East-West Shrine Practice: Monday (East & West Squads)
by Chris Kouffman (@ckparrot)
Home, sweet home. This year, the East-West Shrine Game and week of practices are being held in St. Petersburg, FL. This is pretty close to where I live in Tampa, and so I am loving the “commute” to and from practices. Sad to say, no practices in a hotel ball room this time around. As fun as it was in Orlando last year seeing a player get blocked so hard he shattered a potted plant, I think I prefer a good old fashioned outdoor field. At least, I feared for my life a little less.
As usual, one of the great attractions of the week is being able to hang out with the likes of Wes Bunting of the National Football Post, Cecil Lammey of ESPN Radio 102.3 in Denver, Chad Reuter now of the NFL Network, and this year Michael Schottey of The Bleacher Report. Of course, the football is also a huge attraction. They always say, you know you’re doing what you love if you’d do it for free. It only follows that I must absolutely adore analyzing draft prospects, writing about them, and getting the chance to see them all compete in settings like this.
- Quarterbacks in general all came out small, with the exception of B.J. Coleman of Tennessee-Chattanooga who was a full 6’3″. The other guys came out in the 6’1″ range, except for little Dan Persa who was more like 5’11″. John “Don’t call me Johnny” Brantley came in at a good height, closer to 6’3″ than 6’2″. Chandler Harnish is 3rd tallest at 6’1.5″ which will get him listed at 6’2″ in the program guides, so that’s kind of a win for him.
- Widely regarded as potentially the best quarterback in the Shrine Game, I came out expecting a lot from QB B.J. Coleman. I won’t say I was disappointed, because the first day is the first day, but his accuracy was erratic to say the least. One thing is for certain, the ball hums through the air when he throws it. I brought up the name John Skelton with Cecil Lammey and Michael Schottey, and later when we regrouped with Wes Bunting he separately told us he was reminded of Skelton as well, so we were all thinking the same thing. One difference between Coleman and Skelton is, I didn’t have a problem with Coleman’s drop or his footwork. Skelton looked pretty leaden in his footwork when he was at Shrine practices. I’m interested in how Coleman improves as the week wears on. However, I have to say, I wasn’t impressed with his reads or decision making in team drills, and of course the ball was sailing all over the place on him.
- It wasn’t as bad as QB Austin Davis of Southern Miss, though. Davis alternated between throwing softballs that were catchable but not impressive, to throwing prettier passes that weren’t even CLOSE to their target. He missed short, he missed intermediate, he missed deep, the whole works. Cecil quickly identified that when he tries to get some velocity on the ball, he’s clearly losing a ton of accuracy. That was one problem I had with Andy Dalton last year, but the problem was not nearly as pronounced as it was today (just one day) in Austin Davis.
- John “Don’t Call Me Johnny” Brantley was definitely the worst quarterback in the East group, which puts him up there for worst quarterback in St. Petersburg (possibly including high school students). Cecil Lammey pointed out that he continually bobbled his snaps. He was also very erratic with his accuracy and it became frustrating to receivers on the occasions they were creating separation (which wasn’t much, more on that later). His reads were bad in team drills, and he ended up getting “sacked” a few times as I recall. I tried not to focus too much on him because I don’t have many good things to say about him in general, and I never expected much from him.
- As you have probably heard by now, Tennessee Tech’s Tim Benford was the hottest wide receiver in East practices, by a country mile. This was a [U]unanimous[/U] observation from everyone that watched. I noticed very, very quickly that he was the only guy there that looked like he knew what he was doing. He’s got a medium build at just under 6’0″ and 199 lbs with arms longer than 33 inches. He’s wound up fairly tight and moves with balance and authority. He was silky smoove (my word) in his route running, and he tracked the ball well and caught it cleanly. He could create separation against just about any defensive back he faced. Not exactly a trash talker, but he showed some confidence as he got brought to the ground by corner Micah Pellerin of Hampton, and immediately yelled “Ohhh, so that’s how you’re gonna bring it, aye cuz?” He did drop one pass that was thrown woefully behind him on a quick slant, so he’s not bullet proof, but that was definitely more the quarterback’s fault than his. Still, he set the bar high with his own performance, and so you were expecting to see him make that impressive twirling catch. I said he reminds me of Denarius Moore. I stand by that. But others didn’t necessarily agree.
- The other receivers for the East were rubbish. Miami’s Laron Byrd looks like he should be catching a lot of passes on Sunday, but he displayed very little in the way of ball skills. He just didn’t even know how to approach the ball in the air, especially deep. There was indecision, like he couldn’t tell how he needed to catch each ball. I thought he showed this running routes against air, as well as in coverage drills against defensive backs. The guy was just a major disappointment, given that it’s only the first day. Unfortunately, Kevin Hardy of Citadel was probably the worst receiver on the day. He is clearly fast and can clearly run, but he displayed little in the way of control over his speed in his route running, and he was the only guy there worse than Byrd with the ball in the air. If Byrd didn’t know how to approach the ball and seemed indecisive and awkward, Hardy seemed to decisively and actively bat the ball away from him like it was coated in Super AIDS. It was a shame, because you could tell he wanted to do well, and was getting very upset with himself. Later in the day we all took turns in the car saying who was our favorite player and who was our least favorite. I was last to go and nobody had named Kevin Hardy, so I volunteered him, and I think there was unanimous “Oh I forgot about him, definitely” in the car. Not naming names, just sayin…
- B.J. Cunningham was a big disappointment as a receiver. He created virtually no separation during the practice, and seemed really uncomfortable with the physical coverage that the East defensive backs were trying out on the receivers. He didn’t catch the ball poorly, but he didn’t catch it well, either. Early in practice I had a good mark for him because of the way he ran through the catch on a deep slant, never breaking stride and flashing the ability to quiet his eyes and focus on the ball without jumping or changing his gait. But from then on, he just didn’t create the separation he should have. Truth be told, you might say that California (PA) receiver Thomas Mayo outperformed him. Mayo came in at over 6’1″ and 207 lbs, with a good frame and flashed quickness and the kind of sneaky movement ability that could catch passes at the next level. But his luck against the DBs, much as all the rest of the receivers sans-Benford, was iffy at best.
- The most interesting tight end from a pure movement standpoint was Temple’s Evan Rodriguez. He flashed at me early for effort and fluid movement ability. But he’s LESS than 6’2″, and 242 lbs. He’s proportioned like a receiving tight end, the kind that might go out and run some routes, but he clearly lacks top end speed and at that size it’s hard for me to imagine him making things easy on quarterbacks in the seam. He had one very impressive play on the day, where he ran against man coverage, shook free with good hand use, got behind the defender and then ran under a floater and made the over the shoulder grab. Still, it’s hard to see him making those grabs at the next level. Georgia’s Bruce Figgins just lumbered the whole day, which you can expect as he’s over 6’3″ and a whopping 272 lbs. He will not present much in the passing game, but he plays really low and so I’m intrigued with him as a blocker. At over 6’6″ and 258 lbs, Chase Ford WILL get drafted on his size and running ability. He did not lumber like Figgins or some of the West tight ends I’ll touch on later. He’s not going to be mistaken for Jimmy Graham as he doesn’t have Graham’s speed or fluid movement, definitely not his ups, but he can run for this size and will present his quarterback a nice target up the seam. He struggled a little bit with throws that came outside his frame but the quarterbacks were so erratic, it was tough to ding him too much.
- Some of the defensive backs were flashing all over the place, and none more so than CB Josh Norman of Coastal Carolina. His size is very deceptive. Sitting in his stance, waiting for snap, you might even swear he’s a smaller corner. But he’s almost a half inch above 6’0″ and weighed in at a solid 203 lbs, and seems all arms and legs with a total wing span that rivals some of the defensive ends here in St. Petersburg. His arm length comes out at about 32.5″ but his wing span is 77 & 1/8th inches, which is just a half-inch short of the 6’6.5″ tight end Chase Ford. Norman moves and closes extremely well, and uses his length to dominate receivers physically. He’s not afraid to sit on a route and he reads receivers’ leverage well. I won’t know how he tackles until we get to the game but based on his efforts in giving the fake thud, I have a feeling he might blow some people up. I have never once seen this guy play but I’m already extremely interested in him based on one practice. He’s built and plays like a predator (not the kind Chris Hanson would catch). He flashed over, and over, and over again, either breaking up passes or intercepting them. The best was in team 11 on 11′s when you could see him track the ball in the air while maintaining coverage on his assignment, breaking off and flowing to the football seamlessly. He gets me.
- That’s not to take away from any of the other defensive backs at East practice, because there were some good ones. Norman was the best of the East or the West but Charles Brown of North Carolina drew good marks as well. I’ve always liked Brown more than his former teammate Kendric Burney, as I’d never been comfortable with Burney’s speed. Brown came in only 5’9″ but with an unusually solid 209 lbs on his frame. When the hitting is allowed, he’s going to hit, and he flashed some of that even in shorts. The only problem for him was that he was just a little bit slow in reading the routes and closing on the ball. However, he was a very safe player, limiting gains to small ones, and with these quarterbacks and every pass being an adventure, limiting gains is the way to go because it’s only a matter of time before they screw one up. The previously mentioned Micah Pellerin of Hampton also played well during the day and I believe he may have even come up with an interception. He was very physical in coverage, as were all the East corners, and his frame looks very solid. Truthfully, the best corner aside from Norman might have been Justin Bethel of Presbyterian College. He notched quite a few broken up passes and had a solid, athletic 5’11″ and 196 lbs frame. He wasn’t afraid to be physical at the point of the catch and he showed a lot of closing speed. One guy that failed to impress in any test other than the eyeball test was Notre Dame’s Robert Blanton. On the field, he looks far bigger than his 6’0″ and 197 lbs measurements. But he got turned around and seemed to forget how to play football entirely at times. It was ugly. Coordinated movement skills just left him for the day, for whatever reason, and if this is what he’s going to show all week then I’m not interested.
- There isn’t a whole lot of opportunity for safeties to flash in these settings, unless your name is Kam Chancellor. But South Florida’s Jerrell Young and Kansas State’s Tysen Hartman took advantage of their opportunities. Young stayed around the ball and benefited as one got tipped up and he snagged it for a nice interception. Hartman flashed some good coverage. I think Young has a ways to go in terms of his pure coverage and getting out of his transition, but I watched the guy play football all year for the South Florida Bulls and he’s always stood out as a play maker and explosive player. I think he could be even better than Mistral Raymond, another South Florida guy I talked up last year and ended up going in the 6th round to the surprise of many.
- I realize I’m missing a LOT here, particularly the offensive and defensive linemen, the running backs and the linebackers. But, I only have two eyes, and today being padless, I focused on the quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs. Sorry. The running backs caught my eye a little bit. I think most agreed that Florida Atlantic’s Alfred Morris was the surprise player and perhaps even the best there. Even though I’m not a fan of what I see from Davin Meggett on film, I have to admit he put a pretty sweet move on a linebacker breaking his ankles and getting to the outside.
- The midget quarterbacks were stuck on this squad. Where the East squad boasted two ideal-sized quarterbacks in the 6025 Brantley and 6031 Coleman, the West squad’s tallest passer was the 6014 Chandler Harnish, followed by the 6004 Tyler Hansen and the 5111 Dan Persa.
- I watched the West quarterbacks a little more closely in their footwork drills and their passing. Northern Illinois Chandler Harnish’s footwork impressed me the most, even though early in the day he seemed like he was having a care to make sure he got it right, which slowed the feet a little. He looked the most fluid and in control, and he easily stays on the balls of his feet, which helps him stay balanced and keeps his eyes quiet. Tyler Hansen has an awkward hunched stance with the football during his drop, like someone is taking a picture of him with his favorite puppy. When you’re already facing challenges for being short, I don’t like exacerbating that with a hunched drop or stance. Persa was more upright but both players forced the quickness in their feet during footwork drills, which I don’t think translates well trying to read the field in an actual drop back setting. On the other hand, it’s obvious Dan Persa is a pretty good athlete, and talking to Chad Reuter we agreed that it’s hard not to like him, and it wouldn’t shock to see him move to another position like a Julian Edelman.
- The best passer of the entire day, not just the West squad but easily the entire group of six quarterbacks in St. Petersburg, was Chandler Harnish. I hate to say I told ya so but after doing a lot of digging on this player I knew he would look the most impressive and that it wouldn’t be close. Sure enough, I think every eye there would agree that while B.J. Coleman’s whistling torpedoes may possess the most potential, Chandler Harnish was clearly the best passer for Monday. What got me about his passing was the ball location. First the quarterbacks threw to receivers running routes against air. The ball location was great. Then they threw to single receivers going up against single defensive backs. Again, location was superb. Then they pulled out to throwing the ball with a full array of skill players going against a full array of coverage players, sans-linemen, and his ball location was still superb. He threw the most catchable ball, but also popped the mitt on several occasions and spun the ball well. The remarkable thing about him throwing the ball well was how quickly he broke down every receiver he was throwing to, deciding how fast they were going to run their route and where he needed to stick the ball. He is not at all a guy that just throws to a spot and needs a ton of practice to get the chemistry down. That speaks well to what he’s able to see on the field after the snap. Truthfully, if Ryan Lindley were practicing with the West as he was originally scheduled prior to being picked up by the Senior Bowl, I believe that Chandler Harnish would have shown him up today. Harnish also made good reads of coverages and the timeliness on his throws was impressive. The one chink in the armor was when they pulled everyone in for full team scrimmages. For about three reps in a row, he had difficulty finding his targets with the rush on. He got a little better with each rep but still, he had to get used to it. By the time his rotation came up again, he had acclimated himself to the speed of the full squad scrimmages, and he unleashed two beautiful long throws. One super long ball was complete to Devon Wylie (more on him in a bit) for a huge gain. The other he threw to Dale Moss in a classic one on one match up where you throw the ball up and ask your receiver to make a play on the ball. Moss executed the Tecmo Super Bowl-style jump catch (the infamous “JJ”) perfectly, but lost the ball as he came down with it. Too bad. Overall, I think Harnish dominated this Monday practice more than Scott Tolzien of Wisconsin dominated the practices last year. I look forward to seeing if he can continue it, and then translate the success onto the field during the game itself. I think he will.
- The worst passer on the West squad was Tyler Hansen. He was definitely the most scattershot in his accuracy during most drills, leaving the receivers wanting. Here’s the thing, though: in this practice, the level of play of guys like Chandler Harnish and Dan Persa made Hansen look worse than he was. When the West squad pulled out into 11 on 11 play, the quarterback to ‘get it’ quickest and actually make an impressive passing play was Hansen. He’s a tough player and he can handle a rush. He rolled out and made a great cross-body throw to Dale Moss. Being Tyler Hansen, on the very next play he tried to throw an interception that was dropped. Even so, you place Tyler Hansen in the East practice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in that group he came out looking the best or maybe close second to B.J. Coleman. Dan Persa, for a time, looked like he was going to give Chandler Harnish a run for his money, in terms of accuracy. He really throws a pretty good ball, especially deep verticals. But as the practice wore on, you started to see the kinks as Harnish was continually flawless while Persa started missing more. I just can’t get over the height. I’ve heard of small tailbacks hiding behind their linemen so that linebackers have a hard time seeing where they are or what they’re doing, but I’ve never heard of quarterbacks doing it. When Persa lines up behind his center, you can hardly see him. How is this guy going to see the field at the next level? I don’t see it.
- There might be some disagreement as to who was the best receiver on the West. I have to admit, a few different receivers displayed their own virtues. But I’ll start with someone I was a little disappointed with and that was Greg Childs of Arkansas. I don’t know if he’s still robbed of his movement skills due to his recovery from injury, but he wasn’t creating separation. Chad Reuter and I had a good conversation about creating separation, and how in some cases it’s a little bit of an overused standard, a little bit overrated, as macro-level factors often create the separation for receivers at the next level, and defensive backs tend to be so good that it’s difficult to create any amount of separation against them. Things like body control, the ability to track the ball in the air and adjust end up a little undersold at times. I get that, but in Childs’ case today, you have to be able to create SOME separation, at the very least to make it so that defensive backs aren’t licking their chops and sitting on you. He just wasn’t doing that today.
- I think most guys at the practices would probably settle on tiny Devon Wylie of Fresno State as the most exciting receiver at the West practice. What really impressed me about him was his ability to string together solid moves in man coverage to create separation, with that ability I talked about before to track the ball in the air, adjust to it, and come down with the ball. From start to finish it takes a lot of concentration to do these things. By no means was he tasked with the kinds of upper level responsibilities he’ll have in the pros, between getting off the line unfettered through press coverage, or reading safety leverage from the outside instead of corner leverage. However, I have to give the guy a break because he was quick as a whip crack out there, got open deep, got open short, tracked the ball in the air the best of any receiver potentially at either practice (even Benford), and even tracked and came down perfectly with a ball that came to him from the exact direction of an extremely bright sun in his eyes on the sunset field. He reminds me a little bit of Dane Sanzenbacher of the Chicago Bears. At the start of practice I noticed that he was doing extremely well with punt returns, tracking those balls in the air. This is a guy to keep an eye on.
- The other receivers on the West that displayed their virtues were Dale Moss of South Dakota State and Jarius Wright of Arkansas. Wright had a little bit of trouble coming down with the ball later in practice, after he got going. But the thing he did that caught my attention was just flat out fly. He’s definitely the guy you want to see on reverses, and he eats cushion unbelievably fast. Sometimes you have to be right there on the sidelines to really feel a player in that situation, how fast they eat up a defensive back’s cushion producing the “oh sh-t!” transition response, only to see Wright slam on the air breaks more quickly than you can imagine and catch a ball underneath. While Wylie had more quickness and creativity in creating separation, and certainly displayed the better hands and ability to track the ball in the air, I think Jarius Wright ran more defined routes. Dale Moss also ran well and displayed a quarterback friendliness that sometimes you can’t put your finger on. He made himself available, and he’s a big played at over 6’3″ and 220 lbs. As I said before, his adjustment on the deep jump ball by Harnish was absolutely perfect for him to snatch the ball out of the air at its highest point, and he just failed to finish the play. I wonder how fast he is, but he showed some promise. Junior Hemingway and Tyler Shoemaker did not really stand out to me as receivers. Hemingway was mechanical at times in his routes, transitioning step to step, but he wasn’t a bad player. He showed some promise on special teams.
- There is an interesting group of tight ends on the West squad. Cory Harkey of UCLA came out a full 6’4″ and 262 lbs. NC State George Bryan edged him out as the biggest tight end, at 6’5″ and 265 lbs. The most interesting player might have been Michigan’s Kevin Koger, at over 6’3″ and 262 lbs. Finally, the smallest of the bunch was Oregon’s David Paulsen at over 6’3″ and 242 lbs. Harkey and Bryan were clearly guys that lumber around the field and will struggle to create any kind of separation at the next level. Harkey dropped the ball a lot at UCLA but I didn’t see too many issues with that today. In fact, at times, he made catches on late throws where the linebacker was draped all over him. Bryan continues to look entirely perplexing, a walking contradiction, like a fat martial artist. He’s clearly very slow and lumbers around (seems like he might time in the 5.0 range), but he moves very smoothly and tracks the ball in the air extremely well, catches it with his hands. He’s not the top tight end that some believe him to be, but he’s going to play at the next level as a #2. He will catch passes in the end zone. I’ve always believed Cory Harkey should think about completely transforming himself, packing on 40 lbs and becoming an offensive guard. I think he could hold the weight and there are times I see him at UCLA being really physical, driving players. He might be able to maintain his feet even at the higher weight, and this would give him some appeal as a player you’d want to try. He’s slightly faster than Bryan, but he’s not as interesting a pass catching threat (which says a lot). David Paulsen was the midget of the group, only weighing about 240 lbs, and he played like it. He showed some good feet catching the ball on the sidelines and turning up the field before going out. However, I can’t imagine him being a very good blocker at the next level. As I said before, the most interesting player might be Kevin Koger. During blocking drills, he had quiet but explosive feet, which points to little wasted energy. He got the movement he needed to get without bleeding energy, and this showed when the players took to the sleds and Koger really exploded, physically knocking the sled backward. You wouldn’t know by looking at him and how he moves, that he’s actually the same weight as a Cory Harkey or George Bryan. I think he might be my overall favorite tight end in St. Petersburg, out of either squad.
- You might catch an implication from my notes that the West defensive backs couldn’t cover anyone. That was, unfortunately, very true. However, it was not all their fault. They played a lot of off coverage, and that can take some getting used to in these settings. They were not very physical in their coverage, generally speaking. In all but the 11 on 11 drills, they let up just about any catch that was coming to them. Probably the most impressive corner was either Shaun Prater of Iowa, or Rodney McLeod of Virginia. The problem with Prater is that he came in just over 5’10″ and only 185 lbs. But then, Rodney McLeod was the same weight and a half-inch shorter. These guys were still the fastest and most fluid movers among the corners, showed the quickest read-and-react, and Prater showed a little bit of physicality as well.
- I thought Brandon Hardin of Oregon State and Chris Greenwood of Albion College had the toughest time in coverage. At almost 6’3″ and 222 lbs, Hardin is really pushing it trying to work at corner in these drills. He’s just not equipped for dealing with these players in coverage, and he’s being dragged around. The only thing holding Greenwood back, however, is really himself and his technique. He’s a lean, lengthy player at over 6’1″ and 196 lb. I did not sense that he has severe limitations in his movement. He just needs to learn and trust his technique more. Keith Tandy and Trevin Wade allowed catches, but no more than anyone else. Neither stood out to me.
- Among the safeties, my eyes were naturally drawn to Duke Ihenacho, whom I’ll go on record right now as predicting gets an interception against the East quarterbacks during the game itself. Ihenacho is very solidly built at 6’0″ and 212 lbs. He’s not as quick-twitch as a corner but as the week gets on I expect him to begin getting a read of things and making a few plays on the ball. But, as I intimated before in the East review, safeties in this setting don’t get very many opportunities to really stand out.
- Again, I did not get a chance to focus much on the backs, linebackers, defensive or offensive lineman. I was told that offensive lineman Brandon Brooks of Miami (OH) really made an impression. He came in just under 6’5″ but a whopping 353 lbs. One guy I saw moving around during drills that had my attention was defensive lineman Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. He came in about 6’3″ and 249 lbs, and moved around well enough that I’ll be focusing on him a little later this week to see if he can pull out to linebacker. However I should note, that’s based on an extremely low amount of attention paid to him during practice. Tailback Lennon Creer of Louisiana Tech looked big, and measured in at just under 6’0″ and 222 lbs. He’s someone I am going to want to keep my eye on a little bit. Marc Tyler also showed up about 5’11″ and 230 lbs, and I’ve actually liked what I’ve seen from him at USC. Tank Carder measured over 6’2″ and 236 lbs, and even though I’m told he looked thin and narrow at weigh-ins, I think those measurements are a win for him.
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed the recap. I absolutely recommend checking out Twitter updates from @CecilLammey, @WesBunting, @Schottey, @OptimumScouting and @JoshNorris for more thoughts on these practices from terrific draft minds.