Mobile, Ala. – Spending four seasons playing cornerback and safety at LSU, in the talent-rich Southeastern Conference, doesn't sufficiently replicate being fed a steady diet of NFL receivers every week.
But Jalen Mills has had a taste.
Two second-year, Pro Bowl receivers this season – Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants and Jarvis Landry of the Dolphins – were LSU teammates of Mills' two years ago, when he was a starting sophomore cornerback for the Tigers.
That exposure, and what he has learned from former Tigers who return to campus to work out after they've reached the NFL, gives Mills confidence that he may be a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to defending NFL receivers, an advantage he hopes to display this week during practice at the Senior Bowl and then again Saturday, when the game is played at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.
Mills (6 feet 1, 194 pounds) will be joined by two teammates – right tackle Vadal Alexander and inside linebacker Deion Jones – on the South squad.
Of the three, Mills, perhaps, plays the highest-demand position. NFL franchises always are on the lookout for talented defensive backs, particularly given rules changes that allow for more freedom for receivers. And Mills has been exposed to that first hand.
"Knowing what those guys are doing in the league now, and when they were at LSU going against those guys and sometimes some of those NFL guys will come back to LSU and do release drills and one-on-one and things like that, those guys are just getting you prepped and ready for that type of speed, and different things that you have to work on when going to the next level," Mills said.
Mills, who returned to LSU for his senior season after contemplating making himself eligible for the NFL Draft after his junior year, has had an opportunity to view college speed from different angles.
He started at cornerback his first two seasons, and played safety his final two. He expects to receive work at those positions during practice this week.
"(I'm) just playing all the positions in the secondary – corner, nickel, I really didn't get to run in at safety (Tuesday) but I think they're talking about doing it (Wednesday)," said Mills, who had six interceptions and 216 tackles at LSU. "(You're) just really having to know the playbook, even within this short amount of days. These coaches want you to come out here and compete at a high level, but you also have to be able to do your job.
"Practice is just as important as the game is. You want to go as if this is a game right now, two-minute drill in the fourth quarter and your team is down, and you need to make a play for your team – at any position. That's how serious practice is."
Alexander (6-6, 330) also understands the importance of practice this week against high-level competition. And he already has exhibited the ability to play at a high level – he was named third-team All-America after his senior season and started 45 of his 48 games at LSU, at right tackle and left guard.
"It was great out there, getting your feet wet, going against excellent players," he said Tuesday. "It's outstanding the level of competition that's out there.
"I feel very comfortable moving around. I'm very versatile. They had me working at right tackle and right guard, I feel I did well, but I'm here to play wherever they need me to play. Doing well against the type of guys I'm going against is a big deal, because they're great players."
Jones (6-1, 230) approaches the Senior Bowl from a different perspective than his teammates. The New Orleanian, who played at Jesuit High, didn't start for the Tigers until his senior season, playing behind Kwon Alexander for most of his LSU career.
In his lone season as a starter, he led LSU in tackles (100) and tackles for loss (13.5). He also had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. He was a finalist for the Butkus Award, presented to the top linebacker in the nation.
"It's really a blessing," Jones said of his Senior Bowl experience. "It's a little bit fast-paced, a lot of quality reps. I'm out here with a bunch of guys who are at the top of the nation. I'm really enjoying all of them, getting to know them. It's a real good experience.
"I've spoken to multiple coaches, everybody is trying to feel me out and see what type of person I am, what type of player I am. I didn't expect this to be going on at the beginning of the year, I was just taking it one step at a time. And to be here is a blessing. I'm just enjoying every step."
Naturally, Jones expressed a desire to play for his hometown team. But the chance to play in the NFL at all, and to win a title, usurps a specific destination.
"I'm hungry for a championship," Jones said. "I've never won a championship in my life and I plan on doing that before I'm done playing sports. I'm a hard worker, I'm a servant leader and I really want to get after it."
It's part of what will be a busy week for Jones and his LSU teammates.
"It's hectic," Mills said. "Coaches everywhere, players everywhere, you're being pulled left and right. But it's a good thing, as well, because you get that opportunity to showcase your abilities to these coaches and just prove to them that you can play at the next level."