At Senior Bowl, Georgia Tech’s Tariq Carpenter wants to prove himself

As he showed off his physical skills, playmaking ability and versatility throughout the week of practice in Orlando, Fla., Georgia Tech safety Tariq Carpenter had a message for the NFL scouts watching him and other draft prospects at the Hula Bowl in mid-January.

Carpenter told them to call Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. Carpenter knew he was proving himself against the competition at that pre-draft showcase and wanted a shot at the premier pre-draft game, the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

“That was my goal, because I felt like I should have been playing (in the Senior Bowl) in the first place,” Carpenter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So I just went in there striving to earn that Reese’s (the Senior Bowl title sponsor).”

The scouts were not just listening to Carpenter, but also watching. Last Wednesday, as he was packing for the East-West Shrine Bowl – another higher-profile pre-draft competition – and talking on FaceTime with teammate and close friend Juanyeh Thomas and former Yellow Jackets safety coach Nathan Burton, Carpenter got a call. It was Nagy with a late invitation to the Senior Bowl after a spot opened up due to an injury to an invitee. Carpenter accepted on the spot.

“Honestly, I really started crying,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter was to begin three days of practice on Tuesday prior to the game on Saturday. The workouts are closely monitored by coaches, scouts and decision makers from all 32 NFL teams. It is an opportunity for Carpenter to lock his spot in the draft.

“I definitely want some respect, as well,” Carpenter said. “Personally, I do want to prove it to myself, especially coming from Tech not having those blow-up seasons or anything. I always envisioned myself being here. Now I just want to prove it to myself that I belong here.”

That Carpenter was invited is testament enough to the sort of player that NFL scouts believe he was at Tech and can be at the professional level. Senior Bowl invites are gold, a strong indicator of a player’s draft stock. He is the first Tech player to participate in the Senior Bowl since Justin Thomas in 2017.

“After a great week down there at the Hula Bowl, we got a lot of good reviews from our friends around the league,” Nagy told the AJC. “He was a guy they wanted to see more of, so it was really an easy decision once we had a roster spot open up.”

Along with his size (6-foot-2 and 225 pounds) and speed, Carpenter’s versatility is helping lift him up NFL draft boards. At the Hula Bowl, coaches used him at free safety, strong safety, “will” linebacker, nickel back and even cornerback, Carpenter said.

“I was actually out there making plays (at cornerback),” Carpenter said. “But that’s when, after practice, I started having more (NFL) teams just talk to me about playing safety, playing true safety, instead of more like that ‘dime’ box safety guy.”

Carpenter said a representative from the Los Angeles Chargers compared him to Derwin James, their two-time Pro Bowl safety. In Mobile, the plan is for Carpenter to play both linebacker and safety. He’ll be on the American team coached by the Detroit Lions staff.

“One of the main values of this game is trying to help teams figure these players out,” Nagy said.

Carpenter is gladly sharing some pre-draft spotlight with Thomas, who is in Las Vegas for the Shrine Bowl (along with offensive tackle Devin Cochran) and also earned an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. From the time they met at Tech in 2018 (Carpenter was a sophomore and Thomas was a freshman) and began their close friendship – a bond tightened by the fact they both have speech impediments – reaching the NFL became a shared dream.

“Me and him always had talks about that,” Carpenter said. “Just to see it actually slowly becoming clear, becoming a reality, it’s a surreal feeling, to say the least.”

The NFL’s strong interest in both perhaps casts a different light on their play at Tech, particularly this past season. Neither was an obvious standout and both took criticism for their role in the defense giving up a number of big pass plays and finishing 117th in FBS in total defense.

“I kind of blocked out everybody,” Carpenter said. “At the end of the day, I know who I am, and I just went there to the Hula Bowl with the mindset of, ‘You said you’re the best. Here’s your time to prove it.’”

Carpenter spoke with clear affection for Burton, who was dismissed at the end of the season, calling him a great coach who did “an amazing job” developing Thomas and himself.

“We didn’t have the eye-popping plays like the fans wanted to see, but coach Burton taught us how to play real football,” Carpenter said. “I’m just glad I was able to put my trust in him, and when I did, look how far me and Juanyeh came.”

Burton expressed his pride in both players and recognized the hard work both put in. He observed that both improved this season in particular in their focus in preparing for games.

And while they were a part of a defense that was last in the ACC in opponent passer rating, “I think they both played themselves into a position to make these all-star games, to make the combine,” Burton said. “I think if they had completely butchered the year, they wouldn’t have been asked (to attend).”

Both players, as the last line of defense at safety, were in highly visible positions when the defense gave up scores or big plays. Sometimes, that doesn’t mean that they executed their responsibilities poorly, as myriad factors – such as mistakes in pre-snap communication or misplays by teammates – can foul up a play. Asked if he felt vindicated or gratified by the pre-draft recognition that both of his players have received, Burton gave a typically gracious response.

“Selfishly, probably,” he said. “But they were blessed by really good genetics God gave them. In my mind, if (former Tech safety coaches) Andy McCollum or Shiel Wood were around, they probably would have just developed just as well, just because of those guys (Thomas and Carpenter). Those two kids are special, they really are.”

Nagy, who had scouts at multiple Tech games, was not dissuaded by what he and his scouts saw.

“We don’t look at (statistics), we look at tape and we look at the physical traits and instincts, play temperament,” Nagy said. “Stats are one of the last things we look at. We look at talent. He’s a guy that can play in the league a long time. I think he’s going to be an immediate factor on special teams right away just with his length and his ability to run and hit. Teams are going to see a core special-teams player that’ll dress on Sundays next fall just with that alone.”

In front of the NFL decision makers who will determine his draft fate, Carpenter has a week in Mobile to prove Nagy – and himself – right.