East-West Shrine Bowl: Frank Gore Jr. MVP

Feb 1, 2024; Frisco, TX, USA; West running back Frank Gore Jr. of Southern Miss (3) is tackled by East safety Trey Taylor of Air Force (27) during the first half at the Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2024; Frisco, TX, USA; West running back Frank Gore Jr. of Southern Miss (3) is tackled by East safety Trey Taylor of Air Force (27) during the first half at the Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Southern Mississipi's Frank Gore Jr. and the West ran over the East, 26-11, in the 99th East-West Shrine Bowl Thursday in Frisco, Texas.

Gore Jr. exploded for a 49-yard touchdown run early in the game and finished with 87 yards rushing, and the MVP award.

Frank Gore Sr., a former NFL legend, was on the sidelines all week and during the game to watch and advise as Junior probably improved his ratings for the draft. Junior is not as physically imposing as his dad, who was under 5-10 but ranged up to 220 pounds, and ran with tremendous power in a NFL career that covered 16 seasons with five NFL teams. 

Junior measures only 5-71/8, 199 pounds and is a step faster than his dad, with a 40-yard time of 4.50. Although Gore Sr.'s best 40 time was only 4.58, his strength was his resillience. After two major knee surgeries at the University of Miami (2001-2004), Gore Sr. was considered damaged goods and fell to the third round of the 2005 draft, where the San Francisco 49ers stole him at No. 65 overall.

From there he had an amazing 16-year career that will surely put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Because he played until he was 39-years-old, into 2020, Gore Sr. will not be eligible for the HOF until 2026. His career total of 16,000 yards rushing is behind only Emmit Smith and Walter Payton. 

Going into the East-West workouts, NFLDraftScout.com rated Gore Jr. at No. 280 overall and the No. 19 running back in the 2024 draft. That put him in the seventh-round area, but his performance certainly will push him up the list. Not as high as his father, but once drafted, it will be interesting to see if genetics take over.

As a senior in 2023 he played in 12 games and ran for an elite 1,119 yards on 229 carries (4.9 yards per carry), with 10 TDs and three fumbles. In the passing game, he had 27 receptions for 224 yards. He is already a smart runner who can burst between tackles and is good after the catch. 

Gore's early run was thanks to a couple of South Dakota State offensive linemen, guard Mason McCormick (NDS 175 Overall, No. 10 OG) and tackle Garret Greenfield (NDS No. 184, overall No. 15 OT), both of whom looked good all week in practice. McCormick may have improved his draft standing by showing he can play both guard and center.

More South Dakota State players were notable, especially twin-brother receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke, former high school stars at Madison (SD) High, where they won three consecutive State Championships (2015–2017). They both measure at about 6-2, 205 pounds and were conspicuosly competitive as outside receivers all week. Jaxon is ranked higher (NDS overall 281, No. 40 WR), but it was Jadon (NDS in 400 area overall, No.49 receiver) who took advantage of busted coverages and exploded for a 52-yard catch and run.

The West was also helped by 5-9, 195-pound Memphis running back Blake Watson (NDS No. 336 overall, No. 23 RB), who stood out as a receiver. His six catches for 65 yards included a memorable 25-yard catch and run on a screen. 

Oregon State's Anthony Gould (NDS No. 358, overall No. 48 receiver), a 5-8, 172-pound slot receiver/returner, showed off his speed (est. 40 yards in 4.33 seconds) with an 80-yard punt return that showcased elusive and entertaining moves.

Former NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Chad Reuter was in Frisco all week for NFL.com and reported his impressions all week and after the game:

1) Frank Gore Jr., RB, Southern Miss (5-foot-7 1/8, 199 pounds)

The son of the NFL's third-place all-time leading rusher won the game's Offensive Most Valuable Player award, rushing for 48 of his 87 yards on a score after cutting back left off outside zone. He saw the open field on that play and took the angle from the safety and outside linebacker squeezing inside. He had two more first-down runs for the West team in the second quarter on zone plays (getting coached by his dad on the sideline in between) and also showed toughness, picking up six yards on an inside run without a lot of room. Gore isn't the biggest or fastest back in the draft, but he showed scouts he'll be an effective one in the NFL.

2) Taulia Tagovailoa, QB, Maryland (5-10 2/8, 200)

The brother of Miami Dolphins starter Tua Tagovailoa used his legs to his advantage throughout the Shrine Bowl to help the West squad jump out to a lead. He stepped out of the pocket and took advantage of a busted Cover 2 at the beginning of the second quarter, launching a pass to Jadon Janke for a 52-yard gain. He later ran it in from two yards out after avoiding the rush. He then found Josh Cephus for the ensuing two-point conversion. Tagovailoa had a delay of game on third down in the red zone late in the first half and a couple of errant throws, but he still went 9 of 14 for 142 yards, an excellent performance overall.

3) Blake Watson, RB, Memphis (5-9 3/8, 189)

Watson was a productive runner and receiver during his time at Old Dominion and Memphis and showed those skills again during Thursday's game. He was a checkdown king during a two-minute drill in the first half, shaking off would-be blockers on two receptions to move the chains. Watson also showed speed and patience on a 25-yard throwback screen to start the second half, following his blocker in the open field. He carried the load for the West as a runner, exploding for big gains when the line created opportunities and taking what he could when blocking broke down. He would have had more than his 111 total yards of offense, but he made the right move late by taking a knee to run the clock in the final minutes.

4) Myles Murphy, DT, North Carolina (6-3 7/8, 312)

While cornerback Jarius Monroe was the game's Defensive MVP after securing an interception, Murphy was the West's best defender. He started off strong, blowing up a screen by getting pressure more quickly than expected. He beat his man to force a field goal attempt late in the first quarter, though quarterback Jack Plummer's helmet was askew after Murphy placed a hand on his facemask. He challenged linemen throughout the rest of the game, winning gaps with quickness off the ball and forcing double-teams to prevent him from making plays. Murphy also hustled downfield, including when he caught tight end Mason Pline following a reception late in the third quarter.

5) Anthony Gould, WR, Oregon State (5-8, 172)

Can't-Miss Play: 80-yard TD! Anthony Gould shows off punt return skills on electric end-zone trip. Gould had the longest play of the Shrine Bowl, taking a punt back 80 yards for the East's only touchdown after Ryan Rehkow booted a punt too far for his coverage. Gould fielded the ball and made the gunner miss before heading straight upfield, spinning off contact and turning on the jets for the score. The receiver did not miss much action on offense and improved on the practice field each session, adding to his résumé as likely a solid Day 3 pick.

6) Cam Little, K, Arkansas (6-0 7/8, 173)

 

Kickers were limited to three-step approaches on kickoffs and were not allowed to kick extra points, but Little made an impression by making both his field goal attempts for the West squad. The first was a short 26-yard yarder, but the second required a conversion from 48 yards. That kick snuck inside the left upright. It also crossed the goal post near the top, suggesting the ability to make kicks from 60 yards or more at the next level.

Reuter's observations earlier in the week

1. WR Malik Washington, Virginia

"Washington has been the main attraction during most of this week's practices. His quick moves and acceleration into and out of his breaks were on full display Monday; defenders are forced to attack him at the line (which isn't easy) or simply watch him separate. He won inside position on Pitt cornerback M.J. Devonshire on a goal-line play with a shake off the snap, making an easy touchdown for his quarterback. While measuring just a tad over 5-foot-8, Washington scored after high-pointing a pass with strong hands on Saturday, displaying an all-around game that could induce teams to project him as an immediate starter in the slot."

2. OL Dylan McMahon, North Carolina State

"McMahon has been the best lineman in Frisco this week. He played some guard in earlier practices but starred at center Monday, stuffing big tackles like Auburn's Justin Rogers in one-on-ones, even though he gave up over 40 pounds. McMahon's powerful base allowed him to sit in his stance against Washington's Tuli Letuligasenoa in team work, which is no mean feat. The quickness and strength of his hands into the body of his man after the snap were impressive; once engaged, McMahon sticks on his man throughout plays in team or position drills with balance and footwork. He looked like an eventual NFL starter."

3. LB Darius Muasau, UCLA

"Muasau was all over the field during the West team's practice Monday, just as he was at Hawai'i and UCLA. He's a leader in the middle, calling out plays and moving linemen so he could attack a gap in the run game. His drops into coverage were of good depth, and he quickly smothered running backs over the middle and heading to the flat. Muasau always managed to get a slight bump on his target to show he would take care of business during the game. He drew a flag in a one-on-one rep for being a bit too physical, but NFL teams will live with that aggression."

4. DT Khristian Boyd, Northern Iowa

"Boyd played his college ball at the FCS level but has taken a back seat to no one during this week's practices. On Monday, he consistently out-leveraged former Big Ten offensive linemen in one-on-one and team drills, getting his strong hands into their frame and pushing upwards to get them off their feet. Boyd lacks plus length for the position, but his violent hands and short-area quickness allowed him to win gaps during 11-on-11 drills to blow up run plays. He's worked himself into the late-Day 2 conversation, in a manner reminiscent of former Missouri Valley Football Conference star Khalen Saunders (Western Illinois), who was selected by the Chiefs in the third round in 2019 after a strong pre-draft showing."

5. Edge Trajan Jeffcoat, Arkansas

"Even though Jeffcoat measures 6-4, he plays with a low pad level to control his blocker. On Monday, he beat his man in one-on-one tackles by winning the outside shoulder, and then on the next rep, he bulled the tackle to his backside. During team play, he was tough in the run game but also displayed the change of direction to stop his advancement to the passer and track down a screen play. Whether on the edge or playing five-technique, Jeffcoat showed the strength, length (33 1/2-inch arms) and quickness to excel in multiple defensive schemes."

6. Edge Sundiata Anderson, Grambling State

"The two-time first-team All-SWAC pick has more than stood up to offensive line prospects from FBS schools during Shrine practices. He is fast and smooth off the snap but is strong enough to bull tackles towards the quarterback. If unable to reach the passer, he gets his hands into throwing lanes. Anderson caused an interception Monday morning by beating his man and bumping into Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa, causing a fluttering downfield pass that was intercepted. Anderson may be a designated pass rusher to start his career but has an all-around game that could lead to a larger role in time."

7. K Cam Little, Arkansas

"When an elite kicker takes the field in an all-star game, the sound of his strike on a field-goal try is just different. The thud on contact is noticeable, as is the strong plant foot, smooth speed of his hips through the kick, and the trajectory of the attempt. Little's short tries during special teams reps cleared the top of the goalposts. And while he didn't make every kick this week, his 56-yarder (which would have been good from 60-plus yards) to end Monday's session even brought defenders like cornerback Tulane's Jarius Monroe over the line to congratulate him."

8. RB Jabari Small, Tennessee

"Small only received 95 carries in 2023 at Tennessee, which has strong depth at the position, but scouts saw how his compact build and acceleration can be effective during Monday's practice. In red-zone reps, he took an outside toss, cut inside a nice block from his right tackle and found the end zone with ease. After an inside run where he just put his head down to get what he could, Small came off his center's block, cutting outside to open space for a potential score. His efforts backed up the nose for the end zone he showed in 2022, when he scored 13 times on the ground."

Other observations from the sidelines during practices:

1) Devin Leary, QB, Kentucky (6-foot-1, 215 pounds)

The issues Leary encountered this past season at Kentucky -- getting the ball out late and throwing into coverage -- showed up at times during Shrine practices. But he also impressed with his footwork in drills, the velocity and tight spiral of his ball and his ability to drop throws into the bucket down the sideline or in the corner of the end zone -- like he did Tuesday to Michigan WR Cornelius Johnson. He also perfectly anticipated a throw over one defender and between two others to 5-foot-8 Oregon State WR Anthony Gould for a long gain (the second time this week he made that throw). Leary might not get picked until the middle of Day 3 because of his recent tape, but he offers tools with which an NFL quarterback coach can work.

2) Austin Reed, QB, Western Kentucky (6-0 7/8, 223)

Warming up before Tuesday's practice, the right-handed quarterback was throwing some nice left-handed spirals to Oklahoma receiver Drake Stoops. He won't use that skill often during his NFL career, but it was interesting to observe -- as was his improvement since the weekend. Reed looked comfortable during footwork drills Tuesday, moving between the bags and making throws on the run look much easier than he had in previous sessions. He threw Cover 2 beaters on the sideline, trusted a seam pass into tight quarters to Cornelius Johnson and whipped a sidearm throw to Illinois' Isaiah Williams for a score. It was nice end to a solid series of practices, with Reed showing improvement in all areas to give scouts an idea of what he can become.

3) Jarrian Jones, CB, Florida State (6-0, 192)

Jones was one of the more energetic, communicative players on the field Tuesday, hopping around between reps and talking to teammates and coaches. Throughout Shrine practices over the past four days, he showed his skills in the slot, plastering smaller receivers with physicality and quickness. Jones also displayed that he's an effective zone defender on Tuesday, initially showing man but instead reading the quarterback to deflect a high throw. During drills, he looked natural while high-pointing passes, too. Jones will be a plus for some NFL team, on the field and in the locker room.

4) Casey Washington, WR, Illinois (6-0 3/4, 197)

One of the biggest draft risers in Frisco, Washington proved he belonged among the top prospects during Shrine practices. He has showcased reliable hands, challenged corners with physicality at the top of routes and displayed enough quickness into and out of his breaks that he started working inside. On Tuesday, he looked natural coming back to the ball on stop routes and quickly turning upfield with the ability to work through contact. Washington also did the little things that will help him earn respect from scouts, like supporting teammates on the sideline and working as a gunner on punt-return coverage.

5) Blake Watson, RB, Memphis (5-9 3/8, 189)

Watson stood out with his quickness and hands out of the backfield at Shrine practices. The two-time 1,000-yard college rusher is not afraid of working inside despite his smaller stature, protecting the ball and keeping his feet moving to feel the crease, even during Tuesday's light workout. Watson also displayed the strong hands that caught 90 passes over the past two seasons at Memphis and Old Dominion. He snared throws away from his body on Tuesday, both in the flat and over the middle, smoothly transitioning into YAC mode with a quick turn to pick up first downs. I believe he can have a notable role on an NFL offense as a rookie.

6) Kaitori Leveston, OG, Kansas State (6-3 5/8, 337)

Leveston played minimal snaps at guard for the Wildcats because they needed him at left tackle. His improvement playing left and right guard during this week should catch the eye of offensive line coaches looking for a powerful force inside. By Tuesday, Leveston looked like a natural, moving well for his size and bringing heavy hands to bags and opposing defensive tackles. When fully indoctrinated into the position, he'll be a one-man duo block, moving DTs with his powerful upper body on run plays. And his raw strength will allow him to anchor versus rugged opponents in pass protection.

7) Isaiah Williams, WR, Illinois (5-8 7/8, 184)

Williams, Anthony Gould and USC's Tahj Washington all showed great quickness as inside receivers, running out to play the slot when coaches yelled "11! 11!" -- meaning the formation was one running back, one tight end and three receivers. Williams made some nice plays on Tuesday, including grabbing a nice Cover 2 beater above his head while running down the left sideline. He was effective in the red zone (as referenced in Austin Reed's write-up above) and working the middle of the field, as well, portending an active role on offense early in his career. Williams' experience as a punt returner also showed when he deftly fielded kicks during practice.

8) Dadrion Taylor-Demerson, S, Texas Tech (5-10, 189)

DTD's measurements may not wow scouts, but underestimate him at your peril, just like similarly sized NFL starters Damontae Kazee and Jordan Whitehead. He lined up deep during team play on Tuesday, looking natural while reading and attacking the run and getting to the sideline from the middle of the field without an issue. Earlier in the week, Taylor-Demerson took on Virginia WR Malik Washington and other slot receivers without much of an issue and had a pick-six, plucking the ball from the air and running to the end zone to the delight of his teammates.

9) Mason Fairchild, TE, Kansas (6-3 3/4, 248)

Fairchild was a reliable starting tight end for the Jayhawks for years -- and he looks like a strong H-back prospect for the NFL. He showed himself to be a smooth mover with some notable quickness for a 248-pounder standing up off the line this week, displaying the ability to separate from safeties and linebackers down the seam. Fairchild is a natural hands-catcher, regularly extending away from his frame on Tuesday and tucking the ball away. On Monday, he dove for a pass going out of bounds and also gave his quarterback a big target off a play-action bootleg for an easy score. He's no longer an under-the-radar prospect.

-- Some information gathered from wire sources.

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