I’m in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida area this week for the unofficial start of the college football all-star season. Next Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game, and the practices that begin Monday, provide a showcase for the 2018 NFL Draft prospects who will hope to catch on as Day Three picks or undrafted free agents.
This event obviously doesn’t have the star power of next week’s ballyhooed Senior Bowl, but the rosters boast plenty of well-known college players. I’m not going to go over every player for this preview - you can view the full rosters here and here - but I want to give you an idea of what I came down here to see.
Yeah, yeah everything is always about the quarterbacks, but you’d seriously like to see some good QB play at these practices, not only for the sake of those prospects, but also to get a good sense of how the receivers and defensive backs are playing.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett might be the most decorated player in attendance this week. He was a coach on the field in Urban Meyer’s system, and broke a number of school and conference records in three-and-a-half seasons as a starter. As an OSU alum, I’ve seen J.T. play approximately a billion times already, so I’m not going to spend too much time on him this week, but this is a big event for Barrett as he attempts to allay concerns about his arm strength and anticipation.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the rest of this crop of passers, in particular strong-armed Memphis QB Riley Ferguson, and the efficient Nick Steven, from Colorado State. If these guys play well they can really set the tone for a great week of practices.
Aside from QBs, the biggest attraction at these all-star practices is often the one-on-one drills between offensive and defensive linemen. You have to be careful not to glean too much from these isolated reps, but you can get an idea of how quickly the O-line prospects can move their feet, how they set up, and where they keep their hands. I also like to see if the D-linemen have any pass rush moves, or if they’re just trying to win with strength and speed. Plus, it’s just fun to see the big men pop the pads.
Specifically, I want a closer look at Washington State guard Cody O’Connell, a mountain of a man listed at 6’9” 368 pounds. Can he move well enough to stay with quicker linemen? Ohio State left tackle Jamarco Jones was only a two-year starter, but he could be the first player drafted from this year’s rosters.
On defense, I think ultra-athletic Kentavius Street from NC State will give the O-line fits, and raise his profile after a nondescript senior season. I’ll also be interested to see if productive pass rushers Justin Lawler of SMU and Joel Ostman of Central Michigan are more than just “high motor” guys. Sam Houston State defensive lineman P.J. Hall was a monster in the FCS ranks, with 86.5 tackles for loss and 14 blocked kicks. Those numbers are not typos. Now, how’s he going to fare against some tougher competition?
Receivers vs Cornerbacks
These two groups look strong on paper. DaeSean Hamilton is Penn State’s all-time leading receiver, and projects nicely into the slot at the next level. He’s sure-handed, quick, and knows how to get open. Penn’s Justin Watson and South Dakota State’s Jake Wieneke are their schools’ all-time leaders in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The FCS stars are both big receivers, listed at 6’3” and 6’4” respectively.
In the defensive backfield, Nebraska’s Josh Kalu, Virginia Tech’s Brandon Facyson and Davonte Harris of FCS Illinois State all have the size and arm length NFL scouts like. Facyson probably has the most to gain here, as he never quite lived up to a very promising freshman season. A couple of my favorite corners in St. Pete this week are Deatrick Nichols of USF and Avonte Maddox from Pitt.
These two have had productive college careers, and can help out in nickel, dime and special teams at the pro level.