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Shrine Bowl Update: Wide Receivers Steal The Show

Justin shares his takeaways on the performances so far of skill position players at this year’s Shrine Bowl.

SALT LAKE CITY UT- OCTOBER 15: Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans is forced out of bounds during the first half of their game against the Utah Utes October 15, 2022 Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/ Getty Images)

The 2024 East-West Shrine Bowl was off and running this past weekend, held for the first time in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, with practices being conducted at the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility the Ford Center at the Star. The Cowboys’ facility is a 12,000-seat, state-of-the-art indoor facility, perfect for conducting an event like the Shrine Bowl. Some of the top college talent, NFL scouts and coaches, and media have gathered to partake in player measurements, practices, interviews, and more leading up to the East-West Shrine game itself, which will be played on February 1st.

I had the opportunity to take in practices and media availability and get to know this group of players aspiring to get drafted or signed by NFL teams or play professionally in some capacity. When you hear about an event like the Shrine Bowl, you are not always sure what level of talent will be at the game. Some players performed well in the Hula Bowl that was held previously in Orlando, Florida and then got the call-up to participate, while some got the opportunity when others did not attend due to injury. With that being said, I was extremely impressed with the level of talent and competition on both sides of the ball. Here are some of my takeaways focusing on the skill players that I got to observe in the live practice setting for the first two days of the Shrine Bowl.

Shrine Bowl Wide Receiver Profiles

I am going to start with the wide receiver position, by far the most talented group from top to bottom at the Shrine. Both big and small school guys have been showing out. This is shaping up to be a very good and deep class of WRs in the draft this year. Even the guys that get drafted on Day 3 can play.

WR Isaiah Williams, Illinois

Measuring in at 6’1” and 197 lbs, the versatile, compact Fighting Illini playmaker has made a big impression. A former QB turned WR, Williams showed strong hands at the catch point. He is definitely a hands catcher, and you can hear that sound you want to hear when he catches the ball. He showed excellent quickness, savvy route running, and burst after the catch, and has the ability to play both outside and in the slot. In his final 2023 season at Illinois, he finished with a line of 82/1055/5. You can see he gets up to speed quickly with good acceleration. He was used on end arounds and jet sweeps at Illinois, as well as quite a bit in the red zone. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands, took kick returner reps, and was the leader both on the field and in the media room for the East team. I watched a film on Williams before coming to the Shrine, and he immediately reminded me of Packers WR Jayden Reed. After seeing Williams in person, I definitely can see a lot of the same versatility and playing style.

WR Tahj Washington, USC

Measuring in at 5’ 10” and 177 lbs, Washington has been one of the most exciting players to watch thus far at the Shrine. I knew he was a deep threat from watching tape of Caleb Williams throwing him the ball, but getting to see him work up close gave me a new appreciation for his skillset. Explosive out of breaks, shifty, and twitchy, he’s like hitting the “X” button on Madden in the open field. He made good adjustments on the ball while in the air, and is a definite deep threat. We’ll see what 40 time he runs at the combine and his pro day, but one thing is for sure: This kid will be making plays at the next level. I was impressed with his route tree, as he ran plenty of deep routes but also made big plays on crossers and again showed his YAC ability and elusiveness, which can almost be described as elasticity with the way he wiggles and bends in the open field. He also impressed me with his hustle in and out of drills and his demeanor on and off the field.

WR David White Jr., Western Carolina

Measuring in at 6’2″ and 195 lbs and coming from a small school like Western Carolina, most people in the football community are not familiar with David White. Some may have even had difficulty finding any tape on him. Well, you should be familiar with him now, as he has been turning heads. He beat every DB put in front of him at both the Hula Bowl, earning the opportunity to come and do it again at the Shrine Bowl. Tall and smooth in and out of breaks, his fluidity is what stands out for someone his size. He also has been showing off a tremendous release package getting off the line, earning great separation for a WR of his size. He won quite a few of the contested slant one-on-one drills, showing off his athleticism to win at the catch point. He’s a bit of a project for an NFL team, and he did have a couple of drops, but that is something that can be corrected. He’s got all the tools to be successful at the next level. Also, in talking to some scouts, they feel he is one of the top WRs at the Shrine already after just a couple of days of practice.

WR, Malik Washington, Virginia

I can’t go without talking about Malik Washington. He led FBS with 110 receptions in 2023, racking up 1,426 yards and nine TDs. While some at the Shrine said he didn’t stand out as much as they thought he would, I will say this: I have seen him earn more targets and make more catches than any WR thus far. While he may not be the flashiest or have the upside of some of the other more athletically and physically gifted receivers, he does what he does extremely well. At 5’8” and 192 lbs, with strong hands and a compact frame, he plays out of the slot. Most of his catches came on short and intermediate routes. Built like an RB, he showed his elusive ability on slants, and also made one particularly nice adjustment on a deep route, coming down with the ball in traffic. In my notes, next to Washington’s name, it says, “Target hog, always open.”

Other WRs who have performed well also deserve mention:

Joshua Cephus, UTSA; Jalen Coker, Holy Cross; Cornelius Johnson, Michigan; Drake Stoops, Oklahoma

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Shrine Bowl Running Back Profiles

Next, looking at the running backs, this group does not have anyone ranked in the draft consensus top 10 at the position, but the more I watched them, the more I really iked what I saw.

RB Frank Gore Jr., Southern Mississippi

Yes, this should make some of you start to feel old, as this is the son of former 49ers RB Frank Gore. It was really cool to see Frank Sr. on the sidelines filming and rooting on his son. I went in with mixed expectations about Gore Jr., as he looked a bit small on tape, and his size of 5’7” and 200 lbs makes you wonder if he can hold up at a position like RB in the NFL, where you go through 20-25 car crashes per game. Well, what I saw was what you can describe as a “mini-tank” out there on the football field. Gore Jr. has a strong lower half and showed the ability to make tough inside runs while showing good speed getting to the outside on tosses. He clearly inherited good hands from pops, showing soft hands and catching every ball thrown his way. He made a great shoestring catch and continually showed the ability to run after the catch. As the practices went on, it seemed like they were relying on him more and more, and I liked that he showed quick improvement in both individual drills with his RB coach and in 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s. I think Gore Jr. has definitely improved his draft stock with his performance at the Shrine.

RB Deshaun Fenwick, Oregon St.

I have to admit Fenwick was not on my radar going into the Shrine Bowl, not even in my top 40 RBs that I have ranked to this point in the draft process, but after watching him, he is now. Measuring in at 6’1” and 225 lbs, he is a big back who runs with power and has shown the ability to explode through a crowded A-Gap. One NFL team scout I spoke to said Fenwick showed juice with the ball in his hands. A bit of an upright, tall, and lanky runner due to his height, stylistically he reminded me a bit of Jaguars RB Travis Etienne. I am super curious to see what 40 time he runs because he looks fast for someone of that size. When you have a player with an impressive size/speed combo at the RB position, that starts to get people excited. Also, when I stood next to him during his individual drills, it was clear he was a big, strong kid who was ready to get after it. I liked his improvement as practices went along, and his attitude, as he was continually encouraging his teammates after each rep. Definitely someone to keep an eye on as the process goes along.

RB Jaden Shirden, Monmouth

What makes these All-Star events so great is the small school guys get to come and showcase their stuff on a big stage, where previously they haven’t had the forum to do so. Measuring in at 5’7” and 189 lbs., Shirden ran for 3,200 yards and 23 TDs and had a carry of 20+ yards in 16 of 22 games played the last two seasons at Monmouth. He got up to speed quickly and exploded through the hole. He also showed great vision and ability to cut back and used the jump cut to take it outside for an explosive play. He showed burst to get to the corner on toss plays. Small but compact, he also held his own on pass protection. He showed improvement and was turning the heads of those in attendance. Shirden profiles to be a satellite back plus at the next level, but he is definitely putting himself on the NFL radar. I saw some NFL mock drafts that had him going in Round 6, but he may be playing himself into Round 4 discussion.

Honorable Mention: RB Blake Watson, Memphis

Shrine Bowl Tight End Profiles

The tight ends are putting in good work both as blockers and receivers; here are the guys who have stood out.

TE Dallin Holker, Colorado State

I had high expectations for Holker; he ranks as the NFL Draft consensus TE10, with a fourth-round grade. My expectations were even higher after watching him torch Deion Sanders’ Colorado squad this past season. He didn’t start fast at the Shrine, but he started to pick things up by the second practice, and you saw some of that talent that made him a candidate for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top TE. At 6’3” and 241 lbs, he’s not big compared to others at the position, but he fits the NFL mold of a move TE that is becoming prominent. He showed good hands and ran good routes, coming back to the ball as a safety blanket and aiding his QB under duress multiple times. He also made a really nice grab everyone was talking about after Day 2. He held his own for the most part in blocking drills when I watched individual TE drills and during full team sessions.

TE Isaac Rex BYU

Rex has probably been the most targeted TE at the Shrine thus far. At 6’5” and 250 lbs, he moves well for someone his size. He has good feet and showed good YAC ability. He continually made himself available on the sidelines for his QBs, getting upfield quickly and fighting for extra yardage. He wasn’t a guy on my radar, but he definitely is improving his draft stock in Frisco.

Shrine Bowl Quarterback Profiles

Finally, the quarterback play at the Shrine hasn’t been at the highest level. It’s mostly been a mixed bag. Some guys are not on the same page as their WRs and trying to thread the needle a bit too much, while some are not taking any chances at all and mostly checking down. So far, even the most recognizable names, including Devin Leary (Kentucky), Kedon Slovis (BYU), and Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland), haven’t looked great. They’ve had a few decent moments, but nothing noteworthy. If I had to mention a couple of names, Austin Reed (Western Kentucky) has had some good moments, and Jack Plummer (Louisville), who is no relation to former NFL QB Jake Plummer, has some tools at 6’4” and 216 lbs and seemed really coachable.

Next stop is Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl!