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East-West Shrine Game 2015 preview

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Kentucky defensive end Za'Darius Smith has a chance to stand out at the Shrine Game while Josh Shaw of Southern California has a shot at redemption.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It is officially all-star season in college football. Last week was the Medal of Honor Bowl, next week is the Senior Bowl and taking center stage this week is the East-West Shrine Game.

The ever-important Shrine Game practices begin today before a mostly meaningless game airs on NFL Network at 4 p.m. Saturday.

The Shrine Game doesn’t carry the same importance as the Senior Bowl, but last year’s roster featured a few players who made impacts in their rookie seasons. That includes players like offensive tackle Justin Britt, wide receiver John Brown, linebacker Preston Brown, linebacker Devon Kennard and guard John Urschel. Second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo also participated in the Shrine Game.

The roster from last year also featured some players who got called up to the Senior Bowl the following week, including Garoppolo, defensive end Will Clarke, cornerbacks Nevin Lawson and Pierre Desir and a few others.

Here’s a look at some keys to follow for the week:

Best players

Arguably the game’s top player is Kentucky defensive end Za’Darius Smith. He was overshadowed at times by teammate Bud Dupree, but Smith is a good player in his own right. At 6'5 and 265 pounds, he has imposing size and profiles as a left end in the NFL. He doesn’t blow you away with his speed off the edge, but is quick and strong enough at the point of attack.

Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney doesn’t get a lot of accolades because, well, he plays for Kansas. But he’s a dependable, smart player in the middle. He doesn’t miss many assignments and is quick to fill a gap. He could get stronger, but he shows a complete game. Kansas liked to use him in zone coverage and he held up. He was also an asset blitzing the A-gap.

The East team has a good pair of offensive linemen in Sean Hickey of Syracuse and John Miller of Louisville. Miller is a squat left guard who started four years for the Cardinals. He excels at getting underneath defensive linemen and uses leverage to move them around. Hickey is the type of player who an NFL team will covet as someone who can play tackle or guard.

The best player on the West team is arguably Texas running back Malcolm Brown. A former blue-chip recruit, Brown never quite seemed to get his footing with the Longhorns. He can make some good power runs but doesn’t have the speed to break things long.

Possible redemption for Josh Shaw

If not for a weird, fake story of heroism that was actually him fleeing police officers, Southern California defensive back Josh Shaw may be considered the best player in this game. And by a wide margin, too.

Shaw didn’t get onto the field for the Trojans until November while serving a suspension. In three games, Shaw had a quiet 10 tackles and not much else. In 2013, he started at both cornerback and safety and had 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions. He’s a physical defensive back and could really help himself with a good week.

Not a great quarterback group

It’s been said several times the quarterback class for this year’s draft isn’t good. That’s illustrated in the Shrine Game rosters. Will any of the six quarterbacks – Anthony Boone (Duke), Cody Fajardo (Nevada), Taylor Heinicke (Old Dominion), Taylor Kelly (Arizona State), Hutson Mason (Georgia) and Dylan Thompson (South Carolina) – even get drafted?

This week will go a long way in determining that. All six look like backup types in the NFL. Mason may have the most upside of the bunch. He started just a season at Georgia after backing up Aaron Murray and was rocky at times. But he has solid tools and size to develop as a backup.

This could be a good stay for Heinicke to stand out. Old Dominion transitioned to the Football Bowl Subdivision level this season and Heinicke completed 63.2 percent of his passes. Still, he can be errant with his throws. Teams will like his quick throwing motion and ability to manage the pocket. In 2012 he won the Walter Payton Award, given to the best FCS player. He finished his career with this ridiculous stat line: 14,959 yards passing and 132 total touchdowns.

Offensive skill players on the move

The biggest single storyline nationally about this game is Michigan’s Devin Gardner. He’s officially moving from quarterback to wide receiver. Don’t forget, that’s how he started his college career. He had 16 receptions in 2012 for 266 yards and four touchdowns before being moved to quarterback. At 6'4, there is some obvious intrigue to Gardner lining up at receiver. Depending how natural he looks at the position this week, namely getting off the line and running crisp routes, will have a huge say in his draft stock.

Oklahoma’s Blake Bell continues his transition to tight end, where he played this entire season for the Sooners. The former quarterback only caught 16 passes for 214 yards and four scores this season. Still, unless he looks completely incompetent during practices (and he shouldn’t) some team will be willing to take a flyer on a 6'6, 260-pound tight end.

Intriguing wide receivers

On the East team, keep an eye on Georgia Tech wide receiver Darren Waller. He didn’t get many targets in college because Tech runs an option-heavy offense. In the Orange Bowl, though, Waller was a hot target catching five passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. At 6'5 and 240 pounds, he is obviously the most physically imposing wide receiver at the Shrine Game. Look for him to come out of this week with lazy comparisons to Martavis Bryant of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

William & Mary wide receiver Tre’ McBride carries a good amount of fanfare heading into the game from a few notable draft followers. This week will be a good time to make a name for himself for some who don’t know him (like me). At 6'1 and 205 pounds, McBride certainly passes the eye test.

At one point, Washington’s Kasen Williams had the look of a potential first-round pick. Then he broke he leg in October of 2013. With just 20 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns, he obviously had a disappointing senior season. Against Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl, however, he showed glimpses of why he was so highly regarded. He can be a physical pass catcher and has decent hands.

Maryland’s Deon Long will get some attention as a slot receiver. Arizona’s Austin Hill has the size to get looks as an outside receiver.

More names to know

Oregon’s Tony Washington is expected to attend practices and the game following the national title game. Washington is a solid pass rushing outside linebacker and a good tackler.

Maryland defensive tackle Darius Kilgo should make for a good depth piece in the NFL. He can plug the run nicely and plays with a good motor. Teams looking for a nose tackle could be after Kilgo on the third day of the draft. Chucky Hunter of TCU is another defensive tackle teams could target late. He can split gaps nicely and was one of the leaders of an impressive TCU defense.

Want a small-school name to follow? How about Eastern Washington safety Tevin McDonald. A UCLA transfer, McDonald started 23 games for the Bruins before transferring for his final two seasons. This season he had 78 tackles, three interceptions, four tackles for loss and seven pass breakups. He may not be the most physical safety, but he’s good in coverage.