SAN ANTONIO - The East's secondary didn't see much of Sammy Watkins' gold grill on Thursday. They got a better look at the back of the Clemson commitment's jersey.
Watkins twice torched four-star defensive back Wayne Lyons for touchdowns during a live scrimmage and had no problem slipping past other East cornerbacks deep or tripping them up short. In other words, Watkins ran circles around the competition.
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"I've just got the corners thinking a lot and when they go to thinking, I just run past them," Watkins said. "They're already bailing when I break it off short. OK, I can make a move, turn around and get out of there. When I run a fly I can still run past them. But I'm better with shorter routes anyways."
Believe it or not, Watkins said Thursday was one of his worst practices.
That opinion was shared by no one who watched the half-brother of Florida freshman Jaylen Watkins, who played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl last year.
"I've been unbelievably impressed with Sammy," said East receivers coach Lance Scheib. "He's as good as I've ever seen. He catches the ball incredibly well, but his speed and athleticism are just off the charts. I've never seen a kid on his second step be at full speed. I'll tell you what, Clemson has got itself a great kid there. He is better than advertised."
But don't take Scheib's word for it. He's supposed to talk up his position.
Watkins has won over the players trying to stop him too.
"Watkins, ooh, I wish I could play with him," said defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. "I love Watkins. I would say Sammy has impressed me the most. He's another level of fast."
Linebacker Rodney Coe added, "The people that have impressed me the most have been the wide receivers out there. Just the speed that they got is crazy. Just seeing how fast you can be is amazing. Watkins and Nickolas Brassell, it's crazy."
QBs get their groove
Phillip Ely walked onto the field between halves of Thursday's up-tempo practice with a white towel over his head. Then the Alabama commit dropped to the turf at Gustafson Stadium for a well-earned break. Ely, along with East quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Jacoby Brissett, just completed their best practice of the week at perhaps the most important time.
After a slow start trying to learn a new offense and mesh with receivers quick enough to overrun nearly every pass, the East quarterbacks found a rhythm on Thursday.
"It's kind of been an evolution process for them in the three days that we've gone," said East head coach Robert Weiner, who also coaches Ely at Plant High School. "For those guys when you have the best athletes, they start playing their best when they know something and they don't have to think about it any more. Particularly quarterbacks because all three of these guys are using a language that's not their own."
All three quarterbacks showed touch on the deep ball, each hitting a home run pass during skeleton drills early in practice. When Watkins and Brassell run down the bombs, it's easy to look deep. Tight end Nick O'Leary also caught a long pass, as did running back James Wilder.
"Those are the routes that are open, so you just throw it deep," Brissett said. "All three of the quarterbacks came out with good practices. Teddy did good with his throws. Phillip did good with his throws and I pretty much did decent with mine. We're just coming along now."
Coe takes good advice
Rodney Coe almost bailed on the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Just before Christmas the 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete from Edwardsville, Ill., debated skipping the event because he knew he'd spend the week playing linebacker while his heart was at running back. Coe will carry the ball for Iowa next year and the four-star prospect figured he should do the same here.
That's when grandmother Lois Ramsey started to apply some positive pressure to Coe, who lives with his grandparents. Plane tickets had been bought, the tears started to flow and suddenly Coe was back on board playing defense, at least for this week.
"She knows I hate it when she gets sad so she got me with the sadness," Coe said. "I love my grandma and she's real happy for me. This is for her."
While Coe is set on being a Big Ten running back, practice performances like his on Thursday might make him think twice. Coe had a couple pass breakups in the live scrimmage and has the build of a punishing middle linebacker on the college level. At a minimum, this week has convinced this athlete he has other routes to the field than offense.
"My thing is if I don't do well running in college, hey, I can always know that linebacker is another position for me," Coe said. "The first practice I didn't do too good. Coming out here you've got to get a feel for it, get into a rotation. We've got a lot of good linebackers out here. I feel like I can be a good asset to linebacker back-up wise."
Looking for the position that might push the East over the top on Saturday?
Don't search further than the defensive line, perhaps a spot where the East should have a significant edge. In ends Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams and Ray Drew, the East boasts four athletes ranked in the Rivals100.
That doesn't even get to Jernigan, who missed the past two practices with a dislocated rib. Jernigan said he'll get the rib reset on Thursday and expects to play in the game. He'd be just another elite talent on a depth chart full of skills.
""If you have that kind of agility and speed and talent and the athleticism at the defensive line position, those guys can do some damage," Weiner said. "They've done some damage to us so far."