Four years ago, Cincinnati Bengals' 2011 breakout receiver Jerome Simpson made his name among NFL general managers as a small-school player at the East-West Shrine Game. One of the players he got to know before leaving for the pros was a Coastal Carolina recruit, cornerback Josh Norman, who is now turning heads in a similar way at the Shrine Game (Saturday on NFL Network, 4 p.m. ET).
The University of Georgia was among the parties interested in Norman out of high school, but his grades weren't very good and schools weren't sure he was going to make the minimum SAT score to gain eligibility. But as he relayed his qualifying score to me, his face lit up with pride even more than it did when talking about his play Wednesday.
Norman had three interceptions on the day, showing his ability to break on the ball by snatching a quick out thrown by Florida QB John Brantley, as well as his athleticism to adjust to low throws. During red-zone drills, he quickly dropped to the ground to pick off a poorly thrown ball behind his receiver (it looked as though he was trying to keep a dropped egg from hitting the floor). Later on, he grabbed another ball before it hit the ground, turning his head while in man coverage just before a ball tipped by dropping linebacker Brandon Lindsey (Pittsburgh) reached him.
Though contact is minimized in these practices, the 6-foot 3/8-inch, 203-pound Norman also flashed some physicality Wednesday. He can drop his hips and wrap receivers when closing quickly on underneath throws, and if no receiver was in his area, he dashed inside to help out in the run game -- something you don't necessarily see from cornerbacks known for their cover skills.
If Norman can add an above-average performance at the NFL Scouting Combine to his play this week, much like Simpson did when given his shot in 2008 (4.42 40, 37.5-inch vertical, 11-foot-4 broad at 6-foot-2, 199 pounds in Indianapolis), he'll be the next Coastal Carolina Chanticleer to hear his name called among the first 75 players selected in the draft.
» Evaluating running backs during all-star game practices is difficult because defenders are not allowed to test their ability to avoid or ward off tackles. But Tennessee tailback Tauren Poole showed off his SEC pedigree Wednesday. He showed very good quickness and wiggle in the hole as well as enough speed to turn the corner if no openings were available inside. He's smooth running after the catch, too, and his pad level helps him run through contact. His hands as a receiver are natural, with one juggle on a red-zone screen as the only blemish. Poole's numbers dropped off in 2011 behind a below-average Volunteers offensive line (1,034 yards, 11 TD in 2010; 693 and 5 in 2011), but there's little doubt he's the top talent at the position on either team this week and could be a great Saturday find during draft weekend.
» Pittsburgh pass rusher Brandon Lindsey is one of the biggest "name" prospects in St. Petersburg this week, but has had his ups and downs playing linebacker for the East squad. In agility drills, he's not looked as fluid as his counterparts and has failed to stick with receivers in short zones at times when playing in a stack formation off the line of scrimmage. When playing on the tight end, he usually uses his strong hands to engage and knock him off his route. Georgia fullback/tight end Bruce Figgins made Lindsey whiff badly in his initial punch on one play, and ran down the seam unimpeded. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder got some chances in pass-rush one-on-ones for the first time this week; he looked smooth off the line and was agile enough to get the inside lane or move outside, but he was not very physical and his advances were typically staved off by the tackle battling him. To be fair, Lindsey's best NFL fit will be as a 3-4 rush linebacker and he's been used behind four-man fronts this week. It will be interesting to see if East team coaches use him in a pass-rush role during Saturday's game, or keep pushing him out of his comfort zone.
» Over the past two days, Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham has separated himself from the other receivers -- and often the cornerbacks. Whether catching the ball over his shoulder down the sideline, showing good foot quickness to get inside position on slants, or even running a reverse that fooled the defense, Cunningham has been the player scouts expected to see after dropping a couple of passes during Monday's session. He won't run a great 40-yard dash at the combine, and his hands are a bit smaller than coaches like to see (8 1/4 inches, the average for the group this week is about 9 1/4 inches). But he has good size (6-1 3/8, 209 pounds), runs polished routes and snatches passes out of the air without slowing down, making him a solid mid-round value as a No. 2 starting outside receiver.
» Tuesday's West practice was a bit of a wash-out, as it rained heavily during the first half of the shortened session. But that doesn't mean a couple of players didn't stand out. Former Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford measured in at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds on Monday and has been using that frame to bull-rush tackles into the backfield in "the pit" as well as during team work. The first-team All-Mountain West pick pushed Colorado's Ryan Miller backward in one-on-one pass rush drills, getting under the 6-foot-7 Miller's pads and extending his arms upward. He did the same to South Dakota's Tom Compton, a left tackle with some potential if he can speed up his game just a little and keep his feet moving after engaging. Crawford literally ran right by Compton in team drills, however, catching the former USD Coyote with his quickness off the snap. He is a bit linear in his movements, but that only seems appropriate since the Canadian native and junior college transfer seems to be taking a direct path to being a top 100 overall draft selection.
» Crawford's name actually came up in a positive manner during a discussion with a long-time NFL scout before the East practice, as did that of Iowa cornerback Shaun Prater. Prater's fluidness in coverage was apparent, even in the rain. Whether it was flipping open his hips to run downfield with a receiver, or changing direction quickly in zone coverage. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Prater has average height, length and girth for the position, but a similarly built corner such as Jabari Greer has put together a long NFL career despite those physical limitations. Both as a Hawkeye and in the sporadic times he gets tested in practice this week, Prater has been up to the task in the slot against quick receivers and outside against bigger, stronger pass catchers. He's proven himself as a third-round value at an increasingly important position in today's pass-happy NFL.