I’m live in St. Petersburg for the sixth year in a row covering the 92nd annual East-West Shrine Game. Practices kicked off Monday under the Warm Florida skies as about 100 players tried to make a favorable impression on the large gathering of NFL scouts and personnel execs, as well as some of us media.
Monday’s practices are definitely about first impressions much more than skill evaluation. These impressions can, and in many cases will, change over the course of the week. Here are some of my stronger first impressions from the East and West squads.
The East squad features several Michigan Wolverines, a team I saw in person twice this fall and know very well. As such, the impression here was more about validating or refuting what I’ve seen in watching just about every snap these guys have played over the last two years.
Cornerback Channing Stribling stood out for being the tallest corner on the East (or West for that matter). He is a legit 6’2” and has much longer arms than most of his cohorts. That’s important because when he had to turn and run with some of the faster receivers today he struggled to stay with them down the field. His length makes the throwing angle tougher, and he’s clearly been taught how to use the sideline to his advantage. He might have the skinniest lower body frame of any player here, too.
A pair of UM safeties are here in Lano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Neither struck me as NFL-caliber when watching them in Ann Arbor, but Hill showed decent athleticism and coverage awareness. He dropped the “De” from the front of his first name, by the way. Thomas is built like a cornerback at 6’ and 190 but also showed the least route recognition skills in coverage drills. Again, he has time to change it but my first impression was not great.
Running back Deveon Smith looked great as a receiver out of the backfield. He put a nifty stutter juke on Notre Dame LB James Onwualu, who does not have the hips or feet to recover quickly. Smith doesn’t accelerate quickly but once he’s moving he is surprisingly lithe for a 5’11”, 230-pound RB.
The Wolverines have two OL here, right tackle Erik Magnuson and guard/center Kyle Kalis. I did not focus on the line play today as the players were in shorts and shoulder pads only, so look for more on them later in the week. The same is true of DT Matt Godin, who did note move as quickly as his mates in the DL agility drill.
A pair of CBs stood out for playing well. Tony Bridges from Ole Miss impressed with his ability to recover from getting beat early in a play. He doesn’t have great burst but catches up quickly and didn’t panic when Alabama WR Gehrig Dieter quickly ate up his cushion. His fluid hips and headiness allowed Bridges to stay in position to make a play.
Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick broke up a couple of passes. He’s much better with the ball in the air than before it, but that works on deep routes. He should have picked one off though, and the position coach let him know it.
Speaking of letting folks know things, Arkansas WR Drew Morgan was not shy about letting DBs know he beat them. And he did so quite often, especially working down the middle of the field.
Miami FL safety Jamal Carter didn’t do much for me in reps, but as far as a physical specimen…WOW. The female fans will like Carter, who is 6’2”, 215 and straight off the cover of a bodybuilding magazine.
Middle Tennessee RB I’Tavius Mathers showed off his outstanding agility a couple of times in team drills. He moves like Theo Riddick of the Detroit Lions out in space, but like Riddick he’s almost too shifty for his own good as an actual running back; he had a superfluous hop step right after taking the ball on every single handoff.
The star of the East, and really the whole day of practice, was Drake TE Eric Saubert. If you follow me on Twitter (@JeffRisdon) you know I gushed about him repeatedly. Scouts and media were fawning over his innate ability to get open, his smooth routes and soft hands. This is a very deep TE class and I have only seen one Drake game the last two years, but I imagine I’m going to like Saubert a lot if his game tape is anything like what I saw today.
The West squad did less 1-on-1 drill work, though they did have a longer team portion. Once again my focus was primarily on the TE/LB pairings and the WRs and DBs, though I did pay more attention to the quarterbacks as well.
Gunner Kiel is quite an adventure as a prospect. From his indecision on staying at any school (Notre Dame, then Indiana, then Cincinnati) to his scary knockout in a game in 2015 to his poor 2016 where he largely backed up Hayden Moore, it’s hard to like Kiel…
…and then you watch him throw the football and you see “it”. He’s got a fantastic arm. The throwing platform, the base and weight transfer, the release and follow through, it’s all aesthetical catnip. His throws don’t always go on target and he doesn’t appear to see coverage all that well, but man he can really spin it.
I came away impressed with Illinois QB Wes Lunt, who also has quite the right shoulder cannon. He had a series where he threaded the needle on a deep seam route, just over a leaping LB and right into Washington State WR Gabe Marks (more on him below). That was as good of a throw as you’ll see any Sunday. On the next rep he feathered a ball with perfect timing and touch to the RB in the flat after looking off the safety. He consistently threw the best downfield passes of any QB on either roster today.
Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell is the other West QB, and a player I’ve seen in person several times. Just as he did for the Broncos, Terrell is almost surgical on routes over the middle at any level of the defense. His ball placement on crosses, posts and hitches is fantastic. Outside the numbers it’s a different story, and that’s despite the fact he does alter his mechanics to get more body torque on those longer throws. He’s got more juice than a Kellen Moore, but it might not be enough for most NFL coaches.
The aforementioned Gabe Marks put on a show. He was the most impressive wideout on either squad, not bad for a late addition to the roster. His ability to separate in the open field consistently shined, and he showed he could extend out and make catches away from his body. He and Lunt appear to have good instant chemistry, if you’re looking for an angle on the actual Shrine Game itself.
I’ve been a big promoter of Toledo TE Michael Roberts, who caught 16 TDs and is built almost like an offensive tackle. Alas, he got off the line on most of his reps like he is in fact an offensive tackle. There is zero suddenness to his game. Once he’s moving he does flow pretty well and has decent footwork for a 6’5”, 270-pound tight end. I saw him make one difficult catch on a low Terrell throw but another throw from Kiel that was a bit behind him clanked off.
From the D-II ranks, Shepherd wideout Billy Brown impressed. He’s bigger than a lot of tight ends at 6’4” and 245, but he definitely runs and catches more like a receiver. My initial impression is he’s better than Carolina’s Devin Funchess, who was of similar build and athletic prowess. Must see more, but my appetite is definitely whetted.
The West has one player doing both the punting and kicking. Idaho’s Austin Rehkow is pulling double duty. He didn’t have the hang time of East punter Eric Kenna, a North Texas product, but might have a better directional leg.
Several players who accepted invites are out with injury. Among them:
Navy QB Will Worth
Northern Illinois WR Kenny Golladay
South Florida WR Rodney Adams
Florida State OG Kareem Are
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Oregon State OL Sean Harlow
Toledo DT Treyvon Hester
Colorado CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Houston LB Steven Taylor
Miami FL wideout Stacy Coley was on the initial list but is not here, and no explanation was given yet.
Also, the Shrine Game does not publicly release the official heights and weights to the media, but I will try and secure that valuable information over the course of the week.