2016 Shrine Game First Impressions
The 91st annual East-West Shrine Game practices kicked off on Monday in St. Petersburg. After weigh-ins, which were closed to the media, the East and West practiced in their usual locales, Shorecrest Prep Academy for the East and St. Pete High for the West.
This is my fifth time covering the Shrine Game in person, and the first impression of the rosters is that this is one of the better skill position and defensive back groups but thin on the lines. My attention was squarely on the wideouts, defensive backs, quarterbacks and tight ends as the linemen were only wearing shoulder pads and helmets.
The East, helmed by Charlie Weis, was a much more illuminative practice session. There was plenty of of offense vs. defense and full team drills.
East QBs are Blake Frohnapfel from UMass, Jake Rudock from Michigan and Wisconsin’s Joel Stave. While Frohnapfel had some solid throws and definitely offers impressive size, Rudock is the clear cream of the East crop.
I’ve seen Rudock in person a couple of times last fall, and I was intrigued. After seeing today, I like him even more. His arm is stronger up close than it even looked from the stands at the Big House; there is real zip on his sideline outs and deeper throws. He moved well and threw on the run with touch and pretty solid ball placement.
There were a couple of bad throws, and he got picked off in team drills by staring down his target pre-snap. He also fumbled one snap and juggled another. It’s an uneven performance but one which highlighted real NFL tools.
On the West, Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld and Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty are the headliners with the brightest NFL futures. Oregon (and Eastern Washington) product Vernon Adams is the third, but his slight build and decided lack of stature likely will keep him from having much of an NFL career; he’s noticeably smaller than Johnny Manziel.
Sudfeld has a lot to offer, and it shined through even though West coach June Jones allowed very little offense vs. defense at any point in practice. He’s got a strong base and high release, an excellent technical throwing platform. His throws don’t have the zip of Rudock in the earlier session but they don’t lack velocity. What stood out is his anticipation and touch even while working with wideouts he just met yesterday.
Doughty struggled on the first day, notably when the temperature dropped into the low 50s during the latter part of practice. On film for the Hilltoppers I noted he’s a rhythm passer, and on the first day he just never found it. About the only drill he really excelled in was throwing low passes to receivers on shallow routes, reps which Sudfeld fared poorly.
These groups get me excited, as I see several future NFL contributors sprinkled across the rosters.
On the East, Ole Miss’ Cody Core really stood out. He’s well-built and definitely has some giddyup off the line for a 6’3” guy. Core ran clean routes and caught anything near him, including a throw from a coach where the passer actually yelled “oops” and Core still snagged it over and behind his head with his left hand.
Tajae Sharpe, who played with Frohnapfel at UMass, earned a lot of praise from the defensive backs along the sideline. After about 2/3 of practice was over they were talking about him and definitely impressed. His hands are very strong, and he’s also a legit 6’3” though not as filled out as Core. He made a sliding catch in team drills on a perfect throw from Rudock, designed to be low and away from the defender.
Rashawn Scott of Miami looked good in individual drills but struggled some when the field was full. More than most others, he was impacted by the loose turf and slippery conditions on the field. Notre Dame’s Chris Brown almost looked like he was on skates, as his long stride really hindered him in the poor grass.
On the West, the winner of the first day was Geronimo Allison from Illinois. Allison is very impressive physically. Like Core and Sharpe, he’s 6’3” but just the way he carries himself he comes across bigger. For a longer receiver his steps are crisp and his routes sharp. He got to show off his catch radius a couple of times, while also consistently plucking the ball from the air with clean hands. It was a great first day for a guy who has some solid tape but never seemed to click with his QB(s) at Illinois.
Jared Dangerfield from Western Kentucky and Devon Cajuste from Stanford both had some positive moments. Dangerfield has nice size and can really accelerate into open space nicely. He exploded off his outside foot on a post route and torched the safety (Illinois’ Clayton Fedejelem, who did not stand out), who got a tongue lashing for being flat-footed toast. The WKU wideout has a bad habit of jumping to catch everything that needs to be curbed.
Cajuste is going to be an interesting NFL fit. He’s built like a tight end at 6’4” and 227 pounds, though he doesn’t play with a lot of physicality. I was impressed with his hands and his long-striding speed, but at the same time he really downshifts to make his breaks and doesn’t have great burst out of it, either. I hope to see something else later this week that pushes him one direction or the other out of “tweener” land.
Utah State wideout Hunter Sharpe has the burst in and out of cuts, and the long speed appeared to be the best of the West. However, seemingly every pass got into his pads. He caught all but one, but that’s not the point; Sharp didn’t attack the ball in the air and that’s a real issue.
Random other notes
Tulsa WR Keyarris Garrett was supposed to be on the West, but he was in absentia Monday. I have not heard any explanation, though to be fair I’ve only asked one person about it.
Virginia Tech TE Ryan Malleck tweaked a hamstring or calf early in West practice and just observed the rest.
One of my favorites heading here was Matt Judon, an edge rusher from Grand Valley State. I have seen Judon play in person for the Lakers and was ready for him to show the rest of the scouting world his considerable potential, but he suffered a minor injury in training and opted to sit out the week. I talked with Judon on Saturday and he will be fine for the rest of workout season.
It’s always hard to judge the running backs at all-star games, as what they do best typically doesn’t get highlighted other than a handful of times in each session. Yet Marshall RB Devon Johnson earned kudos from NFL scouts for his burst out of the hole and open-field speed. He’s a legit 245 pounds and can play either FB or RB. In a great twist of fate for Johnson, his position coach here is none other than Mike Alstott, who had a long and successful NFL career being that exact guy.
Speaking of the coaches, former NFL Pro Bowler Sam Madison is coaching the DBs for the East. He’s definitely entertaining, loud and loquacious and constantly shouting instructions.
Boston College safety Justin Simmons holds a lot of hype with many in the online draft community and he showed why in East practice. He picked off Rudock a couple of reps after he dropped an INT on one of the few Stave throws that was near its intended target. The closing burst to the ball is really impressive. He also demonstrated natural leadership amongst his peers.
I didn’t watch the linemen much today, but it was hard to not notice Northwestern DE Dean Lowry blowing up plays in team drills. He’s got fantastic length, a very imposing 6’6” and sturdy 290 pounds. When he times the snap right, he’s way too powerful for any of the offensive tackles here. One NFC South scout I stood with really likes him as a 5-tech defensive end.
His play in drills was decent–no complaints–but what stands out about Georgia Southern LB Antwione Williams is his physique. This is the guy the fellas at the gym want to look like. He’s apparently aware, as he rocked the crop top and also the short socks to highlight his beefy calves.
Of the tight ends, Penn State’s Kyle Carter turned in the best first impression. He’s plodding off the line but once he’s moving he has some wiggle. Carter made a couple of tough catches in traffic, and he was adept at reaching out and getting the ball instead of waiting for it. David Morgan from UTSA showed some blocking chops in West practice, though he’s whatever the opposite of twitchy is.
Wisconsin FB Derek Watt thrived when the West finally went to team drills. They ran three plays to his side and he threw crushing, technically perfect blocks to open creases. That was needed, because he really struggled catching the ball earlier.
There are a few corners on the West who look like keepers in the NFL. Missouri Western’s Mike Jordan is very imposing physically, both longer and thicker than most of his peers.
LeShaun Sims from Southern Utah is also a solid physical specimen. He doesn’t move as fluidly as Jordan but seems to have a little bit better burst out of his backpedal. Again, it was tough to gauge them when they’re not facing wideouts for 90% of practice.
As with his Illini teammate, I came away impressed with CB V’Angelo Bentley. He’s got very fast feet and fluid hips and ankles. That’s good because he’s the smallest CB on the West at 5’10”, a little below Minnesota’s hyper-aggressive Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Florida’s Brian Poole is the smallest on the East but he also turned in a strong first day.
I’ll be live tweeting every practice, and I also will throw up some Vines. If that’s your sort of thing, follow me at @JeffRisdon.