Hello to you all from warm and sunny (well it was when I entered the Trop well over 6 hours ago) St. Petersburg, FL, the location of the 2020 Shrine Bowl. It’s day one of practices and after a morning of weigh-in activity both teams took part in Monday afternoon practices, back to back. I would remind you that the players have only been in town since Saturday, in most cases, and after an afternoon of fun and games at the Shrine Hospital for Children in Tampa Sunday afternoon, had very limited meeting time with their coaching staffs, and each other, in most instances. So even tho the players were in pads, the hitting was limited somewhat today. It is also a given that the QB’s have a ton to learn from new coaches and playbooks. So let me just preface all of my observations with stating that my expectations are limited today, especially relative to the QB. I will give you much more QB talk on Wednesday, by which time I believe the QB group should have absorbed as much as possible from their install sessions.
I should note early on, that to some degree, these rosters resemble Ivy League All-Star rosters. Each team has an Ivy QB: KEVIN DAVIDSON/Princeton/East and KURT RAWLINGS/Yale/West. The game also features a CB from Dartmouth named ISIAH SWANN, #21.
I spent a few moments early in the East practice giving and getting a little luv from the Special Teamers in P/TOMMY TOWNSEND/Florida #3 and K/COOPER ROTHE/Wyoming #4. We joked a bit about the lack of Long Snapper specialists this year. They expressed a bit of concern, but I reminded that rules for this game forbid blocking punts or kicks. Nice, friendly young men, both of them. Given the low scoring history of All-Star games in general, these young men are likely to play significant roles in Saturday’s game.
MITCH WILCOX/TE #89 from USF is looking to make his mark proving that he is a solid pass catching TE, after doing more blocking than receiving in his college career. He got wide open down the sideline and made an effortless catch for a large gain before anyone in the secondary caught up with him. Look for more of this from him this week.
One of the most impressive looking athletes, who also excelled in most field work, was JAMES SMITH-WILLIAMS/DE from North Carolina State. He repeatedly flashed speed and quickness off the snap and applied pressure to the protected QB. He has long legs and long arms, which he uses to get around, or between blockers. KYLE PHILLIPS from the 2019 game showed well at the Shrine and made the JETS roster as a Rookie Free Agent last Fall. I’ll be watching to see if #91 OF THE EAST can impress all week like PHILLIPS last January.
Another DE that caught my attention with a totally different style of play from SMITH-WILLIAMS; JOE GAZIANO/Northwestern. Due to a rash of injuries and skill position roster losses from 2018, the Northwestern Wildcats had a seriously disappointing W/L record in 2019. However, GAZIANO solidified his position as a solid pro prospect. He practiced like a man possessed today. What got my attention in bag drills besides his quickness was the powerful hand slaps he delivered to the blocking bags. The boom from his hand hits echoed throughout the Trop.
Speed is always an aspect of a player’s game that gets much scrutiny. I found it no surprise today that Florida WR/RS FREDDIE SWAIN showed plenty of speed running drills. He also shows explosion when the ball hits his hands.
I had a conversation after practice with Ivy League CB ISIAH SWANN of Dartmouth. Very articulate and thoughtful young man. I asked if he got bored in a fairly small, New Hampshire country town like Hanover. He said not so much because between football and keeping up with his studies at an Ivy League school, he had little time left to “kill”.
Lot of coaching work with the WEST LB unit today by guest coach WILLIE McGINEST. Not officially, WILLIE looked like he was fit enough to still play some football!
I saw San Diego State TE PARKER HOUSTON warming up with some practice long snaps. Don’t know how recently he has handled those duties, but I will keep my eyes peeled for others trying their hand at it this week.
I did not see RB JAMES ROBINSON/ Illinois State play this past season, but have read several reports that the biggest question on ROBINSON might be his speed. The #25 I saw today just blew through some holes and sprinted through the open field. This will bare watching. If his speed has been under-estimated, he will certainly climb up more than a few notches in the RB rankings.
Count me among those Draftniks who was wondering why we didn’t hear of RAEQUAN WILLIAMS, DL, Michigan State being on a Star game roster until the Shrine announcement just last week. It’s only Day One here, but after watching him work in 11/11 work today, I will say he looked like a man among boys. First off, let me just say he looks bigger than just over 300 lbs, and his agility and hand use to blow past blockers looked highly skilled. He also just muscled through his blocker several times as well.
I will be paying more attention to WR JORDAN McCRAY of Oklahoma State. #13 is a long, drink of water at 6’5″+, but under 200 lbs, who just eats up the yards with his long strides off the line-of-scrimmage. He goes high for throws and his hands look quite soft. Not sure how the string bean will hold up against NFL secondaries, but after today, I think he deserves more watching.
It can be very difficult to balance rosters at these Star events, but in this contest, it’s not too hard to say the abundance of OL prospects is almost overwhelming. The East currently shows 15 OL, while the West tops even that with 17.
The West coaching staff ended practice with some isolated small group match-ups that I have seen used as spirit builders at football practice venues. Based on the cheering, yelling and clapping, the team got the message and voiced their competitive support.
Cheers for today.