Football doesn't get much better than this weekend: good divisional games Saturday, good ones today and a national championship kicking off on Monday. But not before Shrine Bowl practices start.
The Shrine Bowl is the first opportunity for draft-worthy seniors to shuck their school's colors and face new competition, under new contexts, with new coaching. For small-school players, they get to cut their teeth against the nation's best. For the ones from a big school, they get to prove increased attention and volume was all they needed to shine.
The long week is boiled down to Saturday’s game, and here are five prospects that have the most to gain with strong performances in St. Petersburg, Florida. Remember: Day 2 picks are on the line for the best of the best from the Shrine rosters.
This is real money on the table now.
Alex Highsmith, EDGE, Charlotte
The Shrine Game is a big deal for Alex Highsmith, who neared Senior Bowl radars across the course of the season. Offensive line talent is typically light, and Highsmith is a legitimate NFL player with the hand usage, get-off and bend to win as a stand-up outside rusher in situational play. Highsmith, who feasted on lesser talent in C-USA over his senior season, finished with 21.5 tackles for a loss and 15 sacks.
Charlotte has quietly produced NFL talent in the infancy of its program with Nate Davis playing playoff football in Tennessee and Larry Ogunjobi anchoring the defensive front in Cleveland. Highsmith figures to be the next middle-round draft pick to ascend from the 49ers' ranks, and if he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, he will be a starter in no time.
Tyler Huntley, QB, Utah
I strongly believe that Tyler Huntley is a draft-worthy quarterback. He hasn't been a consistent passer at any point in his career, but he has become a much more dynamic passer in his senior season — it's a big part of the reason he stayed in Utah. While his field vision and decision making are still many years away from reliability, his natural talent has evened out into more consistent accuracy as his mechanics have improved.
But the bigger story is Huntley, the healthy runner: He was available for all 14 games this year and continues to be a dynamic running threat on designed and scramble plays. Huntley is the best quarterback here, but he may not be the best passer. If he shows that his arm and process are a cut above the rest, he will begin to look very attractive to those teams in need of a mobile backup quarterback. That's an increasing demand these days.
Michael Divinity, EDGE/LB, LSU
What do you know about Michael Divinity? If you haven't been locked into the draft, you may have missed him entirely. Divinity has failed a slew of drug tests during his time at LSU and has only played five games this year as the result of a "coach's decision." He is as far from the model of reliable off-field behavior as you can get, but teams take gambles when talent is on the line. Divinity is talented. He's so talented, he's even back to play in the national championship Monday before Shrine Week kicks off, even though his role is undefined. Divinity is an ideal body type and skill set for an on-ball SAM linebacker with coverage ability and could show as much in St. Petersburg. Teams will look for an excuse to draft him should he shine.
Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
I'm not sure what exactly Tyler Johnson has to prove during Shrine Week.
Well, that's not true: I know what he has to prove. Johnson, a convert to the wide receiver position, has wasted steps in his routes and has poor spacing at times relative to coverage. He is athletic and has natural hands, but there's a lot left uncovered.
While we know the NFL likes him less than the infallible Internet does, we don't know to what degree they are separate. If it's a small chasm — top 50 versus top 75 — then there really isn't much for Johnson to prove, but it seems like the gap is much bigger.
Johnson has a big heat-check moment awaiting him. He must show that he can snap off man cover defenders in one-on-one situations in a variety of route concepts to prove his dominance wasn't the result of unathletic Big Ten corners and a sick passing offense under P.J. Fleck.
Elijah Riley, CB, Army
Elijah Riley has some really fun film. Army has played a smorgasbord of interesting teams this year — Michigan, Hawai'i, Navy and Tulane — so Riley has seen his fair share of NFL talent at WR and QB, as well as the nation's wackiest offenses. He is a physical and aggressive zone cover cornerback who is at his best reading into the box and filling downhill. Teams that need its secondary to win in run support will love Riley.
The biggest question for Riley is a matter of exposure to complete man cover responsibilities. How well can he hang one-on-one with the outside against the nation's best athletes? Underexposed and inaccessible to NFL squads due to his school, Riley has the chance to bloom over the pre-draft process if he keeps his head above water in this key test.