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January 20, 2006

Shrine participants look to impress



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SAN ANTONIO - Texas tight end David Thomas won a national championship, caught 10 passes in the Rose Bowl and holds several Longhorns career records.

Yet his play at Saturday's East-West Shrine Game and workouts over the next three months could do just as much to determine where he stands in the NFL draft.

"It's a learning experience with all the scouts here," Thomas said after about 300 representatives of NFL teams watched a practice. "It's like a job interview."

For Thomas and the other college all-stars playing in the 81st Shrine Game, the week is a chance to chase their NFL dreams and prove they are draft worthy.

Thomas would seem to have already made his case. A three-year starter at Texas, he caught 98 passes for 1,367 yards and 15 touchdowns, all of them Texas career records.

But just about every player at the Shrine game has impressive numbers. The game and practices offer a chance to stand out among peers, said Gil Brandt, longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel director and current NFL.com draft analyst.

It also gives scouts a closer look at players with a view they can't get from film or the pressbox. The Atlanta Falcons had 18 scouts at Wednesday's practice.

"You see who's going to work and who isn't. You see who's jumping to the head of the line in drills," Brandt said. "You watch up close, then go back to the (hotel) and talk to them."

For Thomas, that meant some personal questions about his family upbringing and injury history. He's the son of a school superintendent and never missed a Texas game because of an injury.

"If they're going to invest all that money in you, they want to get to know you," Thomas said.

The practices and games also gets players out of their comfort zone. Thomas spent the last three seasons catching passes from Vince Young.

The quarterbacks on the West team are Texas A&M's Reggie McNeil, UCLA's Drew Olson and Fresno State's Paul Pinegar. The East team quarterbacks are Brett Basanez of Northwestern, Toledo's Bruce Gradkowski and Alabama State's Tarvaris Jackson.

"It's been a little different, especially catching them from Reggie since he's an Aggie," Thomas said.

Thomas expects to be drafted between the third and fifth rounds. Brandt predicts it will be as early as the second round.

"It's like a golf tournament where a bunch of guys are 10 handicappers and a few guys are zero handicappers," Brandt said. "Thomas is a zero handicapper."

McNeil may have done more this week than any other player on the squad to improve his draft status. His passing, decision making and mobility impressed scouts.

Considered by some analysts to be a better quarterback than Texas' Young before the 2005 season, McNeil struggled with inconsistent play and an injury that kept him out of the final game of the season.

"He just looks good," Brandt said. "He looked accurate, threw the ball well, moved well. I think he was the biggest surprise there coming off this year, which was not the best."

The game is heavy on talent at wide receiver.

Oregon State's Mike Hass led the nation with 90 catches for 1,532 yards and is the first Pac-10 player to have three years with more than 1,000 yards receiving. Western Michigan's Greg Jennings was No. 2 in the country last season with 1,259 yards. Texas Tech's Taurean Henderson set an NCAA record with 303 career receptions as a running back.

The players aren't the only ones being evaluated this week. The city of San Antonio has a one-year deal to host the Shrine game, which was moved after 80 years in California.

A lag in ticket sales and interest in the game from San Francisco officials, as well as a desire to have the game more centrally located, prompted the move to the Alamodome, said Executive Director Jack Hart.

Ticket sales hovered around 25,000 the last four years in San Francisco. Shrine officials hope to sell at least that many for Saturday's game.

For more college football coverage, check out the college football home page.


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