We are off and running here in Las Vegas for the 97th edition of the East-West Shrine Bowl.
After two days covering practice at the UNLV Fertitta Football Complex, Josh, Dr. Mel, and myself traveled to Allegiant Stadium for the third of four practices scheduled ahead of this week’s game. Today, the East squad was up first, beginning their practice at 8:15 AM, followed by the West squad which began at 10:00 AM, all of which can be found on the site in Josh Carney’s report. Below, I’ll be walking you through my primary observations and takeaways from Monday mornings practice at Allegiant Stadium, where a few prospects continued to separate themselves from the pack and improve their draft stock in the process.
- Things kicked off with positional drills once team stretches, led by none other than Deuce Gruden, had concluded. Once again, I observed the defensive backs in their warmups, where I was able to continue observing their overall athleticism and refined movement skills at the position.
- One of the stars of Day 1s 1v1 period, Appalachian State cornerback Shaun Jolly, was in street clothes today, and did not participate in practice. In defensive back drills, Kansas State’s Russ Yeast and UCLA’s Quentin Lake continued to stand out for their quick pedal, hip fluidity, and seamless transitions. They are in their own class compared to the rest of the safety’s on the East squad’s roster, and tend to move more like cornerbacks than safety’s, their collegiate position. This, as well as their success defending slots in recent 1v1 periods, leads be to believe that both have the ability to man the Nickel spot at the next level. In 7s and team periods today, they split reps at the Nickel spot, showing their ability and willingness to transition into that role at the NFL level.
- Decobie Durant, who would go on to have his best practice of the week, stood out to me for his effortless movement skills in defensive back drills. Particularly in his ability to open into a crossover run, before breaking downhill at various angles, Durant stood out as the most fluid mover of the group. Despite his smaller stature, standing at 5’9”, Durant’s high level agility has allowed him to frustrate larger receivers in press coverage throughout the week. He also stood out in the high point drill, where his vertical was on full display, climbing the ladder to pluck deep balls out of the air, a trait which he will need to excel in his transition to the next level. Two of the lengthier cornerbacks on the squad, Boston College’s Brandon Sebastian and Pittsburgh State’s Dallis Flowers also stood out for their high point ability. Flowers in particular, has an impressive vertical for his size, which I would expect to show up in his pro day testing.
- Transitioning from a crossover run into a downhill angle break is one of the toughest tasks for the defensive back, and one that many, even the league’s best, struggle with at times. Quentin Lake and Virginia Tech’s Jermaine Waller both stood out in their ability to quickly and efficiently break out of their crossover run and cover ground coming downhill. This is a skill which could make them particularly effective in zone assignments at their respective positions at the next level. Needless to say, both players have great hip mobility for their size, a coveted trait at the position.
- Repeatedly in movement drills Middle Tennessee State’s Reed Blankenship and Pittsburgh State’s Dallis Flowers, two of the larger players in the group, have failed to stay low in their pedal, transitions, and breaks. This limits their ability to efficiently cover ground when breaking downhill as well as their ability to transition to carry receivers vertically downfield. Both players will need to be coached out of these bad habits if they are to maximize their abilities at the next level. Flowers in particular, has solid athleticism, and has plenty of room to grow if he is able to refine his technique at the next level.
- Moving into today’s 1v1 DB vs. WR period, the defensive backs were finally given their chance to compete today, as the period was transitioned into a red zone setting, working in from the 15 yard line. Without the threat of being beaten over the top, the East’s defensive backs were able to compete more consistently on short and intermediate routes, generating a more competitive session and making the receivers and tight ends work harder to generate separation.
- Brandon Sebastian had a solid 1v1 period, where he repeatedly worked to stay glued to opposing receivers chests on fade balls, giving quarterbacks no space to work back shoulder, and forcing tight window throws toward the back of the end zone. I had opposing receivers charted as 0/4 on fade ball attempts against him in the drill. He also had great battles with one of the unit’s top receivers Miami’s Charleston Rambo. He had a nice pass breakup, matching Rambo off the line, flattening his route on the upfield shoulder, and coming over the top for the breakup on a slot rep. On a later rep on the boundary, Sebastian had Rambo squeezed toward the sideline on a fade ball, but a smooth back shoulder adjustment by the talented receiver proved too much to handle, leading to an impressive touchdown. Best 1v1 session of the week for Sebastian, sadly, it did not translate to the later team periods, where he would struggle mightily.
- Josh Johnson also continued to create separation with ease, even in the red zone. He beat the larger, and extremely physical safety, Juanyeh Thomas, with some impressive hand fighting off the line to gain separation on an out route. He would later have a similar rep against Reed Blankenship. He is simply a mismatch nightmare when matched against safety’s not named Quentin Lake in the slot thus far this week. He later had two impressive reps against Decobie Durant, the first a smooth stutter-go to beat press coverage and gain separation for a touchdown, before later beating off coverage by selling vertical before breaking hard to pylon on an out route for another score. Johnson consistently stands out in 1v1 drills for his effortless ability to generate separation against both press and off coverage, as well as on the slot or boundary. He will find a home on an NFL roster somewhere.
- Both Kansas State’s Russ Yeast and Lousiana Laffayette’s Percy Butler had impressive PBUs guarding larger framed tight ends. Butler was able to wrestle the ball away from the talented Nick Muse on an out route, afterwards audibly commenting on the raw size of the South Carolina State product. Yeast, on the final rep of the session, had a teach tape level rep, keeping his feet planted at the goal line while guarding Pittsburgh’s Lucas Krull, staying patient before driving to undercut the out route at the pylon, and skying to get his left hand across for the most impressive PBU of the session. He’s an interesting mid/late round guy to keep an eye on, he covers well enough to play in the Nickel, and has shown the ability to play in the box and blitz at the collegiate level. I have him down as a potential replacement for Arthur Maulet, with the ability to provide significantly more in coverage.
- Decobie Durant and Dallis Flowers were the two standouts at the position from 1v1 drills, and would continue to stand out for the remainder of practice. Durant had a great rep in the slot, mirroring the receivers release off the line, locating the hip, and undercutting a dig route for a smooth PBU. Flowers on the other hand, was able to suffocate receivers in the red zone with his size and length in press coverage. His best 1v1 rep of the week came against Josh Johnson, where he jammed the receiver up with a two hand jump jam before using his length to reach over the top for a PBU. In the red zone, he is able to use his length to aggressively hinder receivers from getting into their routes without worrying about allowing vertical separation.
- Finally, Nebraska’s Samori Toure had a solid session repeatedly showing his ability to beat press coverage with smooth releases at the line of scrimmage. Nick Muse also stood out for his ability to secure contested catches, even mossing Russ Yeast who had allowed 0 separation on a corner route and played through the hands with violence.
- Overall, I had Josh Johnson, Charleston Rambo, Decobie Durant, Brandon Sebastian, Russ Yeast, and Dallis Flowers as the standout performers of the session.
- Continuing with the theme of the day, the first team session was a red zone session, the first of the week. One thing of note, both sides of the ball opened up the playbook a bit from the first two days, with the defense adding some Tampa 2 to their call sheet, while the offense worked in some double moves and running back screens.
- Quentin Lake was a standout from the session, shedding blocks well in open space and coming up to lay some violent hits from his underneath coverage zones. He played primarily in the Nickel, rotating with Russ Yeast, and showing the ability to play man and underneath zone coverage assignments effectively. On an early rep, Lake diagnosed screen quickly, shedding his blocker and knifing through traffic to stuff the back for a minimal gain. Later in the second team session, Lake would make the play of the day defensively, coming from his flat zone to lay a physical stick on the opposing tight end, jarring the ball free and firing up the East defense. He mentioned to Josh, Dr. Mel, and myself that the biggest area he wants to improve is becoming a Kam Chancellor type enforcer, and needless to say, he took a step in the right direction today.
- Dallis Flowers also had a great day in team and 7v7 sessions, continually using his length to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage and break up passes downfield. While he is not the fastest or most agile of cornerbacks, he is aggressive and has a great understanding of how to use his length. He’ll likely have to tone down his physicality downfield at the next level, and drew a flag or two today in that respect, but he has yet to allow a deep ball reception, even after seeing plenty of targets in three days of team sessions. He had an impressive undercut and pass breakup today on a five step slant in the red zone, which was the highlight of his day. Likewise, Flowers benefited mightily from the addition of Cover 2 into the playbook, where his length allowed him to effectively reroute receivers and occupy underneath zones with his length and rangy movement. He looked good in a few instances coming downhill and making physical stops on backs. He will need to get comfortable in off man coverage to fully unlock his potential at the next level, but he’s made himself a lot of money thus far this week.
- While he didn’t have the flashy breakups and targets of his counterpart in Flowers, Decobie Durant had his best day of practice thus far, continually providing lockdown coverage in both man and zone assignments in the team sessions. I had him charted as not being targeted on a single occasion in either team session or the 7s period, other than dump offs to backs when he had sunk to force checkdowns in Cover 2. A couple instances in particular, Durant was all over comeback routes on designed rollots, forcing D’Eriq King and Dustin Crum to tuck and run rather than forcing a turnover worthy pass. He may have to transition to the slot at the next level due to size limitations, but Durant’s coverage ability and football IQ should help him carve out a role at the next level.
- Nick Muse was the standout of the team periods offensively, consistently winning in the red zone with a combination of superior route running, physicality to catch in traffic, and an innate ability to create yards after the catch. He scored a pair of touchdowns on the day, one on a quick out route at the goal line, another on a stick route at the goal line, both beating man coverage with ease. Muse told me in an interview that route running has always come naturally to him, and that if he can improve his run and pass blocking, he believes he can be a top level tight end at the next level. He cited Kittle and Pat Freirmuth as two guys he watches. Regardless, a player of his stature, route running ability, catch radius, and hands, is poised to be a monster in the red zone at the next level, and he’s continually produced all week.
- At receiver, Samori Toure continued to stand out in the team sessions, he beat tight coverage from Flowers in the back of the end zone for an impressive toe tapping touchdown. Josh Johnson also continued to produce, turning Brandon Sebastian around at the top of a smooth comeback route, and showing some shiftiness to create yards after the catch, nearly getting into the end zone. Speaking of Sebastinan, he had a really tough session after an early man coverage breakup on a whip route. I had him charted for two touchdowns allowed and another that would have been an easy pitch and catch to Phillips on a deep crosser that was missed badly by E.J. Perry. He really struggles to contain receivers at the top of their routes, and is primarily effective in zone assignments where he doesn’t need to use his change of direction skills to stay in phase.
- Two plays of note from the team session, Kentucky nose tackle Marquon McCall knifed into the backfield to blow up a run play and force a fumble before Dustin Crum could turn to handoff to his running back. He has turned heads this week as a run defender in the middle. Later, Diego Fagot stepped up to fill the B-gap, decleating Rutgers Isiash Pacheco with a hit heard in the upper deck. Both plays fired up the East defense, which largely dominated the East offense in team sessions.
- Speaking of the East offense, it’s hard not to connect their inability to move the football with some less than desirable quarterback play from the trio of Dustin Crum, E.J. Perry, and D’Eriq King. The group has mainly found success in hitting their backs on swing passes against Cover 1 man, with most of the yardage coming after the catch. Crum and King are far too eager to leave the pocket if their first read is covered, less than ideal in a session where the opposing defense has yet to blitz. Brown’s E.J. Perry on the other hand, who may have been the best of the group today, lacks arm talent and has serious issues with consistency in the accuracy department, never more evident than missing a wide open Kyle Phillips in the red zone while working from a clean pocket, potentially the worst throw a quarterback has made this week. It’s hard to wonder whether some of the standouts at receiver such as Josh Johnson, Charleston Rambo, Samori Toure, and Nick Muse wouldn’t look even better if the Shrine Bowl had done a better job of identifying competent quarterback talent.
- In the special teams period, Juanyeh Thomas, Percy Butler, Quentin Lake, Russ Yeast, and Reed Blankensip got some work as personnel protectors, further adding to their special teams profile in their transition to the NFL. Meanwhile, Florida International’s Tommy Heatherly struggled to find consistently early in his punts, but rebounded to let off some booming punts with insane hang time. He needs to find consistency, but he certainly has an NFL leg
- Winners of Day 3: Charleston Rambo, Nick Muse, Samori Toure, Josh Johnson, Decobie Durant, Dallis Flowers, Marquon McCall, Diego Fagot, Quentin Lake, and Russ Yeast
Day Three is in the books, and we will look forward to continuing our coverage of the Shrine Bowl at the final practice at Allegiant Stadium. We also have plenty more player interviews set to hit the site, so stay tuned! Thanks for reading and feel free to share your thoughts below!