ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For some non-FBS prospects, the toughest part of the draft process can be shedding the dreaded "small school" label. And one way to do that is in these pre-draft all-star games when they're pitted against players from the SEC, Big Ten and other "power" conferences.
On the first day of practice for this year's Shrine game on Monday, several small-schoolers stood out and proved they belong on the same field as many of the FBS prospects.
He's not the fastest or the biggest at his position, but Mount Union wide receiver Jasper Collins (West Team) might be the most polished receiver in St. Petersburg this week. As the only Division-III prospect invited to the 88th annual Shrine Game, he hasn't seen the top competition that he will match up against in practice, but through the first day he certainly didn't appear out of place.
Collins was smooth in his routes, showing good foot quickness and burst out of his breaks to keep the defender off-balance. He also did a nice job setting up his patterns with excellent conviction and patience, which was evident on a stop-and-go route that he used to lure the cornerback toward him before he burst downfield to catch a 40-yard pass. Collins showed good hands and also received punts at the end of practice. (He had three punt returns for touchdowns in college).
Collins is currently rated as a fringe draftable prospect or possible priority free agent but could significantly help his stock this week.
The most talkative award goes to Howard outside linebacker Keith Pough (West Team), who was barking all practice -- not only at himself but also his teammates. While some view this as a negative, the coaching staff of the West squad appeared to encourage it, loving the energy he was showing while pushing those around him.
Along with his gift for gab, Pough is also a very talented football player. He stood out during the linebacker drills as the best athlete of the group with excellent flexibility and agility for the position. Pough was the only linebacker during drills who didn't need reminding to "stay low" during blocking drills. He does have a few bad habits with lowering his head and keeping his eyes in the wrong place, but he is definitely a defensive prospect worth watching due to his athleticism and competitive nature.
During the East practice session, the top small-schooler that stood out was Richmond safety Cooper Taylor. His size is impressive for the position, as you rarely see a 6-4, 230-pound safety roam the back half of the field. But his athleticism was also better than expected, flowing well to the action and breaking down on the move.
He showed good footwork in drills and drew some praise from the coaching staff for his closing quickness on plays in front of him. A Georgia Tech transfer, Taylor is starting to create a little bit of buzz among the scouts and NFL representatives in attendance this week.
- In my Shrine Game defensive preview, I predicted Penn State outside linebacker Gerald Hodges might be the highest drafted player from this week. After one practice, I'm standing by that. Without full pads, almost all the drills were limited contact, but that didn't stop Hodges from seeking out the ballcarrier and tackling him with pop. Since he was snubbed from the Senior Bowl, some thought he might not take this week as seriously, but so far, that couldn't be further from the truth.
- Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron doesn't have nearly the height or arm strength as the other quarterbacks on the East squad, but he didn't look short next to Collin Klein or Nathan Stanley, who both stand at least 6-5. With his compact delivery, Cameron fired passes all over the field, especially showing zip and velocity on out-routes. Cameron is more of a touch passer, but through one practice he didn't look out of place with the big size, big-armed quarterbacks.
- Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne didn't have quite the senior season many expected, but his draft stock could be on the upswing this week, especially after a strong first day of practice. He showed a fluid backpedal and swivel hips while staying low in his transition, something that isn't easy for most cornerbacks over six-feet tall. Hawthorne has the footwork to quickly adjust, and he flashed the physical nature needed to play the position at the next level.
- UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria was forced to leave the field during the early portion of the West's practice due to an injury. He was stretching his groin on the sideline and the trainers mentioned it to be a "hip issue." No word on the seriousness of the injury or whether Fauria will be back on the field this week.