Padded up on Day One, the East had a productive practice to start the week’s events. With linemen and running backs the feature positions on Day Two, I focused on the skill positions and quarterbacks, taking notes on the lineman as I could.
The biggest winners today were QB Jeff Mathews, WR Matt Hazel, DE Will Clarke, DT Jay Bromley, DE Ethan Westbrooks, SAF Hakeem Smith, and CB Andre Hal.
-Coming into the Shrine Game, there was a clear #1 quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. And while Garoppolo wasn’t all that bad his first day, he was quickly put in the passenger seat on day one by Cornell’s Jeff Mathews. Easily the best passer of the three quarterbacks, Mathews consistently spun a tight ball, showcased plus mechanics when altering his release for quick or seam throws, and showing better-than-on-film footwork. He progressed through reads (albeit them being simple 1-2 reads on Day One) well and was on point when targeting the middle of the field. However, before the hype gets too big, keep in mind that the biggest concern on his report is his ability under pressure. He wasn’t with that at all on Day One.
-Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t lost the title of best quarterback here yet, as he didn’t show much of anything on day one. Most of the throws he made/read were the correct read, but more of timing based routes by his receiver that are designed to showcase the receiver-cornerback battle than the talent of the quarterback. His velocity wasn’t on Mathews’s level, but it wasn’t a detriment either. Look for a strong bounce back day tomorrow when he gets more comfortable with his receivers.
-Finally, Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch was a pleasant surprise on day one as a passer. I’ve always liked and appreciate his touch in the redzone and on non-vertical routes, and that’s where he was successful. His arm isn’t anything special, but his mechanics and footwork along with not focused on running make him look like a different passer. If this keeps up and he continues to improve, he could become a draftable quarterback prospect.
-Overall I didn’t get a great look at the running backs, but Zach Bauman of Northern Arizona was easily the most impressive runner today. I guy I wasn’t able to study much of based on his 2013 play, Bauman has already earned the coveted “must re-watch” tag from myself. Showcasing the ability to get to his top speed after his first cut in the hole and taking advantage of the blocking in front of him, he easily was the best performer of the unit.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
-Matt Hazel was the primary receiver that got a chance to stand out today, as he showed the extension away from his frame on shorter routes that I appreciated based on his film. But the Coastal Carolina receiver didn’t win, or even face, any top battles with cornerbacks. I’m curious to see him more down the field and if he can stay in position and balanced throughout his route tree.
-Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon is noticeably small here at receiver, but he did a solid job in getting separation on vertical and deep comeback routes. He did have a drop in the redzone in traffic, which is forgivable, but that’s something to watch all week. For smaller receivers, it’s key to finish catches throughout the route tree to make up for lack of size, and to win vertically.
-Miami FL’s Allen Hurns has already displayed why he’s the best vertical receiver on the East roster, catching two deep balls from Jeff Mathews on day one. He didn’t get to show much more than that, however, outside of finishing on a few catches on hitch routes where he took a pop afterwards. His niche is as a vertical threat though, so winning there will be key.
-Nothing on the tight ends of note today.
-The defensive line certainly won the battle in the trenches today, as most of the offensive line struggled. Zac Kerin of Toledo and John Urschel of Penn State both struggled the most, getting beat a handful of times each. Kerin struggled to hold the point of attack and needs to replace his hands quicker. Urschel struggled with hand placement, maintaining his blocks against counter rushes, and the snap count. Both need to drastically improve if they hope to get drafted.
-Belhaven’s Matt Hall showed enough in the limited snaps I saw to keep me intrigued. He, like the rest of the offensive tackles, didn’t have success against Will Clarke or Ethan Westbrooks, but he has the flexibility initially and the lateral control to at least be worked with this week and beyond. He got rave reviews coming into the week, and we’ll see if he can live up to them throughout practices.
-The East defensive linemen clearly mark the best positional unit on either roster. They’re lead by West Virginia’s Will Clarke, who, despite struggling earlier in practice at 5-technique and with the snap count, came on strong to end practice. He won against each tackle initially, extending away with ideal hands and pinching the edge as well as you’d like. I think he has an even better practice tomorrow, as nerves may have gotten the better of him to start practice today.
-West Texas A&M’s Ethan Westbrooks was impressive today, and showed that his small school athleticism certainly translated. With a strong initial push off the line thanks to his explosive first step, quick hands initially, and bend to attack at the shoulders of his lineman. So far, so good for the small schooler, and I’ll be curious to see him tomorrow in one-on-one situations against the tackles.
-Two defensive tackles impressed, but very differently today. Jay Bromley won consistently on the interior, utilizing his quick get off on the snap and his ability to target the outside shoulder of his blocker with force and with the backfield in mind. While he didn’t finish tackles in the backfield (didn’t really get a chance to), he certainly did what he did best on film during practice. Delaware’s Zach Kerr also impressed, especially at the point of attack. The big nose tackle is a guy I had heard good things about coming out (my alma mater) but he certainly showed the part of a talented nose tackle prospect. Winning initially, getting pressure with his hands, and holding his ground well, Kerr will look to build on a good day one.
-I didn’t get any great notes on linebackers today, but I did notice a few things. The coaching staff played East Carolina’s Derrell Johnson a bit out of position today, and we’ll see if he’ll get work at his usual strong side linebacker spot during the week. That’s where he impressed me on film. Also, DeDe Lattimore got plenty of work in coverage, against tight ends and occasionally slot receivers. If he can impress there this week, combined with his pass rushing ability, he may land in the Top 100.
-Easily the two top safeties today were Louisville’s Hakeem Smith and North Carolina’s Tre Boston. Smith is a bit undersized as many have pointed out before/did during practice, but he filled gaps well at strong safety, got work at both spots, and matched up in the slot very well. He’s no Calvin Pryor upside-wise, but Smith looked the part of a future NFL starter. As for Boston, he got lost a bit on a struggling North Carolina team, but there’s a reason he nearly declared for the 2013 draft. He’s very talented, has ample size for a safety, and he too looked great at both spots. These two safeties are the two best in attendance at the Shrine Game, and I’d expect at least to get called up to the Senior Bowl.
-The most polished cornerback here is Vanderbilt’s Andre Hal. While on film his vertical positioning was an issue along with getting his head turned around, neither were issues today. He stayed tight down the field and consistent won match-ups against receivers in the red zone. Quarterbacks would be wise not to target him tomorrow.
-Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir is a cornerback I was very high on before the week. While he didn’t get the chance to have balls come his way, his length, size, build throughout his frame, and physicality shown in the few chances he got, I have no doubt he’ll have an impressive week.