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'Perfect timing' for Air Force's first Senior Bowl selection, Jalen Robinette

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Draft prospects will often talk about the pre-draft grind of workouts designed to maximize their draft stock by improving their work in Combine and Pro Day testing.

Wide receiver Jalen Robinette will see that grind -- and raise them.

He doesn't have the luxury of focusing only on football. Not with a full courseload and the responsibilities of being a fourth-year cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy just north of Colorado Springs.

"It definitely causes some minor headaches. I don't get all day to train," said Robinette, who didn't arrive in Mobile until Wednesday because of commitments to which he had to attend back at the academy. "I definitely have to lock down in class, because making it to graduation day is the objective -- finishing strong."

Mornings belong to his studies as he completes his work toward a degree in marketing. But afternoons belong to preparing for the NFL.

"There's no complaints from me," Robinette said. "I get to go to class and keep playing the game I love."

He will be at the National Scouting Combine next month -- a rare accomplishment for a cadet. But he's already made history by becoming the first Air Force player ever to play at the Senior Bowl -- one week after taking part in the East-West Shrine Game with one of his fellow cadets, safety Weston Steelhammer.

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It wasn't that Air Force products weren't good enough for the Senior Bowl. It's that the minimum two-year commitment to the Armed Forces hurt pushed prospects from the service academies to the back of the line.

This has particularly impacted the Falcons in particular; with 26 all-time bowl appearances and perennial-contender status in the Mountain West Conference, Air Force consistently produces players talented enough to get a shot at the next level. Now, more of their players will get longer looks from the NFL.

"I kind of feel bad for the guys that came through the Academy that had a really great shot, but the couple of years of active duty they had to do kind of deterred their [sports] future," Robinette said.

Last July, the U.S. Department of Defense changed its policy on athletes pursuing a career in professional sports, allowing them to forego their minimum 24-month active-duty stint to immediately sign and and play in any professional league if they earn a contract. Prospects like Robinette can now satisfy their post-graduate commitment in the reserves.

This was the final step in an evolution that took place over decades. In the 1960s, Pro Football Hall of Famer Roger Staubach had to serve his full five-year post-graduate commitment in the U.S. Navy. Two decades later, Navy product David Robinson waited two years to join the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, serving in the civil engineering corps before beginning his Hall of Fame playing career. And as recently as 2011, Ben Garland was on the Broncos' military-reserve list as he served his Air Force commitment before joining the practice squad in 2012.

Now Robinette gets his chance, with no restrictions and hesitation.

"It's exciting to have more doors open," Robinette said. "It couldn't be more perfect timing."

Take an in-depth look at Andrew Mason's evaluations of the potential draft prospects from the 2017 Senior Bowl who caught his eye through Day 3. (Photos by Andrew Mason)

NOTES:

... The South team defense was particularly stout at the second level against the run Thursday, with Florida's Alex Anzalone and Clemson's Ben Boulware both making plays against the run.

... North Carolina State RB Matt Dayes has opened some eyes here this week with his toughness in his one-on-one blocking drills and his vision. He turned a short gain into a double-digit yardage pickup Thursday with his open-field vision, dodging two potential tacklers at the second level as he headed upfield.

... Charlotte defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (6-foot-2 1/2, 304 pounds) has shown some flashes in one-on-one drills, but what I like best about him is his ability to shake a blocker and make lateral pursuit against the run. One example came Thursday when he was held, he managed to push through and steer Wisconsin RB Corey Clement to the sideline, where two linebackers awaited.

... I like the tenacity and fearless nature of Toledo RB Kareem Hunt in pass protection. During one red-zone snap Thursday, the left side of the offensive line -- USC LT Zach Banner and Kutztown guard Jordan Morgan -- had a missed assignment, allowing Iowa's Jaleel Johnson to roar through the gap unblocked. The 309-pound Johnson has a 101-pound advantage on Hunt, but the running back raced over from the right side and lowered his shoulder into Johnson, giving Pitt QB Nate Peterman just enough time to throw to the right side.

... Mississippi State WR Fred Ross closed the last practice of the week with perhaps the best reception so far, reaching up for a Davis Webb pass in the back right corner of the end zone. Ross got both feet inbounds as Tennessee State cornerback Ezra Robinson closed on him.

... Villanova DE Tanoh Kpassagnon is an intriguing prospect with off-the-charts athleticism, but his consistency and technique need refinement. Late in the South team's practice, his extremes were evident on back-to-back plays.

On the first, he spun out of the block from UCLA left tackle Conor McDermott, flushing QB Antonio Pipkin off the spot for what would have been a sack from behind -- and a potential strip-sack fumble -- under game conditions.

But on the next play, Kpassagnon misplayed the zone-read option, biting on Josh Dobbs' fake to Jamaal Williams. Kpassagnon's overreaction and inability to stay at home allowed Dobbs to run around right end for a touchdown.

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