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First impressions critical for East-West Shrine prospects

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  • By Chad Reuter NFL.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This is why the first day of practice at a college football all-star contest like this week's East-West Shrine Game can be so important for the 110 participants.

General managers, coaches and scouts from all 32 NFL teams are in St. Petersburg this week to get their eyes on players likely to fill the middle and late rounds of April's draft. Though players practice every day leading up to Saturday afternoon's game (shown on NFL Network at 4 p.m. Eastern), most NFL staff only stay through Wednesday because Thursday and Friday "walk-throughs" have minimal contact, and are therefore not conducive to talent evaluation.

That gives these players a small window to confirm the talent they showed on tape during the season, or surprise team officials with physical tools that weren't utilized to their potential at the college level.

Here are some of the notable developments from Day 1:

» The East squad practiced first on Tuesday, and scouts had their eyes on two small-school cornerback prospects with anything but a small amount of talent. Hampton's Micah Pellerin and Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman presented the length, fluid transition and aggressive nature that teams love in outside corners. The 6-foot, 203-pound Norman was especially consistent closing on out routes thrown his direction in one-on-one drills, knocking them away or making it very difficult for receivers to secure the catch. If they both to continue to impress this week and perform well at the combine in February, expect to hear their names called in the top 125 selections.

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» Two defensive tackles on the East team stood out: Miami's Micanor (pronounced "muh-connor") Regis and Baylor big man Nicolas Jean-Baptiste. Regis is a wide body inside, but showed very good agility and a nice first step in pass-rush drills. His overall athleticism and thick build could allow him to fit in any defensive system. Jean-Baptiste is a shorter, 335-pound nose tackle, but gave East offensive linemen some trouble one-on-one with quickness, leverage (using his low center of gravity) and pure effort. Though he won't necessarily rack up big sack or tackle-for-loss numbers as a pro, scouts won't write him off as the typical run-stuffing plodder.

» Wide receiver play on both teams Monday left something to be desired. Tennessee Tech's Tim Benford was the most consistent pass-catcher, reaching away from his frame multiple times to bring in throws that his teammates from Big Ten schools (Illinois' A.J. Jenkins and Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham) could not haul in. Miami receiver LaRon Byrd also had a difficult time adjusting for throws over his shoulder, missing the ball completely or failing to secure it after it hit his hands. The West squad has two very quick receivers in Arkansas' Jarius Wright and Fresno State's Devon Wylie, who both flashed good hands during the late afternoon practice but also lost catchable balls.

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» Scouts know, however, that receivers and quarterbacks don't always hit it off well on the first day of practice. East quarterback B.J. Coleman (Tennessee-Chattanooga) has the prototypical QB build (6-3, 234) and proved he can spin the ball all over the field during Monday's practice. Unfortunately, "all over the field" often meant leading receivers too far on slants, overthrowing deep balls and generally not finding his receivers, even when there were no defenders in play. Florida's John Brantley also had a hard time consistently connecting with receivers, but scouts were most worried about his long delivery, in which the ball ends up around his right hip before he unleashes the pass. Coleman could start getting his timing down with receivers on Tuesday, but a delivery issue is difficult to fix during an all-star week. Northern Illinois star passer Chandler Harnish was the most impressive thrower on either team; though he is not physically imposing (6-1.5, 219) and his arm strength is only average, more of his throws reached their targets on short, intermediate and deep routes than those of any other quarterback. The mobility and toughness he showed during his NIU career should make him one of the top quarterbacks picked on the third day of the draft.

» Miami (Ohio) guard Brandon Brooks weighed in at 353 pounds for scouts in the morning, but the 6-foot-5, three-time second-team All-MAC pick carries that weight as well as any line prospect in recent memory. His strength and agility as a blocker in one-on-one drills and team work also impressed. In a two-play sequence vs. quick Hawaii defensive tackle Kaniela Tuipulotu, Brooks first knocked the former Arizona Wildcat backwards with a strong punch, then drove him to the ground on the next snap. Another impressive player on the West squad, USC defensive tackle DaJohn Harris, got the better of Brooks on one play in a team scrimmage by using an arm-over move to quickly move past the leaning guard immediately after the snap. Harris consistently looked quicker and more powerful than the offensive linemen he faced in drills or team play. It appears his Shrine week will just continue the ascent up draft boards he experienced during his senior year.

» Matt Reynolds has been a constant at left tackle for BYU since 2008, so it was not surprising that he excelled in pass protection in his first practice. He played with a bit of extra weight throughout his career in Provo, but weighed in at just 310 pounds Monday. He moved well in one-on-one rush drills against various West team defensive ends and showed a strong anchor when opponents tried bull-rushing him backwards. Some of his linemates struggled today, however. Al Netter had trouble staying in front of his opponent while adjusting to his likely NFL position of left guard (he started four years at left tackle for Northwestern), while 6-6 tackle Marcel Jones (Nebraska) and 6-7 guard Ryan Miller (Colorado) could not prevent defenders from using their lack of bend and corresponding high pad level to push them backwards during drills.

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