guys,” Tomlinson said. “If you don't, they’ll get you every time.”
Tomlinson has uncommon flexibility for a man his size — he gets low in his crouch and really fires off the ball.
Tomlinson said he’s been interviewed by the Chiefs, who started a rookie (Zach Fulton) at right guard last season. But the left guard position is a bit up in the air: Fourth-year pro Jeff Allen missed all of last season because of an elbow injury, and the Chiefs might be looking to add more depth to the position to foster competition.
If so, Davis thinks they might have to use a secondary pick to land Tomlinson.
“I think he’s solidly looking at being a second-round guy,” Davis said. “It would not surprise me at all.”
Tomlinson redshirted his first year at Duke. After that he started 52 consecutive games for Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe, an offensive guru with a wordy playbook not unlike that of Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
“The playbook at Duke, it’s really complicated,” Tomlinson sad. “Coach Cut runs a multiple offense, so as an offensive lineman, you’ve got to know a lot.”
But Tomlinson rose to the challenge of learning it, just as he rose to the challenge when his high school coaches used to question his toughness. It’s been years since anyone could call his play “fluffy,” but the nickname lingers in his head whenever he has a bad play.
“Sometimes coach Rio and the other position coaches come to the game, and when I know they’re in the stands and I had a bad play, I think in my mind, ‘Coach is up there probably calling me “Fluffy” right now, better step it up,’ ” Tomlinson said with a laugh.
Up and down at Senior Bowl
Bryan Perez from DraftBreakdown.com names the three winners and three losers after Thursday, the last day of full-pad practices at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
▪ Tony Lippett, wide receiver, Michigan State
Bryan Perez: “I wasn’t sure what to expect from him coming into this week, but he’s got that really nice combination of size and quickness. He had cornerbacks turning around, tripping over their own feet. He did a really nice job creating separation in short areas.”
▪ Quinten Rollins, cornerback, Miami (OH)
Perez: “I think he showed a solid all-around game. He looks the part of a guy you can rely on, and he’s not gonna be somebody that costs you the game. He can play press, drop into zone, click and close. He had a really good day.”
▪ Clive Walford, tight end, Miami
Perez: “He has arguably had the best Senior Bowl of any position. He has continually been uncoverable.”
▪ Vince Mayle, wide receiver, Washington State
Perez: “In terms of creating separation, he seemed a little tight in the hips, rounding off his routes, he looked a little underwhelmed. He didn’t excite me as much as I was hoping he would.”
▪ Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina
Perez: “From a technical standpoint, his elongated release just won’t work in the league. The ball fluttered out of his hand and lacked any velocity. Poor ball placement. I really do hope I’m wrong, but he didn’t look the part of an NFL quarterback.”
▪ The offensive tackle group
Perez: “I don’t think any one of them did anything to generate any kind of confidence. (T.J.) Clemmings has the physical makeup to be a top 10 guy. He was just extremely inconsistent, and I don’t think you can take a guy like that that high. Ty Sambrailo, his film shows a real physical, brawling player and just didn’t get it done. (La’El) Collins mauls people like a grizzly bear, but he couldn’t get his legs under him in Mobile.”