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2020 East-West Shrine Bowl: Nick Westbrook back on track

The 2020 East-West Shrine Bowl will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network as well as the NFL and NFL Network apps at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 18.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Nick Westbrook had been thinking about this moment for nine months.

The receiver's second season with Indiana had ended on a close 26-24 defeat to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl (now known as the Redbox Bowl), in which Westbrook caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, putting an exclamation point on a terrific campaign. He finished second in the Big Ten in receiving yards (995), third in yards per catch (18.4), first in receptions of 40-plus yards (seven) and seventh in receptions (54).

And he was feeling good about himself. Very good.

"At that point, I'm thinking big picture," Westbrook admitted from inside Tropicana Field, where he was one of the top receivers during the week of East-West Shrine Bowl practices. "After that season and going into my junior year, I'm thinking I could potentially leave early (for the NFL)."

So, after the loss to Utah, he immediately turned his attention to the 2017 season opener. And it was a doozy of a challenge, but the game against Ohio State represented everything he wanted: a chance in the national spotlight that he could steal from future NFL receivers Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin on the opposite sideline.

As disappointing as it was to find out he had been bumped down the depth chart and replaced as a starter, he was still expected to be one of quarterback Richard Lagow's top targets. And now, he was given a new responsibility on kickoff returns, a skill he thought would help him build a stronger NFL resume.

Then came the opening kickoff against the second-ranked Buckeyes.

"I'm super jacked up because it was my first time on kickoffs," Westbrook recalled. "I'm like, 'OK, I have a chance to go make a play, set the tone on the first play.' "

The kickoff went a yard deep into the end zone, and Campbell, one of the country's most dangerous return men, ran it out. Westbrook started running toward the left side of the field, then realized it was a counter return. Suddenly, he planted his left foot into the ground to change direction.

Suddenly, his whole outlook changed directions.

"I heard 'pop,' and it buckled," Westbrook said, referring to his left knee.

He laid on the ground, attended to by team trainers. The ESPN broadcast went to a commercial break without even acknowledging the injury or showing the injured player. Here Westbrook was, having waited for this chance for so long -- 246 days, to be exact -- finally in the spotlight, with NFL scouts at the biggest Week 1 opener that year, on national TV. And he received nary a mention.

His moment, in a flash, was gone.

So was his season, and -- as he thought at the time -- possibly his career. A few days later, it was confirmed: A torn ACL would force him to redshirt the rest of the year and go through rehab.

Looking back on it today, knowing his ego might have been starting to get out of control, Westbrook puts a positive spin on the situation.

"The injury was good for me, it humbled me," he said. "It made me realize how precious the game is, and how all that can change in a second."

After rehabbing the knee for a year, he returned in 2018. He said he didn't stop thinking about the knee and resume being himself again until six weeks into the season -- ironically, against Ohio State. Even though the Hoosiers lost that day to the Buckeyes, Westbrook was back in the spotlight. This time, he balled out, with five receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown.

He finished his career seventh in school history in catches (144), sixth in receiving yards (2,226) and seventh in receiving touchdowns (16).

While he is no longer viewed as a top receiving prospect, there is a place in the league for a player his size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), with dependable, soft hands and solid route-running skills. And with the week of practice he turned in here at the Shrine Bowl, he's earned himself a draftable grade from NFL scouts.

But still, Westbrook admits, there's lots of work that remains between now and the draft. In talking to dozens of NFL team scouts this week, he says they all wanted to know about one thing: his speed.

It's been a question for some time now, and Westbrook doesn't quickly run from it. In fact, in an interview for this story, he brought it up unsolicited more than once.

"There's questions around my speed," he said. "I'm confident in it and ready to showcase that when the time comes."

He said he hasn't run a timed 40 since 2017, before the ACL tear, but "our speed (coach) at IU, after watching film, he thought that after my ACL, I was actually faster. And I do feel like I was faster."

In 2018, the Hoosiers hired Dr. Matt Rhea as an athletic performance coach. Before that, he was the head of sports science at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, which trains all types of athletes, including those preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and pro days.

Over the course of his first two years, the top running speeds for Indiana players increased by 4 mph. Westbrook believes he was a beneficiary of the new training techniques installed by Rhea.

The proof, however, will arrive in the coming months, in pre-draft workouts either at the combine (Westbrook says he has yet to receive an invitation) or Indiana's pro day in a couple of months in Bloomington.

He's aiming for the low 4.5s, a basement range NFL teams will want to see from him.

"I just need to improve my speed, acceleration," a very self-aware Westbrook said. "That first 10 yards is going to be really crucial for me, being a bigger guy. That 10-yard split is what can really make or break it for a guy my size."

Day 4 practice notes

THURSDAY WALK-THROUGH: The final day of practice at this event is traditionally a walk-through prep for Saturday's game. This year was no exception. Players practiced in shorts with no contact. And the scouts and NFL personnel along the sidelines and in the Tropicana Field stands had thinned out dramatically.

JAGS, LIONS, JETS ... OH, MY: Before many left town after Wednesday's practices, the Trop was littered with NFL scouts and coaches, but no teams were represented more than the Jaguars, Lions and Jets. Those three teams all had 14 representatives attend practices. The teams to send the fewest: the Bengals (three), closely followed by the Rams (four) and Steelers (four).

NO ORDINARY JOE: Virginia's Joe Reed had a solid but quiet week of practice at wide receiver, but it will be interesting to see how he does as a return man in Saturday's game. In 2019, he won the Jet Award for college football's top return specialist, and he's the only player in FBS history with 3,000-plus kick return yards to average at least 28 yards per return. He's an interesting, multi-faceted weapon who should see his stock boosted by his return skills. By the way, only one Jet Award recipient has failed to be drafted in the first four rounds since the award started in 2011, and that's because the player was only a sophomore and ineligible for the draft. In a deep receiver class, Reed is projected as a possible late-round pick.

POSSIBLE POSITION SWITCH: Oregon wide receiver Juwan Johnson had some big moments at Penn State before transferring to Oregon this past season, where he sealed the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin with a nice catch and run late in the game. However, injuries and drops hampered his college career. He's the biggest receiver (6-4, 231) in St. Pete's this week, and many here believe he's headed to tight end at the next level. The lack of speed he showed in practices and his history of drops, plus his monster blocking skills, might dictate a switch. Some see him similarly to Ricky Seals-Jones, a big-bodied receiver at Texas A&M who now is an effective matchup tight end for the Browns.

NEW MILITARY RULES: Navy's triple-option quarterback Malcolm Perry, whom we wrote about on Monday and who has worked out here as a slot receiver, says he's likely to defer his two remaining years of commitment to the Navy after the rules regarding deferment for athletes were relaxed recently. At the request of President Donald Trump, U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper signed a memo late last year that now allows service secretaries to nominate an athlete for a professional sports waiver. It was before Perry's record-setting performance in Navy's big victory over Army in the season finale last year that Trump walked into each team's locker room and announced his plans. Perry said it was met with applause. As for Perry's week at practice, his transition looked smooth. He could be a very intriguing late-round pick for a team looking to utilize his multi-faceted skill set.

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