ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Offensive and defensive linemen began to stand out Wednesday at the East-West Shrine Game practice, where one of the biggest stories was from the far north -- Canada.
Well-traveled defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was impressive for a second successive day. Hicks played high school and junior college football in Sacramento, Calif., area. But after being at the center of a LSU recruiting controversy in 2010, he wound up playing for the University of Regina in Canada the past two seasons.
Hicks (6-5, 324 pounds) is one of the largest players on the field, but the most surprising aspect of his game is his impressive movement, showing nimble feet and fast hands. He definitely has some work to do before he is NFL-ready, but he has raw ability. Hicks isn't a natural bender and has very ordinary initial explosion out of his stance. But he does have an 84-inch wingspan and used those long limbs to dominate blockers and prove to pro teams he should be drafted in April.
NFLDraftScout.com has considered Hicks as a seventh-round or free-agent projection, but if he continues to impress, he certainly could climb on some charts.
South Carolina defensive tackle Travian Robertson showed quick feet, a burst off the snap, good low pad level and finished well. But he struggled with his initial hand placement and looked unrefined fundamentally. Coaches harped on him because of his sloppy technique, but his encouraging play this week, including a positive weigh-in (6-4, 305 pounds), will force teams to do some extra homework on him.
Miami's Micanor Regis is another interior defensive lineman showing steady improvement. Although he doesn't have the natural strength to overpower blockers, he showed consistent burst, leverage and quick hands to rip past offensive linemen. His scrappy attitude came through when he laid out a receiver in drills after an interception by the defense -- a hit that created a buzz from the crowd.
Offensive guard Rishaw Johnson (California, Pa.) has shown why some feel he could be a top-120 pick. He has good thickness throughout his body and moves very well for his 309-pound frame with large, 11-inch mitts. Johnson, who has been practicing at right guard, spent a little too much time on the ground and is a bit of a bull in a china shop, but he stays balanced off the snap and looks to finish. He has some off-field questions, but showcased the raw skills in practice to develop into a pro backup, at worst.
Another guard, Brandon Brooks of Miami (Ohio), has a broad, filled-out frame and carries his weight well for being the heaviest player here -- 353 pounds. He showed heavy feet in space, which was expected for his body type, but he was quick off the snap and understands body positioning. Brooks is stout at the point of attack in practice and displayed the natural size and strength to hold his own against NFL linemen in confined quarters.
Other notes from Wednesday practices:
• WR Tim Benford, Tennessee Tech: This small-school receiver was impressive in every practice. He has very good vision to quickly locate and snatch the ball out of the air with his long arms. Benford is only 199 pounds, but showed off his physicality, fighting for body position and winning several 1-on-1 drills against tight coverage.
• CB Robert Blanton, Notre Dame: Blanton style of play is aggressive. He doesn't shy from contact and succeeded multiple times rerouting receivers and getting in their heads a bit. He struggles mightily when left alone on an island in man coverage, but does a nice job in zone and should get a few looks at free safety.
• DE/OLB Kyle Wilber, Wake Forest: Wilber has drawn mixed opinions across the board. He has struggled with his hand on the ground at defensive end, showing underwhelming upper- and lower-body strength. However, he has impressed with his foot quickness, burst and overall flexibility to bend and break down in space. He will be considered a later-round player by teams employing 4-3 defenses, but will be valued much more teams that use the 3-4.
• RB Tauren Poole, Tennessee: After a slow start, Poole has really separated himself as the top running back on either squad. He runs with low pad level and quickness through the line of scrimmage, routinely getting to the second level. Poole had an up-and-down 2011 campaign, which is why he isn't at the Senior Bowl, but he has been running tough, decisive and quick with smooth acceleration in practices.
• WR LaRon Byrd, Miami (Fla.): Byrd came back from a rough Tuesday practice to become the second impressive Hurricane on the field. At nearly 6-4 and 224 pounds, he took advantage of his size Wednesday, elevating and high-pointing several passes over the defensive back in coverage. After a forgettable senior season, Byrd is helping his draft stock. (Miami tight end Chase Ford continued to be impressive in practice.)
Dane Brugler is a Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.