89th Annual East/West Shrine Game: Who to Watch
Today at 4 PM, the 89th annual East/West Shrine Game will kick off from Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Having had the opportunity to see both squads practice up close and personal during the course of the week, I'm personally very excited to finally see the two teams get out and compete against one another for 60 minutes. There will be plenty of prospects to watch, but a handful have a chance to really put a final stamp on what were the best performances of the week. I'll take a look at the top performer at each positional group during the week of practice here and now and we'll see come kickoff who can finish strong with a good live game performance.
- East: Cornell's Jeff Mathews, Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch
- West: Washington's Keith Price, Ball State's Keith Wenning, Notre Dame's Tommy Rees
PLAYER TO WATCH: Ball State's Keith Wenning.
Yes, Cornell QB Jeff Mathews slung the rock around better than any other player here. He has top end arm strength and it was no surprise to me to see him making all the throws during practice. Mathews' issues arrive when he's placed into a live action setting, where he can be hit and the pass rush will not simply run by. That's why Keith Wenning was my top QB of the week and the player to watch. He'll be getting the start for the West squad according to Eric Galko of OptimumScouting.com and should bring the West offense the best chance to move the football. Wenning has very clean footwork, the best in show. He also impressed me with his ability to get zip on his intermediate passes, it's a pretty underrated aspect of his game. A lot of chatter coming into the week about Wenning featured questions about his arm strength but watching him throw into the teeth of the wind on Wednesday, he was still able to get his 15-20 yard passes into receivers accurately on a line.
- East: Tennessee's Rajion Neal, Mississippi State's Ladarius Perkins, Northern Arizona's Zach Bauman
- West: Air Force's Anthony LaCoste, Texas A&M's Ben Malena, Sam Houston State's Tim Flanders, Oklahoma's Brennan Clay
PLAYER TO WATCH: Mississippi State's Ladarius Perkins
A number of backs this week looked good, running well and showcasing good vision. The crop as a whole is compact, not a single player eclipses 6'0. What set Perkins apart for me was his agility and elusiveness in open field. Zach Bauman showed great speed as well, but he did put the football on the ground and I don't see the same lateral agility that I saw in Perkins. The West backs are headlined by Tim Flanders, but he's been frequently misused all week as a Fullback by Romeo Crennel, so I'm a little cautious about his ability to produce during today's game. Perkins is a quick runner with good open field agility and is a capable receiver out of the backfield, so he can hurt the defense in a number of ways.
- East: Miami's Allen Hurns, Coastal Carolina's Matt Hazel, Ole Miss' Ja'Mes Logan, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Eastern Illinois' Erik Lora
- West: Army's Patrick Laird, Pitt State's John Brown, San Jose State's Chandler Jones, Valdosta State's Seantavious Jones, Toledo's Bernard Reedy
PLAYER TO WATCH: Coastal Carolina's Matt Hazel
This came down to Matt Hazel and John Brown. Hazel was a disappointment in the measurement department, in person he was far short of the billed 6'3 he was listed on the roster. But the on the field product was as good as advertised. Hazel is quick out of his stance, closes cushion quickly, catches the ball very well and has good acceleration in the open field. Hazel flashed some of the best catches of the week and did it in a variety of ways: whether it was taking a delayed screen from the left flanker and showing good patience to set up his blocks and burst down the sideline or schooling Pierre Desir with a nasty stop and go double move and sprawling out for a deep reception. John Brown flashed great fundamentals all week and absolutely took over the Wednesday session for the West. He is sudden and has great hands. But ultimately I think Hazel flashed more wow plays and has more size to set him apart.
- East: Colorado State's Crockett Gilmore, Bowling Green's Alex Bayer, Oklahoma State's Blake Jackson
- West: Indiana's Ted Bolser, Brigham Young's Kane Friel, Baylor's Jordan Najvar
PLAYER TO WATCH: Baylor's Jordan Najvar
This positional grouping didn't have any stand outs coming into the week, so it was a group I was interested to see play out. Jordan Najvar put the scouts on notice EARLY, making two great plays in the passing game during the West's first practice. He's a huge target who catches the ball high and can create mismatches. An underutilized piece during his time at Baylor, Najvar actually may pose the biggest matchup problem to the East defense with his size and the fact that he'll be working through the middle of the field against what looked like mostly stiff linebackers for the East.
- East: Belhaven's Matt Hall, Bloomsburg's Matt Feiler, McGill's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Texas' Donald Hawkins, Youngstown State's Kyle Bryant
- West: Nebraska's Jeremiah Sirles, Boise State's Charles Leno Jr, Montana's Danny Kistler Jr, Southern California's Kevin Graf
PLAYER TO WATCH: Nebraska's Jeremiah Sirles
McGill T Duvernay-Tardif (nicknamed "Canada") is another player to watch but for the sake of choosing one, I'm watching Jeremiah Sirles. Sirles did a nice job all week handling a wide array of pass rushers, including explosive DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe from Colorado. Yes, he got beat a couple of times in one on ones, but technically he was sound. He had a clean kick slide and has a great build to move with some athleticism, he isn't a rigid mauler.
East - Penn State's John Urschel (G), Rutgers' Antwan Lowery (G), Tennessee's John Stone (C), Toledo's Zac Kerin (C), Youngstown State's Chris Elkins (C)
West - Fresno State's Austin Wentworth (G/T), Wisconsin's Ryan Groy (G), Furman's Dakota Dozier (G), Georgia's Christopher Burnette (G), Stanford's Khalil Wilkes (C), Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard (C), New Mexico's Dillon Farrell
PLAYER TO WATCH: Wisconsin's Ryan Groy (G)
Mobile came calling for Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard, but that doesn't put him at the top of my list for interior linemen. Ikard was sorely lacking an anchor in pass protection, it appeared to simply be a lack of functional strength. He was bowled over a handful of times despite a nice set and a balanced stance. In the long haul, Ikard is a player to watch. But there's no waiting period on Wisconsin G Ryan Groy. Physically thick and very solid, Groy is a mean mauler who will likely continue to long lineage of productive Wisconsin linemen at the next level.
- East: Richmond's Kerry Wynn, West Texas A&M's Ethan Westbrooks, West Virginia's Will Clarke
- West: Bloomsburg's Larry Webster III, Colorado's Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Stanford's Josh Mauro, UCLA's Cassius Marsh (INJ)
PLAYER TO WATCH: West Texas A&M's Ethan Westbrooks
The injury to Cassius Marsh (wrist) on Wednesday robbed me of highlighting one of my absolute favorite players throughout the course of the week. Marsh was a monster all week in practice with a non-stop motor and better speed/explosion that I saw on tape. He looked much leaner than he did on film and it benefitted him throughout the course of the week. But with Marsh out for the game (but still headed to Mobile) Westbrooks takes the mantle of the player with the best week amongst the edge players. West Virginia DE Will Clarke turns heads with his size and flashes regularly but he can't quite seem to FINISH plays the way he should. So Westbrooks gets the nod. He's got outstanding movement skills, it wasn't my concern on tape. I didn't know how he'd hold up against more quality competition, but in practice he established that he belonged physically, playing fast and tough.
- East: Syracuse's Jay Bromley, Purdue's Bruce Gaston, Florida State's Demonte McAllister, Delaware's Zachariah Kerr, Georgia's Garrison Smith
- West: Wisconsin's Beau Allen, Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis, Manitoba's Evan Gill, Virginia Tech's Derrick Hopkins
PLAYER TO WATCH: Delaware's Zachariah Kerr
Players of Zach Kerr's size should not be able to move like he does. Kerr is VERY quick off the snap and has a great motor...I tracked him several times all the way out to the sideline 10 yards down field taking angles on running backs catching check downs. Very impressive to watch him move. Everyone knows about Jay Bromley and he was as good as advertised...but he's a victim of higher expectations here. Kerr is a small school kid who came in and played lights out during the course of the week. He's got great functional strength to go with a very solid, thick build and those previously mentioned movement skills. He's a great athlete and has the chance to put the exclamation point on his week today.
- East: Western Kentucky's Xavius Boyd, Louisville's Preston Brown, Penn State's Glenn Carson, Western Kentucky's Andrew Jackson, East Carolina's Derrell Johnson, South Florida's DeDe Lattimore, Cal Poly's Johnny Millard
- West: Michigan State's Max Bullough, South Dakota's Tyler Starr, Notre Dame's Prince Shembo, Southern California's Devon Kennard, Pitt State's Nate Dreiling, Colorado State's Shaquil Barrett
PLAYER TO WATCH: South Dakota's Tyler Starr
This decision was probably the hardest, because there are a lot of quality linebackers in today's game. The problem is, almost all of them play for the West. Shembo, Starr and Kennard all flashed in big ways throughout the course of the week. But Starr stole the show for me, he's tenacious, physical and has a nose for the football. He doesn't set the edge as well as his fellow LB Kennard (who physically might have been the most imposing player on either team all week) but Starr flashed potential in coverage as well as playing the run as an edge defender. He's very long and looks to have some solid room to grow on his frame. He made the play of the week for either team with his spy of Washington QB Keith Price, rolling to his right, which culminated with a late throw up the sideline that Starr laid out and hauled in along the sideline, managing to get himself in bounds. He's got the size, he's got the motor and he held up well physically against the rest of the West squad.
- East: Vanderbilt's Andre Hal, Utah State's Nevin Lawson, Rice's Phillip Gaines, Lindenwood's Pierre Desir, Purdue's Ricardo Allen, Duke's Ross Cockrell
- West: North Dakota State's Marcus Williams, Arizona's Shaquille Richardson, San Jose State's Bene Benwikere, Texas' Carrington Byndom, Oregon State's Rasaad Reynolds, Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson
PLAYER TO WATCH: Vanderbilt's Andre Hal
This position was another one of the best all week in St. Pete. Hal, Lawson, Benwikere and Richardson all showed a lot of solid skills. Scouting favorite Pierre Desir physically looks and moves the part, he's a favorite small school sleeper to make a push into Day 2. And he certainly may, but it won't be on account of his performance here this week, he was just outshone by a number of different corners. Hal's performance on Monday set the tone for his week, he got a lot of balls thrown his way and allowed only a diving Allen Hurns reception in the endzone during a red zone period. He's not particularly long (that honor goes to Shaq Richardson, who in person was a good deal taller than me at 6'0) but he's flashed good change of direction skills and man coverage instincts all week.
- East: North Carolina's Tre Boston, Louisville's Hakeem Smith, Georgia Tech's Jemea Thomas, Wake Forest's AJ Marshall
- West: Arizona State's Alden Darby, Oklahoma State's Daytawoin Lowe, Washington's Sean Parker, Brigham Young's Daniel Sorensen, Minnesota's Brock Vereen, Penn State's Stephen Obeng-Agyapong
PLAYER TO WATCH: North Carolina's Tre Boston
The safety groupings had a solid performance throughout the week but Boston was head and shoulders above everyone else. He moved better through the drills than ALL the East DBs, including the previously mentioned Desir and Hal. To go with that, he took outstanding angles to the football all week in the air, has great ball skills and can play physical when meeting the ball at the receiver. He's a pure Free Safety, not anything noteworthy in run support. He's willing, he just takes poor angles. But from what he flashed during the week, he had the best showing of any of the safeties and it wasn't even close.
So as we get closer to kickoff, 4 hours away and counting, remember these names! They're the guys who shined from my perspective leading up the game and can really close out their week on a high note with good performances today. Any questions or feedback? Leave a comment in the comment section below or you can reach me on Twitter at @NFLDraftTracker.