Why Shaquem Griffin is Senior Bowl's most fascinating draft prospect

MOBILE, Ala. -- Bill O'Brien smiled when asked about Shaquem Griffin because ... well, that's what Griffin makes you do.

Central Florida's unlikely star linebacker has stood out this week as one of the Senior Bowl's most fascinating players -- obviously because he's the guy playing with just one hand. But it's also because he has been moving all over the field from defensive end to linebacker to safety, and because he might have one of the most infectious personalities this college all-star game has seen.

Griffin, who was selected as the Senior Bowl's Practice Player of the Week, has been smiling so much during his media interviews that he even apologized for it at one point.

"What a kid," said O'Brien, whose Houston Texans staff has been coaching Griffin on the South team all week leading up to Saturday's game. "I've been impressed with him in the meeting room and on the practice field. He plays hard. He's got a way of playing -- his playing style relative to what his limitations are physically.

"He's going to be an interesting guy to evaluate. He's a tough guy, he plays fast, he's good on special teams. So he's a fun kid to coach."

Senior Bowl executive director and former NFL general manager Phil Savage also mentioned that engaging personality and relentless motor, while stressing that he thinks Griffin's floor is as a "special teams demon" in the NFL with a chance to be a versatile chess piece on defense.

"I think he's one of the most amazing stories, certainly of this year, and over the last 20-plus years that I've been evaluating players," Savage said.

Still, nothing is going to start coming easily to Griffin now, despite his remarkable two-year stretch at UCF, when he went from a seldom-used backup to the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 to the heart and soul of the Knights' 13-0 season in 2017.

Griffin has not even been invited to the NFL combine yet, much to the dismay of his twin brother, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin.

Griffin has proven that he can thrive without the left hand that he lost when he was 4 years old because of a condition called amniotic band syndrome that developed when he was in the womb. He also needs to convince teams that they can find a home for an undersized 6-foot, 223-pounder who mostly played linebacker and edge rusher in college. That's why Griffin has been moved around so much this week.

But it's absurd to think that a combine invite won't come eventually, not only because Griffin deserves it, but because teams must be clamoring to see more of him.

"I would love to [see him at the combine]. I think he's earned it," San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch said. "I think everyone's watching closely. You talk to people at UCF, and they talk about a program-changer. A guy who is obviously inspiring, but not just inspiring -- who was a big-time contributor.

"So if you keep checking the boxes ... and this [week] was another box for him, and I think he's accounted for himself very well."

If the Senior Bowl is just as much about impressing teams off the field as on it, Griffin's draft stock must have soared in Mobile. He is not just a great story but a great storyteller, who says he is "passionate about proving people wrong" and has been doing so ever since he was 7 and a coach tried to tell him that "football is for two-handed players."

"That game, I ended up getting my first career interception in little league. And I remember playing right tackle and leading my running back all the way up the field," Griffin said, beaming from ear to ear.

"I never let one hand stop me from doing what I needed to do."

Griffin said, "You'll never see me coming around the corner not smiling. ... I mean, I enjoy every moment. I've been to a point where I didn't know if I was going to play football again."

But he also showed a healthy level of cockiness, saying things like, "I'm pretty sure [Auburn thinks] about UCF when they go to sleep at night," and, "If you think you're gonna have pity on me or take it easy on me, then I'm gonna have to help you off your back."

That competitive drive comes from growing up with Shaquill, who was at the center of some of Griffin's best stories.

The two brothers are so close (they've been talking four times per day this week) that Shaquill refused to accept a scholarship from a school that wouldn't take both of them. But they are also relentless competitors who have spent their whole lives trying to top each other in just about every battle they could dream up, from climbing the backyard grapefruit tree to breaking each other's track records in high school.

"He ended up winning the first part by coming out first," said Shaquem, who is 60 seconds younger. "But the competition never stopped."

Shaquill's NFL start will also be hard to top. He thrived as a third-round pick in Seattle, playing a key role in 15 games with 11 starts.

But Shaquem eventually topped his brother at UCF, despite playing such a minor role during his first three years. The brothers thought about transferring at one point, but the switch from coach George O'Leary to Scott Frost and a position switch from safety to linebacker changed everything.

Shaquem had 18.5 sacks, 33.5 tackles for loss, 166 tackles, two interceptions and four forced fumbles over his last two years at UCF, including a monster performance in his final game against Auburn in the Peach Bowl (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss).

"If anyone has a question whether he can play or not, just throw on that Peach Bowl film. He was all over the field making plays," said ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, who acknowledged that Griffin might be a Day 3 draft prospect because teams are trying to figure out where he'll fit. But they liked a lot of what he saw from Griffin's "awesome" energy and effort during practices this week.

"I didn't expect him to come down here and light up one-on-one pass-rush drills, because that's like playing in a phone booth," Bowen said. "But put him in open space, and his athleticism is going to stand out. And like I said, put on that film.

"You go against a Power 5 team and light 'em up, in my opinion that's more than just a great story, it shows what type of player and person he is. And if you're a coach, you want those types of players in your locker room. You want guys who can deal with adversity."

Griffin doesn't need a combine invite to show teams he can do that.