Auburn junior wide receiver Sammie Coates froze Texas Christian's Kevin White with a stutter step, slowing his pattern momentarily to create confusion. With the cornerback briefly flat-footed, Coates accelerated, dashing up the sideline untouched to catch a touchdown pass in stride during a Senior Bowl all-star game practice session Thursday.
It showed the kind of savvy the NFL is looking for, an element beyond the raw athleticism Coates became known for in the Southeastern Conference. After graduating early and declaring for the draft, Coates is making a strong bid so far to impress scouts as he tries to prove he's more than just a deep threat. Coates is intent on convincing NFL personnel that he's worthy of late-first-round or early-second-round consideration. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. is projecting Coates as a potential first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots.
Coates doesn't lack for confidence, or speed. He has the requisite size (a chiseled 6 feet 2, 213 pounds) and a track record of tough catches. Coates also is expected to run the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range in February at the NFL scouting combine. He has been hand-timed unofficially as fast as 4.18 seconds at Auburn.
When asked which NFL player he patterns his game after, Coates answered quickly.
"I think Julio Jones: size, speed, physical," Coates said of the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver. "That's how I conduct myself. My size, my speed, my physicality, my big-play abilities, I bring a lot to the table. I'm always making big plays."
Coates left Auburn after catching 34 passes for 741 yards and four touchdowns last season, including five for 202 yards and two scores in an Iron Bowl loss to Alabama. As a sophomore, Coates had 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
Although Coates made major progress as a junior, he wasn't entirely satisfied with his season. And he's aware that NFL teams want to see more refined route-running skills and consistent hands before they invest a high draft pick and millions of dollars in him.
Still, many NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl said they love Coates' sudden cuts, superior speed and big, well-developed frame, and his potential makes him a possible future No. 1 wide receiver.
"I want to show them I'm not just a deep guy," Coates said. "I can run routes. I can make plays when it's time for a big play, like third downs. I've been working on routes and getting out of breaks, and that's one thing I want to show them I can do.
"It's a big deal to be here. They've got me going late first, early second round. This is a chance for me to jump down to the first round. It gives me a chance to showcase that I'm more than just a deep route guy. That's my goal this week."
Count the Ravens among those interested in seeing even more from Coates, who said he had a positive meeting with the team this week.
"It was good," Coates said. "I could see myself fitting in with them."
For the Ravens, exploring the wide receiver draft class makes sense: Five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith will be 36 next season, and wide receiver Torrey Smith is a pending unrestricted free agent.
The Ravens like their young wide receivers, including Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro (River Hill), but have been taking stock of what's available. They have met with several other wideout prospects, including Ohio State's Devin Smith, Duke's Jamison Crowder and East Carolina's Justin Hardy.
Coates is one of just three fourth-year juniors at the Senior Bowl.
"Sammie has the size and speed to project well to the next level, as evidenced by his performance in the Iron Bowl," said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former Ravens executive and Cleveland Browns general manager.
Coates grew up in Leroy, Ala., roughly an hour's drive north of Mobile. Coates attended the Senior Bowl several times as a fan with his father, Sammie Sr., who died in an industrial accident when Coates was in the fifth grade.
"When I was little with my dad, we used to watch the Senior Bowl, and he was like, 'One day, you're going to be playing in this game,' " Coates said. "It's truly a blessing to be doing that. I wish he was here to see it, but everything happens for a reason."
Coates has bulked up significantly since arriving in college, gaining roughly 40 pounds without sacrificing his speed. He said he changed his approach to training after a leadership training session with the Navy SEALs in San Diego last year.
"It was one of the most life-changing things I've been a part of, to see how hard they work," Coates said. "It's a different work ethic. They work their tails off the whole time; they never have a break. It made me want to work harder with what I do."
In drills, Coates appeared intense and coachable as he worked at upgrading his technique and making catches more consistently.
"Sammie has done a good job," said Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, who's coaching the South squad this week. "What I like to see is rapid improvement, and that's what I'm seeing from him."
"It's a mindset that you take into the NFL," Coates said. "You can't go into it thinking you've arrived. You need a mentality that you're going to work every day and get better and showcase what you can do.
"I'm just showing I'm a playmaker and going to always make plays and do my job catching the ball and running my routes. I'm working my butt off to show I can run routes and showcase my talent."
Coates has shown a competitive streak and a knack for making contested catches all week, along with a willingness to dive for passes that was not always evident during his final season at Auburn.
"That's my ball," he said. "Nobody can have it but me."