College football: UD's Joseph dazzles at Senior Bowl practices

University of Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph (right) and Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard compete during Wednesday’s practice ahead of today’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

One player who certainly knows about Michael Joseph now: Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard.

On Thursday, the third day of practices leading up to today’s Reese’s Senior Bowl, Joseph — the University of Dubuque cornerback — and Lazard (another draft hopeful) were lined up against one another. The Cyclone beat the Spartan on a deep crossing route for the catch. Rather than give up on the play, Joseph caught Lazard and punched the ball out for a highlight-reel fumble recovery.

That’s just one of many ways Joseph has stood out during this week’s slate of practices in Mobile, Ala. On Wednesday, the second day of practices, Joseph was charted to have covered 4,590 yards (more than two miles), the most among players at the Senior Bowl.

In the big picture, Dubuque coaches say Joseph has proven to onlookers he can hang with the best college football has to offer.

“No. 1 — he belongs,” said UD coach Stan Zweifel, who traveled to Mobile with several Spartan coaches, administrators and a handful of players to watch Joseph practice and compete in the bowl. “He’s fast enough. He’s explosive enough. He competes his butt off.

“He doesn’t look out of step. He’s surely got things to learn, and surely the speed he’s covering is unlike anything he’s seen. But he’s got a great attitude, and he’s shown that he works extremely hard.”

It’s one thing to hear it from Joseph’s coaching staff — professed members of “Team MJ.” But the impartial onlookers also like what they’ve seen from the UD grad.

ESPN analyst Matt Bowen (a former Iowa Hawkeye safety who played in the NFL from 2000-06) first caught wind of Joseph when he was named to the Senior Bowl watch list last fall. Having covered the Senior Bowl for more than a decade, Bowen said Joseph will “certainly” get a shot with an NFL team, if not as a draft pick then as a training camp invitee.

The practices leading up to the Senior Bowl are more important for a prospect’s stock than the game itself, Bowen said during a phone interview with the Telegraph Herald on Friday.

“In practice, you can put them in any situation you want. You get more one-on-one, any technique you want,” said Bowen, who added that Joseph “jumps off the tape.”

“If I’m an evaluator, the practice tape is more important. … The week of work, the pre-practices that you go through, that would be more important for me as an evaluator.”

As the only NCAA Division III player invited to the annual showcase of top NFL draft hopefuls, Joseph landed in Mobile (after spending a month training in San Diego) with arguably the most to prove. Never before has the Oswego, Ill., native competed against Division-I talent, and throughout the week, he’s been paired against some of the game’s top receivers on the North Team. And they’re catching passes from the likes of Heisman-winner Baker Mayfield and top QB prospect Josh Allen.

Bowen said Joseph didn’t win every battle against the likes of Lazard and others, but added that no Senior Bowl prospect does. What impressed Bowen was Joseph’s ability to respond to mistakes.

“Michael didn’t win every one-on-one battle, but nobody down here does,” Bowen said. “What I always look for is, what happens after you get beat? Do you come back and compete in the next rep?

“He did. That’s important to me. If I’m a talent evaluator, I want to see his reaction when he gets beat. Because he’s going to get beat in the pros too. Can you come back and win the next rep? Can you come back and adjust your technique? And he did that.”

In a series of interviews with UD sports information director Paul Misner, Joseph said his confidence and comfort-level on the field are growing. With teammates and coaches in the stands, cheering every play he makes, Joseph said he’s also felt the Dubuque support.

“It felt good today, it was great getting back on the field and competing again,” Joseph said following Tuesday’s practice. The Denver Broncos coaching staff is coaching the North Team, which means Joseph is working closely with head Denver coach Vance Joseph, among other NFL evaluators. “It’s definitely something I knew I had to do well coming in, so I just made sure I was patient and played my technique… And talking to NFL coaches has been a great learning experience, you definitely have to learn a lot in a short amount of time, but I have enjoyed it all.”

The Senior Bowl will be aired live today at 1:30 p.m. on the NFL Network. When Joseph takes the field, it will be a historic moment — he’s the first Iowa Conference player invited to the bowl since 1960 and the only-ever Spartan to be featured in the game.

Zweifel said Joseph’s path to the NFL is just beginning, but already the UD grad is making waves. One New York Giants executive approached Zweifel to tell the coach how impressive Joseph was in an interview.

“This week is all about production. When (Joseph) has a chance to make that play, he’s got to make that play,” Zweifel said. “This is just Step 1. He’s going to have a lot of steps prior to the draft.

“This is the start of the process. It’s not the finish. And I’m super excited for him.”

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