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2020 East-West Shrine Bowl: Identifying 2020 NFL Draft prospects
Photo: Illinois State University athletics

NFL Draft

2020 East-West Shrine Bowl: Identifying 2020 NFL Draft prospects

With college football bowl season set to commence later this week, college showcase games are just around the corner. Once that begins, we can declare it the official start of draft season. It will begin with the East-West Shrine Bowl, one of college football’s most prestigious all-star games. The Shrine Bowl, held at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, is entering its 95th year of existence. The game features some of the top talent from across the nation, with many attendees expected to be selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now that most of the player acceptances have been announced, let’s take a look at some of the NFL Draft prospects included on the Shrine Bowl roster.

James Robinson, RB, Illinois State

One of two Illinois State alums participating in the Shrine Bowl, Robinson is my top-rated runner in St. Pete’s.

Though the All-American wasn’t one of the expected four finalists for the Walter Payton Award — a prestigious award gifted to the top player in the FCS — he put together an impressive body of work over his four-year career. The 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back rushed for 4,368 yards and 44 touchdowns on 773 carries. Though not exactly known for his receiving prowess, the bruising running back hauled in 57 catches for 412 yards and two touchdowns.

Built similarly to Maryland’s Ty Johnson, a 2019 Shrine Bowl standout, Robinson is a compact runner that is deadly with a full head of steam. Built low to the ground, he never stops moving his legs and he is nearly impossible to bring down. In fact, he almost always requires more than one defender to wrap him up. He should open some eyes during the week of practice, and many will be keeping an eye on how comfortable he looks catching the football.

Robinson projects as a late-round 2020 NFL Draft pick with upside. His natural fit will be as a power runner in a two-man committee at the next level.

John Hightower, WR, Boise State

Hightower was a player I thought might warrant Senior Bowl consideration. A lanky, 6-foot-2, 172 pounds, Hightower began his career at Hinds Community College, where he caught 31 passes for 509 yards and seven touchdowns over two seasons.

Transferring to Boise State in 2018, Hightower quickly adjusted to the athleticism of the Mountain West Conference, amassing 79 receptions for 1,427 yards and 14 touchdowns in his two years with the Broncos. He was named a two-time All-Mountain West second-team performer as a wide receiver and kick returner.

One of the more intriguing wide receivers at the Shrine Bowl, Hightower offers length and plenty of downfield speed. His lightning-fast release off the line should make for some fun battles against some of the Shrine Bowl’s bigger, more physical defensive backs. He’s a bit raw, but Hightower’s athleticism immediately jumps out when you see him play. With a strong week in St Pete’s, he could very well be one of the players that gets the call-up to the Senior Bowl. 

Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota

Another wide receiver with Senior Bowl ability, Johnson is one of several talented wideouts that did not receive an invite to Mobile.

Johnson has been one of the most consistent pass catchers throughout his four-year run in the Big Ten Conference. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver has played in 48 career games, racking up 210 receptions (second in school history) for 3,101 yards (second in school history) and 31 touchdowns (tied for first in school history).

He’s certainly not the most explosive pass catcher in college football, but few have as much sustained production as Johnson. He will likely see time as both an outside and inside receiver during Shrine practices, which should only enhance his value on draft weekend. A crafty route runner, Johnson will be another player I’m interested to see during one-on-one periods.

Aaron Parker, WR, Rhode Island

I’ve spent some time over the past few days watching film on Parker. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound senior has the makings of one of the 2020 NFL Draft’s mid-round gems, and should be near the top of every sleeper list.

The Rhode Island star topped his eye-opening 61-catch, 972-yard, 10-touchdown junior campaign with a monstrous 81-catch, 1,224-yard, 9-touchdown final act in 2019.

What I like most about Parker’s game is that everything he does seems so effortless. His ability to create separation at the top of his routes, coupled with his smooth transitioning in and out of breaks, makes him an especially tough cover for over-aggressive defensive backs. Parker might be at his best when making with contested catches, however, contorting his body in the air and aggressively high-pointing the football. 

Parker has the talent to emerge as a Shrine week darling, but evaluators will want to see how he stacks up against defensive backs from some of the bigger programs in college football.

Calvin Throckmorton, T, Oregon

Throckmorton entered the 2019 season as a stone-cold lock for the Reese’s Senior Bowl. The 6-foot-5, 309-pound senior graded out as 2018’s top offensive lineman in the Pac-12. He earned AP Pac-12 All-Conference first-team, Phil Steele All-America second-team, and FWAA All-America second-team honors for his efforts. He personified dependability: he’s made 38 consecutive starts for the Ducks, surrendered exactly one sack in his last 31 games, and totaled 15 games without committing a penalty.

Throckmorton put together another productive season in the trenches for the Ducks, starting all 13 games and finishing his career with 51 games played. His versatility, toughness, and leadership should make him a Shrine Bowl standout — and potential Senior Bowl call-up.

McTelvin Agim, DL, Arkansas

Last year, Shrine Bowl alums and NFL Draft prospects Daniel Wise, Daylon Mack, and former Razorback Armon Watts headlined a stellar defensive line group. Agim has the talent to carry the torch this year.

Landing on the Bednarik Award preseason watch list after a junior season in which he amassed 45 tackles (10 for loss), 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery, Agim would not disappoint in his final season in Fayetteville. The burly 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman notched 38 tackles (8.5 for loss), five sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

Agim doesn’t possess the elite characteristics that most of the premier players at his position have. He is, however, surprisingly twitchy for a man his size, and consistently demonstrates an explosive burst off the ball. Though pad level can sometimes be an issue for Agim, I expect him to dominate 1-on-1 periods. Depending on how quickly he takes to coaching, he should leave St. Pete’s a far more polished product than when he arrived.

While he projects as a rotational, space-eating defensive tackle in the NFL, his hallmark of stopping the run and collapsing the pocket should enable him to see the field fairly often as a rookie.

Auzoyah Alufohai, DL, West Georgia

Alufohai, a freakishly athletic small school talent, is poised to turn heads in St. Pete’s. After spending three years at Kennesaw State, Alufohai transferred to West Georgia, where he experienced immediate success. In ten games, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound defensive tackle totaled 31 tackles (4 for loss), two sacks, and three forced fumbles. He earned 2019 first-team All-Gulf South Conference recognition for his efforts.

The mammoth-sized defender is incredibly powerful at the point of attack, uses leverage to his advantage, and, coupled with his efficient hand usage, should win most of his 1-on-1 battles at the Shrine Bowl. It will be interesting to see how Alufohai fares against NFL caliber offensive lineman, but he has the raw ability to be disruptive in the trenches every time he lines up. He’ll benefit greatly learning from NFL coaches, who will help to refine some of the finer nuances of the position.

Alex Highsmith, DE, Charlotte

Highsmith is a player I expect to win most of his one-on-one matchups against offensive linemen, due to his relentless motor. He gained national attention heading into his final season and was listed on the Bednarik Award preseason watch list.

The 6-foot-4, 242-pound pass rusher finished his 49ers career with 178 tackles, 20 sacks, 46 tackles for loss, five passes defended, three forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He’s one of the more intriguing NFL Draft prospects at the Shrine Bowl.

Highsmith boasts an insanely-quick first step off the ball — with violent hands to boot — and a vast array of pass rush moves in his arsenal. At 242 pounds, he’s lighter than most evaluators would like for an edge rusher, so he will have a lot of eyes on him to see how he holds up against some of the bigger, technically sound offensive tackles during the week. Highsmith is a highly disruptive force that never lets up, and is primed to become a Shrine week standout.

Rashad Smith, LB, Florida Atlantic

Smith will prove himself to be one of the better athletes in attendance from the first practice at Tropicana Field.

The fast-flowing 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker terrorized the Conference USA over the past four seasons, compiling 305 tackles (31 for loss), 11.5 sacks, 14 passes defended, six interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. 

While he doesn’t possess the desired size for the position, Smith’s instincts, athleticism, and football intelligence allow him to swiftly diagnose plays and swarm to the football. His impressive range and lateral agility should allow him to show off his innate coverage acumen and closing speed during Shrine practices. I liken Smith to 2019 Shrine alum Ulysees Gilbert, another outstanding athlete that saw his draft stock rise after a strong week.

Smith will appeal to teams looking to find that hybrid safety or coverage specialist, to combat against the growing trend of spread offenses and 12 personnel.

Javaris Davis, CB, Auburn

Davis is an intriguing name, as he has played in many big games over his Tigers career, starting most of them.

In the summer leading up to his junior season, Davis landed on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award — an award given to the best defensive player in college football; he responded with 41 tackles (3 for loss), one sack, two interceptions, and ten passes defended.

Though his stats dipped a bit from his vastly superior junior season, Davis totaled 41 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended in 2019.

Davis reminds me a lot of Jimmy Moreland: A smaller, scrappy cornerback with tremendous ball skills. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, he will be limited to the nickel role in the pros, but Davis boasts stellar mirror technique, solid balls skills, and a sharp football mind. He’s as competitive as they come, and like Moreland last year, I expect Davis to win his fair share of matchups due to sound technique and sheer will.

Darius Williams, DB, Carson-Newman

Hailing from none other than St. Petersburg, Florida, Williams and his family won’t have to travel far to take in the Shrine Bowl.

Widely recognized as the South Atlantic Conference’s most versatile defender over his first three seasons, Williams truly saved his best for last. In just nine games, he has accounted for 65 tackles (7.5 for loss), one sack, two interceptions, one pass breakup, and two forced fumbles.

With his ability to line up as the deep safety, play in the box, kick inside and cover in the slot, Williams’ skill set is reminiscent of recent draftees Desmond King and Budda Baker. The biggest question surrounding the 5-foot-10, 195-pound defensive back has nothing to do with his skill set, but rather how he will adjust to the significant jump in competition. The first couple of practices will reveal plenty, but you’d be wise to keep an eye on this small school sleeper

Update: Williams will not be participating in practice due to injury, but is expected to be in attendance.

Luther Kirk, S, Illinois State

The second Redbirds player on this list, Kirk will be the player who emerges from the Shrine Bowl’s logjam of safety talent.

A Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team selection a year ago, Kirk was selected to the 2019 Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason defensive team in July — and for good reason; in 15 games, Kirk registered 89 tackles (4 for loss), three sacks, six passes defended, and a forced fumble.

Two things stand out about Kirk’s game when you watch him play: Range and football intelligence. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound defensive back is tremendously fluid in coverage and is always a threat to make a play on the ball. A lengthy defender with an impressive wingspan and strong coverage prowess, don’t be surprised if Kirk also garners some cornerback looks during Shrine Bowl practices.

While many evaluators will be zeroed in on some of the more decorated safety prospects from powerhouse programs, I’ll be keeping an eye on the versatile defender from Illinois State.

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