Call my college football obsession unhealthy, but I really do enjoy watching postseason All-Star games. I know, I know: Me and the other 14 or so people who even bother to tune in, right? Maybe, but there’s just something about seeing perennially underrated college stars go out onto a field with a chip on their shoulder with the intent to prove some ESPN twig wrong that really gets me excited.
While the Senior Bowl has become the main attraction for NFL scouts and hordes of inquiring media types, other all-star games, like the Texas vs. The Nation Game or the East-West Shrine Bowl, still feature quality players from around the country and around all different levels of college football.
What makes these games unique is that they are, in a very real sense, often actual All-Star games, with projected late-round/free agent types of players going out to lay it all on the line in what may be the final football game of their lives.
Critical acclaim (not to mention potential pro draft status) or not, here are five players I’m keeping my eye out for in this Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game.
RB Gartrell Johnson, Colorado State
Johnson is one of those highly productive runners who has unfortunately had to deal with being mislabeled by the so-called “experts” who project him as a next level fullback. At 6'0", 225 lbs., he definitely has a power runner's body, but questions over his second-level speed have plagued him like a bad rash.
Never mind the reality that NFL 40-yard dash times are inflated to begin with, but if you saw this guy against Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl (27 carries, 285 yards, two TDs) you know he has the size, speed, and balance to carry the load on the next level. I think he’s a steal in the draft and should benefit from the exposure in Houston.
TE/H-Back Mark Hafner, Houston
Are we looking at the next Dallas Clark? Maybe, as the 6'3" Hafner looks and plays more the part of the all-purpose H-back than your traditional tight end prospect. He was a beast in Houston’s spread offense this past season, snagging 86 balls for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. Yet he was one of the most overlooked players in all of Conference USA.
Your classic “mid-major” sleeper, Hafner is the kind of guy who could thrive in the right NFL offense if just given the chance.
LB Robert Francois, Boston College
Francois was a guy on a very productive defense at Boston College that typically got slapped with the label of “well-coached.” Well-coached they were, but don’t overlook Francois’ natural talent just because he wasn’t playing at an SEC school.
While he’s something of a tweener and could project as either a rush end or OLB at the next level, he’s one of those underrated defenders who looks equally comfortable dropping into coverage or attacking the line of scrimmage to stuff a run play. I like his versatility on defense, and although he did not get the same amount of credit as Mark Herzlich on BC’s defense this year, I could see him being a solid player at the next level.
LB Michael Tauiliili, Duke
Tauiliili is your classic case of a productive player who has had the unfortunate case of being stuck on a really bad team for most of his career. While he’s had some disciplinary problems in the past, I’ve still always been impressed with his ability to read and react with respect to what goes on inside the tackles. He’s been a one-man wrecking crew against Navy in the past, and I’ll be glad to see him move on to the next level.
His size (5'10"-ish) is a concern, but he’s a compact and explosive defender who causes problems for offensive linemen trying to block him at the second level.
FB Colin Mooney, Army
You really can’t help but like Mooney. I’ll avoid the stereotypical label of “old school” or “throwback” because they’re often widely overused, but Mooney runs with all the grace of a rhinoceros. And you know what, I can appreciate that in a “he’s not just a blocking back type” kind of way.
Case in point, Mooney will surprise people with his speed. He’s not entirely fluid or quick out of the gate, but like Gartrell Johnson, he has intriguing speed when it comes to getting to the second level. I don’t think a pro career is something that can come to fruition with this guy, but I wish him a great sendoff to a record-breaking season.
For more on the East-West Shrine Game, visit the official website.