Stuck between the BCS National Championship and the Senior Bowl is the less publicized East-West Shrine Game, held on Saturday, January 19 in Tampa Bay. Although the highest profile NFL-bound senior prospects attend the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine annually graduates solid mid-round talents that produce early in their rookie seasons. Last year's alumni include 49ers WR A.J. Jenkins (30th), Redskins G Josh LeRibeus (71st), Texans G Brandon Brooks (76th), Cowboys DE Tyrone Crawford (81st), Saints DT Akiem Hicks (89th), Minnesota WR Jarius Wright (118th), Panthers CB Josh Norman (143rd), and Redskins RB Alfred Morris (173rd), just to list a few.
The 2013 roster is incredibly deep at the running back position, so it only makes sense the linebacker group is equally talented. Many non-FBS prospects make a name for themselves during this week of “even” competition, and although I watched around 90 percent of the prospects listed on the roster, I will certainly be surprised by a handful of players that outperform their tape. With a prospect like Akiem Hicks, a former LSU recruit, making noise during his rookie year after taking the large step up from Canadian collegiate football, expect evaluators to keep a close eye on similar stories and “upside” prospects that won’t look lost if they touch the field. The full roster can be found here.
Throughout the game's week of practices, I will be posting articles here, tweeting observations from the field, and giving input on every player on the roster, so follow me @JoshNorris. For now, here are some of the top prospects sorted by position. If a player is not listed under their positional category, they might have made my top ten list at the end of the column. All heights and weights are projected until weigh-ins take place on Monday.
There is little doubt that the highest profile prospect attending the week of practice in St. Petersburg, Florida, is Kansas State’s Collin Klein (6’4/226). Unlike the more mobile Denard Robinson, Klein will go through the pre-draft process at the quarterback position. This event will be a good test to see how Klein handles traditional drops and the footwork necessary to make a roster as a signal caller. He has a hitch in his throwing motion, and even with improved intermediate to downfield accuracy this season, Klein’s biggest struggle could be working through progressions while staying in the pocket. I won’t be surprised if three other attending quarterbacks outplay the Kansas State product. The first is one year starter Matt Scott (6’3/196). The Arizona Wildcat’s best asset is his mobility to buy time while making quick decisions with an equally quick release. However, just like Klein, Scott was not locked into the pocket and brings a lot of fidgety movements to his game. Texas Tech’s Seth Doege (6’1/197) is another with a chance to claim top quarterback honors. The Red Raider is limited from a physical standpoint, but Doege plays within himself while working through progressions and putting passes on targets in tight spaces. FInally, the wildcard is Southeastern Louisiana’s Nathan Stanley (6’5/215), a late add to the roster after Duke’s Sean Renfree went down with an injury. Stanley has the biggest arm of the group and was not afraid to test vertically against single coverage, something that can be missed in these all star settings since prospects fear making mistakes.
The running back position is an odd one to critique at these types of events because of the limited contact during practice. An example last year was Alfred Morris. Teams rarely practiced slant or zone blocking, and Morris was barely able to show off his pinball style when bouncing off attempted tackles. The rookie sensation even took some snaps from fullback. As a whole, this year’s talent is much better, and Shrine week is a great platform for a prospect like Christine Michael (5’11/220). After being a very productive runner while not sidelined with injuries, Michael was seemingly stuck in Kevin Sumlin’s dog house in 2012 at Texas A&M. His coaches may not give him a glowing recommendation, but his tape in 2011 will, and Michael has a nice blend of power, agility, and balance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Utah State’s Kerwynn Williams (5’8/189) made the most of his only season as a starter, stepping up to the plate after Robert Turbin and Michael Smith took their talents to the NFL. Williams’ game is heavily dependent on speed and either knifing through a lane created by the offensive line or beating defenders to the edge and turning the corner. SMU’s Zach Line (6’1/230) is also intriguing, in that he might find a home at fullback in the NFL, but will get one last shot to impress at running back during the week of practice. Line’s vision and anticipation is very good, but he lacks desired quickness and even power despite his large frame.
Wide Receiver/Tight Ends
There is one major quality to love about Virginia Tech WR Marcus Davis (6’4/225), athleticism, as he is a prospect primed to put on a great show at the Combine. Even looking past his suspect blocking effort, the Hokie’s biggest issue is his inconsistency at the catch point, specifically unreliable hands. Davis is best known for stretching the field vertically, but the majority of those types of prospects cannot take the next step and break the wall of being just a role player. Florida State’s Rodney Smith (6’6/219) offers a good frame and long strides to win on intermediate routes, but the progression is to start using his body at the catch point rather than playing like a smaller receiver. Coming off the National Championship where he was limited from a production standpoint, Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick (5’11/200) played a ton of running back and receiver this season. Some have referred to him as a poor man’s Percy Harvin, and although he lines up from a variety of spots, Riddick’s cuts aren’t so much explosive as they are exaggerated. Still, it is nice to have a prospect with his kind of positional versatility because it could create mismatches with defensive personnel. Another name to watch is Mount Union’s Jasper Collins (5’11/190), a real burner from the slot but might struggle against FBS caliber corners. From the tight end position, Nevada’s Zach Sudfeld (6’7/255) presents some intriguing qualities as a possible second tight end down the line. Along with being an adequate receiving option as a hands catcher with size, Sudfeld is a very comfortable blocker and pancaked multiple opponents this season.
This is the positional group with the weakest talent, but a few deserve to be on this list. The first is Iowa C James Ferentz (6’2/290), the coach’s son. He’s small and might not be able to anchor against a face up nose tackle in a three man front, but Ferentz fights for positioning on every snap, uses foot quickness and leverage to his advantage, and can really get after it. He might not have a frame to grow into, but Ferentz is one of my favorite sixth- or seventh-round prospects because technique can compensate for deficiencies in other areas. Arkansas-Pine Bluff T Terron Armstead (6’5/310) will likely make the move to guard because of his proficiency in blocking on the move. The small schooler is at his best leading blocking on the edge or trapping between the tackles, and although he can be weak on first contact, Armstead has athletic feet to warrant a possible “upside” selection. One of the few Canadian prospects, McMaster University’s Matt Sewell (6’8/345) is a massive blocker that is predictably stiff in the hips, but displays plenty of strength to bully his opponent. A move to the right side is in his future, but the key will be to note if Sewell can mirror in pass protection. Lastly, T Dann O’Neill (6’7/305), a Michigan transfer, finished his career at Western Michigan blocking for fellow attendee Alex Carder. O’Neill should be one of the few prospects able to play the left or right side because of his consistency at anchoring against the pass rush and redirecting momentum.