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2019 East-West Shrine Game: Pivotal week for NFL draft hopefuls

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- From the moment wide receiver Brody Oliver arrived in St. Petersburg for the 2019 East-West Shrine Game, he's had to introduce himself.

To coaches, to scouts, even his own all-star teammates.

That's what happens when you walk into a locker room full of NFL draft prospects from places like Georgia, Auburn, Florida and Miami with a burro on your helmet. Oliver played for Colorado School of Mines, a Division II program in Golden, Colo., and would be considered among the longest of longshots during a week-long audition for NFL coaches and scouts.

The East-West Shrine Game will be played Saturday at Tropicana Field at 3 p.m. ET (and broadcast live on NFL Network), featuring more than 100 draft hopefuls. Within the scope of Division II football, Oliver is plenty well-known. He led the division in touchdown catches last year with 21, and Mines went 10-2 on the season. But he's one of only three Division II players who got this chance, along with OT Trey Pipkins of Sioux Falls (S.D.) and DL Markus Jones of Angelo State (Texas), and that gives him more than enough to prove.

"I couldn't believe it when I got the invitation," said Oliver, who majored in metallurgical and materials engineering. "I tell people here where I'm from, and nobody knows where the hell it is. I'm totally blessed to be here."

Oliver doesn't have an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, and Colorado School of Mines doesn't have a pro day. As small-school players often do, he'll seek permission to participate in a bigger school's pro day -- Colorado and Northern Colorado are the two he's eyeing -- but it's this week that will ultimately get him noticed or unnoticed.

For him, this week is everything.

On the other extreme, participating in the East-West Shrine Game is strictly a business decision for some of the top players here. A few hoped to be selected for next week's Reese's Senior Bowl -- Texas A&M DL Daylon Mack, for instance, said proving he belonged at the Senior Bowl was among his goals for the week -- and those players don't face nearly the competitive adjustment Oliver does.

This year's coach of the West squad, Minnesota Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, has been especially impressed by Colorado LB Drew Lewis and Wisconsin S D'Cota Dixon.

"We've got to clean up some of his technique and fundamentals, but he's got tools," Zimmer said of Lewis.

It should come as no surprise that Lewis has flashed the necessary athleticism to attract Zimmer's attention. Lewis was selected to NFL.com's list of college football's most freakish athletes in 2018, and expects his NFL Scouting Combine performance to place him among the draft's most athletic linebackers. While players tend to be loose and comfortable in all-star settings, and more uptight or unnerved by the combine, Lewis is the opposite.

"I do feel like I'll have a little advantage with my testing numbers," he said. "The main thing is to stay healthy for the combine. I'm trying to do a good job of stretching every day."

West players voted Lewis a practice-week captain, which has given him some responsibility for making pre-snap calls for the defense.

Although a higher-profile prospect like Lewis is far more likely to be drafted than an underdog like Oliver, there is a high level of unpredictability. It could be said that scouts are watching for the next Phillip Lindsay, although they didn't exactly find the first one. Lindsay participated in the Shrine Game last year and went undrafted, but was quickly picked up by the Denver Broncos as a free agent and exploded as a rookie. He totaled 1,037 yards and posted a whopping average of 5.4 yards per carry, which ranked second in the NFL. Stories like that give players like Oliver a reason for optimism. Among the 100-plus players who accepted invites to last year's game, 28 were drafted. The vast majority of those were selected on the draft's final day (Rounds 4-7). But the game's director, former Atlanta Falcons general manager Harold Richardson, isn't so concerned about how many players are ultimately selected in the draft.

"Last year was below average for us -- we usually have 40-some guys get drafted," Richardson said. "But what really matters is how many of the players make a team. You like your guys getting drafted, sure, but we want guys in here who will be on active rosters or practice squads."

Richardson begins each football season with a list of more than 300 prospects, and invitations for roster spots begin going out in early November. Along with extensive film review, he also consults NFL clubs about which players they would most like to evaluate.

One indication of interest is the number of scouts who interview players after practices.

Some draw big crowds. Georgia center Lamont Gaillard, for instance, held court with representatives from the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and New York Jets following Tuesday's East squad practice. Many other players are approached after practice by no more than one scout, if any. Gaillard believes his versatility is attracting attention. He practiced at guard on Monday and center on Tuesday, and that can be appealing in a league where teams carry only a few reserve offensive linemen on an active roster.

"I can play all three interior positions," Gaillard said. "I'm really glad I've gotten a chance to show that."

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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