MOBILE, Ala. — Lynden Trail said Thursday that he remembers his chance encounter with Phil Savage last summer distinctively.
The Norfolk State outside linebacker/defensive end/tight end met Savage, the Senior Bowl executive director and former Cleveland Browns general manager, when Savage visited campus during a whirlwind tour of area schools one day.
“He told me if I played great I had a great opportunity to come to the Senior Bowl,” Trail said following the South squad’s practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. “That’s kind of fueled my fire. I did what I could and at the end of the day I was blessed with the opportunity to come here and showcase my talents and that’s what I’m here for.”
The 6-foot-6, 262-pound Trail was one of the big surprises in practices this week, an athletic specimen with the wingspan of a pterodactyl who looks like a basketball player but shows the versatility to be a unique weapon at the next level.
That’s exactly the kind of player Savage looks for when he is evaluating and recruiting talent to come to Mobile every January. Like Trail, the long-time NFL coach, scout and executive remembers.
“I was in Virginia, in Richmond, for the Redskins-Patriots scrimmage and I actually went to three schools in a single day — William & Mary, Norfolk State and Old Dominion,” Savage said Thursday. “I went to Norfolk. The grass was (a foot) high and I see this guy and I meet him and I told him if you have a good season I’m going to stay in touch with you, I’m here for the Reese’s Senior Bowl, and here he is.”
Trail’s arrival in Mobile is a story of perseverance and persistence.
The Miami native was a four-star recruit, rated by Scout.com as the No. 15 defensive end prospect in the nation, who picked the University of Florida over offers from just about every major program in college football. He arrived with just 203 pounds stretched across his lanky 6-foot-6 frame, redshirted his first season and then did not see the field in his second year.
He ended up transferring that spring to Norfolk State, where his Booker T. Washington High School teammate Natturner Harris had signed, on the recommendation of his high school coaches.
“They told me they had a pretty good mass communications program,” Trail said. “I’m a person that likes to look into the future. That’s something that I want to do when football is said and done, go into the broadcasting field. I take my education pretty seriously.”
Trail put in work during his three seasons with the Spartans.
In 37 games at Norfolk State, he racked up 255 tackles, including 41 for losses, 19.5 sacks, 18 passes defensed, eight forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, four blocks and two interceptions.
A two-time finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top FCS defensive player, Trail also scored four touchdowns (three receiving, one return) during his junior campaign.
Trail’s versatility was on full display during Thursday’s practice when he lined up at tight end during a one-on-one red zone drill, ran a route against a defender and caught a touchdown pass.
“I’ve been talking to the coaches,” he said. “I let them know that I am a three-position guy — outside linebacker, defensive end and (tight end). I led my team in touchdowns the year before last with four on offense. So give me an opportunity to show you I can catch and run routes and I’ll shock you.”
Just a few minutes after his touchdown reception, on the opposite end of the field, Trail dropped into coverage from his outside linebacker spot during a 7-on-7 session, tipped a pass from Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson and then corralled it softly for an interception.
Trail thinks his best position in the NFL will be standing up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, similar to the role Julius Peppers played this season for the Green Bay Packers.
“If you just let me showcase my ability I think I’m the most effective then,” he explained, “inside of just putting me down at defensive end. Let me be an outside linebacker that wants to rush or drop from time to time.”
There will be NFL teams that agree with Trail’s assessment and he’ll have more opportunities leading up to the draft to prove it, starting with the Senior Bowl game on Saturday.
It has been a long strange trip that took Trail from Miami to Gainesville to Norfolk, Va., and now to Mobile, thanks to his chance meeting of Savage last summer.
Trail was asked Thursday if it was a big gamble, going from a Southeastern Conference powerhouse like Florida to an FCS school that competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. But it turned out to be the right move for the Miami native.
“At that point in time I wasn’t thinking about football,” Trail said. “Not to say I didn’t love it. But I just wanted to get my education. I wanted to go somewhere where they’d let me actually play and showcase my versatility, which they did. I’m ever so thankful and I owe Norfolk State a lot.”
Scout.com Senior Bowl Coverage
Rosters: North South
Game: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. (NFL Network)
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter at @NateLatsch or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trail’s trail to the NFL a circuitous one
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