LAS VEGAS — The 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl practices are in full swing, and prospects are putting their skills on display in the hopes of making an impression ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft. Let’s break down the West Team highlights from Saturday’s practice.
Saturday Shrine Bowl Practice Report Headlined by Habakkuk Baldonado and PJ Mustipher
The word of the day at West Shrine Bowl practice was “Pennsylvania.” Pittsburgh defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado and Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher both impressed a great deal during practice. Let’s dive into the highlights from Saturday’s reps.
For more from Saturday’s practice at the WR, TE, CB, and QB positions, be sure to check out Tony Pauline’s Risers and Sliders report.
Baldonado, in particular, was a revelation for the EDGE group. He was a consistent performer in team drills, with moments of brilliance in one-on-ones. On one rep, Baldonado hit his man with a brutal hesi-euro, cross-chop combo, using both synergetic footwork and timing on the edge. He’s athletic and long, but also tenacious and precise.
Mustipher was known as a run-stuffing nose tackle in college. But at practice on Saturday, he flashed surprising pass-rushing chops for his player type. When he’s on, he brings underrated flexibility and lateral quickness, and his strength is a known facet of his game.
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All told, there were plenty of silver linings to take away from the defensive line group. Many of the other defenders can seek greater consistency, but there were flashes all around. Tyrus Wheat is explosive. Andre Jones stacked moves and won with a spin. Taron Vincent and Jerron Cage are both well-leveraged linemen with solid power alignment. And while Desjuan Johnson is a bit undersized on the interior, his lateral agility and bend are undeniable.
There’s also Brenton Cox Jr., the enigmatic Florida edge rusher. He’s a polarizing prospect, but Saturday was definitively a step in the right direction. He clearly has the ideal athletic and physical traits. But more important during practice was the constant energy he brought and his actual application of hand usage in pass-rushing drills.
The defensive line group’s success came at the expense of the offensive line, but there were some bright spots on the blocking front. Ricky Stromberg was a definite winner, especially in one-on-ones. On one rep, he was rocked initially by power but recovered extremely well and leveraged that recovery into a violent finish. He’s well-leveraged and athletic, but he showed an added rotational element on Saturday.
Physicality was not exclusive to Stromberg. UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi also made his mark. Against Mustipher on one rep, Mafi matched Mustipher’s energy all through the play, finished with physicality, and let Mustipher hear about it with an extra shove. That chippy attitude resonates, and it shows Mafi is ready to compete.
Jaxson Kirkland also had a few nice reps, at one point stonewalling his opponent during one-on-ones. He’s a mauler with visible strength, much like Mason Brooks, who displayed powerful hands in combative situations.
It wouldn’t be an offensive line report, of course, without mentioning the biggest guy in the room: Kadeem Telfort. There are still times when Telfort can be uncontrolled. But for his size, he transitions fairly well. The athleticism is there to mold with the length, and his traits help him hold up well in head-to-head battles.
Devonnsha Maxwell didn’t suit up for the West team on Saturday, but there were two FCS defensive linemen on the field: Wagner edge rusher Titus Leo and Harvard edge rusher Truman Jones.
Both players look like they belong, and that’s a start. But right now, Leo is the one who’s generated more intrigue with his play on the field.
Leo is well-leveraged with excellent proportional length, but he’s also an amped-up rusher who’s very agile. Beyond that, he’s shown he can set up rushes with simulated moves. On one rep, he got a tackle to overset by feigning a long arm, then spun inside with his movement freedom.
Leo and Jones both show promise for the FCS on the defensive side. The small-school offensive linemen, however, have more work to do in the days to come. Saturday was a learning experience for most of them.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Mark Evans II came out of practice with the most momentum, but even he can improve in certain areas. He has great foot speed and showed he could replace his hands. But he also struggled to anchor at times and could strive for more control.
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Many blockers, like British Columbia’s Theo Benedet, Minnesota-Duluth’s Brent Laing, William & Mary’s Colby Sorsdal, and Pace’s Jacky Chen are getting their first real NFL Draft exposure at this event. For these prospects, looking the part is the first step, and while it’s not everything, it’s a notable one.
Chen looks the part. So does Benedet. Both prospects have ideal size, and they had good moments. Chen proved he could stay square and keep his hands tight in pass protection. Benedet, meanwhile, moved very well. He showcased good lateral burst, flipped his hips to redirect defenders, and reloaded his hands well on extensions.
Laing and Sorsdal have more work to do in the days to come. Sorsdal struggled to fully acquire leverage at times, and he was also slow to replace his hands. Laing visibly lacked strength against some defensive linemen, and his hands were noticeably imprecise at times. Laing also took snaps at center, and while his build fits well there, botched snaps were an issue.
Taking all this into account, this was only one practice. Prospects who impressed will have an opportunity to build on their momentum. Prospects who perhaps lacked consistency will be able to take corrective steps in the days to come and prove themselves.
- Arkansas’ Dalton Wagner is massive. And with his size comes immense drive potential as a power generator. He’s a bit stiff and heavy-footed, and he’ll need to keep working on his weight transfers. But when he’s able to acquire leverage and latch, he can surely displace blockers.
- Much like his teammate, Kirkland, Washington’s Henry Bainivalu has a physical edge to his game. He’s a big blocker with length and frame density, traits that visibly aid his game in the trenches. That said, Kirkland is a bit better at finishing blocks right now. Bainivalu can better drive through in the days to come.
- There’s a reason NC State linebacker Drake Thomas was so productive in college. He looks like a major sleeper at his position, and at the Shrine Bowl, he’s been a very natural second-level defender. In coverage and in space, he transitions very well, even with his dense frame, and he’s also very willing to roam into congestion.
- Demario Douglas is dynamic. He’s undersized — that comes with the territory — but his brand of athleticism sticks out. He’s explosive, twitchy, flexible stacking cuts, and he has enough vertical speed to separate in the intermediate and deep thirds. He needs to be more consistent in converting at the catch point, but he’s a true creator with his mobility.
- Mohamoud Diabate weighed in close to 230 pounds earlier this week — a pleasant development after ranging in the low-220 territory throughout college. With that size, Diabate also showed willing physicality downhill in his first Shrine Bowl practice. He’s explosive, long, and athletic, and that physicality could be a completing piece to his game.
- It was a relatively quiet day for running backs at the Shrine Bowl, but Arizona State RB Xazavian Valladay is a name to keep an eye on in the days to come. Valladay weighed in at around 200 pounds. He’s not a bruiser, but he does have great burst as a north-to-south back. And in red zone drills, he also brought a nice lateral element to the fold, using twitch and quick feet to dart through tight lanes for a touchdown.