I’m reporting live from St. Petersburg for the seventh straight year to cover the East-West Shrine Game. The oldest collegiate all-star game is the unofficial kickoff of NFL Draft season. Over 100 prospects will be on display in the four days of practices and the game itself on Saturday.
Every NFL team sends a contingency to check out the players. Most of the talent here will be drafted on the draft’s third day (Rounds 4-7) or scooped up shortly thereafter as priority free agents. There are a few players who could solidify positions in the top 100, as well as several others who can climb draft boards with strong practice sessions and interviews with teams.
Here are my initial impressions of the position groups and who I hope to focus upon when the action kicks off on Monday.
I’m not high at all on this year’s QB class, but there are two passers in St. Pete who could help change my mind. Easton Stick from North Dakota State and Jordan Ta’amu from Ole Miss both have traits I can see translating to the NFL and emerging as viable NFL backups.
Stick took over for Carson Wentz and led the Bison to multiple titles. He’s a different kind of player than Wentz, a better precision and timing passer but with less of an arm and athletic flair. Stick is very good at taking what the defense gives him, and has shown he can create some too with his eyes and legs. I’ll be watching his arm strength and ability to handle the perennially gnarly field conditions of West practices at St. Pete HS.
Ta’Amu is a developmental project for a team looking for a dual-threat athlete-as-QB, though he did show at times (notably vs. Arkansas) he can make touch throws from the pocket. He got to work with very talented WRs for the Rebels, and this week will help discern how well the 6-2 gunslinger can work with unfamiliar receivers.
Oklahoma State’s Taylor Cornelius and Fresno State’s Marcus McMaryion have the potential to emerge as draftable, career-backup types. Brett Rypien from Boise State has some fans in the draft community too, though I’ve yet to see the reason for the hype. That’s why I’m here...
Devine Ozigbo was one of the nation’s most improved players in 2018. The Nebraska power back added some giddyup to his arsenal, as well as better vision and north-south decisiveness. He’s the premier talent here.
In my years of covering postseason all-star games, I’ve learned running back is the least valuable position to watch in practices. There is little live tackling and the blocking schemes are basic. There are still things that can be learned, however. Route running, catching the ball and pass protection skills will be on full display.
It’s those latter abilities where a guy like Maryland’s Ty Johnson can shine. He didn’t get a lot of opportunity with the Terrapins, but I saw him make a lightning 98-yard kick return at Michigan and his speed and acceleration were stunning. Nick Brossette from LSU could vault himself up into the 4th-5th round with a good week, too.
The headliner is DaMarkus Lodge, who caught passes from Ta’amu at Ole Miss. He can stretch the field on the outside or in the seam and uses his 6-2 length well. Lodge is an early favorite to be the first Shrine Game player drafted. He’s not the only wideout in St. Pete who could emerge as a future NFL starter and ready-made contributor.
A pair of West receivers from the Mountain West conference come with some impressive backing film. Ronquavion Tarver of Utah State and KeeSean Johnson from Fresno State kill defenses as well as they do the spellchecker. Tarver is a physical 6-2/215 who can leap and make tough catches (see his TD vs. UNLV) but is also an accomplished blocker and not a fun guy to tackle. Johnson might have the best hands of any WR in the draft.
I’m also interested in Arizona’s Shawn Poindexter, in no small part because he’s a former volleyball player like myself. His game took a big leap forward in 2018 and could continue to ascend with a strong Shrine Game week.
There are two guys here who I predict will wind up being popular “sleepers” with draftniks: Michigan State’s Matt Sokol and Andrew Beck from Texas. Neither got a lot of looks in college, though Beck did catch 28 passes. Neither has any exceptional traits other than being solid all-around football players with high floors. Sokol could blossom quickly with better QB play.
On the other end of the ceiling/floor spectrum, Kano Dillon from Oregon (and South Florida) is a fantastic athlete for his size but couldn’t reliably get targets at two separate programs. For those who like the college basketball PF-as-TE, Dillon fits the mold even though he didn’t play hoops.
Small school prospects abound, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve seen very little of most of them. What I did see from Elon OT Olisaemeka Udoh reminds me of Shrine Game alum Hal Vaitai of the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s massive (6-6/350) but pretty light on his feet, and his giant hands can lock into defenders with brute power.
Joshua Miles from Morgan State and O’Shea Dugas of Louisiana Tech could improve their stocks with a good week. Both can also play tackle but are listed as guards here. One player I have yet to see but who has some buzz is Trey Pipkins from Sioux Falls, a tackle who has already drawn some attention from several NFL teams.
Of the more mainstream prospects, Florida’s Martez Ivey can do a lot to shed the perception he doesn’t take his technique seriously. He has the physical tools to be an NFL starter but didn’t play to that level often enough for the Gators. San Diego State’s Ryan Pope has starting RT potential if he doesn’t get torched in 1-on-1 pass rush drills. Michigan product Juwann Bushell-Beatty is kicking inside to guard after an injury-riddled senior season at right tackle.
On the inside, Temple’s Michael Dogbe is an excellent interior anchor with requisite sand in the pants and just enough quickness to shed and make plays at the line. He has a lot of impressive company on the East roster, including Ricky Walker from Virginia Tech, Cortez Broughton from Cincinnati and Kyle Phillips from Tennessee, who could emerge as a popular prospect for hybrid front defenses.
Almost the entire West DL is from the state of Texas. The players I’m most curious about is Markus Jones from Angelo State, who posted ridiculous production, enough that he was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Award, the D-II version of the Heisman. Derick Roberson washed out of Texas but thrived at Sam Houston State and can rise up if he continues to avoid blocks.
Every year we get to see some top Canadian collegians here. DE Mathieu Betts from Laval is the most-hyped Canuck to arrive since Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, now starting for the Kansas City Chiefs when healthy. Joel Van Pelt from Calgary is his counterpart on the West.
Two MAC standouts should have strong weeks at another position (like RB) that can be difficult to evaluate in practice sessions other than in the passing game. Khalil Hodge from Buffalo and Ulysees Gilbert from Akron both leap off game film. Hodge posted over 400 tackles in 3 seasons and should thrive in this format with his speed and body control.
I was hoping to catch Washington’s undersized Ben Burr-Kirven, but he is no longer on the Shrine Game roster. This is probably the weakest position group in St. Pete overall.
My choice for the best defensive player in St. Pete coming into the week is Troy CB Blace Brown. He has all the qualities necessary to start in the NFL as a rookie. He faces a challenge from Miami’s Michael Jackson, a more well-built athlete who has NFL starting potential. The Shrine Game is a good chance for him to put an underwhelming 2018 behind him.
Other CBs who intrigue include Rashad Fenton from South Carolina, Jamal Peters of Mississippi State, Isaiah Wharton from Rutgers (a lineage which pretty much guarantees he’s going to get drafted by New England) and FCS standout Jimmy Moreland from James Madison.
The safety group might not look great in practices as most project to being strong safeties or hybrid LB/S in the NFL and not the rangy coverage safety. Wyoming’s Andrew Wingard and UCLA’s Adarius Pickett both have impressive hitting and tackling game tape. If they show they can cover reasonably well, stock up.