Texas All-Star Game Getting More Attention


Texas Vs. The Nation, Saturday at 4 p.m. CT (CSTV)

For the last several weeks, NFL scouting and personnel staffs have been in high gear, checking out longstanding college all-star games such as the Hula Bowl and Senior Bowl for 2008 draft prospects.

But there's another, much newer, all-star game on everyone's calendar this week, and the Packers have a strong contingent there as well.

It's called the "Texas vs. The Nation Challenge" going on in El Paso, Texas. Using by far the most unique format amongst all-star games to assemble two teams, this one features draft-eligible players who are either from Texas, or played college football at a Texas school, against players from the rest of the country.

The game is in just its second year, but it drew more than 20,000 fans in poor weather last February. Even more attention has descended on El Paso this year, and Packers scout Jon-Eric Sullivan said it's an all-star game where scouts can really see players putting pride on the line.

"In the football world, Texas and Florida are supposedly the two top-notch states in terms of talent, and that carries into this bowl game," Sullivan said. "The kids are prideful, they realize they're being watched and they represent their state, and they have a reputation to uphold.

"I don't think there's any question those kids realize that and want to maintain that reputation, and vice versa -- I think the Nation wants to knock them off. They probably get tired of hearing about Texas and Florida. They'll say kids from Ohio can play too, that type of mentality."

Sullivan is in El Paso this week along with General Manager Ted Thompson and director of college scouting John Dorsey to watch all the practices, conduct interviews with prospects, and see the game, which kicks off at 4 p.m. CT on Saturday (CSTV). Last year the Nation won 24-20. This year, the Texas squad is coached by Gene Stallings, while the Nation squad is headed by Buddy Ryan.

Sullivan's scouting territory is the southwest, so he's very familiar with the Texas squad and gets a chance to know some of the prospects a little better.

Last year, of the 108 total players on the two teams, 79 signed at some point with NFL teams, though only 12 were drafted, all selected between the fourth and seventh rounds. Packers offensive lineman Allen Barbre, whom Green Bay chose in the fourth round last April, played left tackle in the game last year for the Texas squad. (Barbre isn't from Texas, but was put on that roster to balance the depth of the two teams.)

Sullivan said the talent level this year is similar, consisting of mostly mid- to late-round draft choices and potential "street" free agents among the 129 total players.

But because only a handful of them have been invited to the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis at the end of February, this is the last chance to see these players perform up close other than a pro day at their school.

"I think it's invaluable to be able to have four or five days down here to interact with the players off the field, interview players, find out about their background," Sullivan said. "You find out the little things. How well-spoken are they? Do they look you in the eye? How confident are they?

"You ask them some football questions and see how they bounce things back to you in terms of schemes. Are they sharp, or do you feel like they're going to struggle as far as learning? You get to know the kids a little bit both as a football player and as a person."

Sullivan has been to every college all-star game except the East-West Shrine Game, and despite the fact that the Texas event is in just its second year, he said it's run as well as, if not better than, the others he's attended from a scouting and evaluation standpoint.

Like with prospects themselves, it's the "little things" that can make the difference. Scouts are given access to videotape within minutes after practices end, and those coordinating the game make sure the jersey numbers players are wearing on the practice field match those on the rosters handed out to the observers.

{sportsad300}"It sounds like a minute detail, but it's huge," Sullivan said. "You go to a lot of these bowl games, and you'll have a roster in front of you that will tell you a guy is wearing No. 72 and he's wearing No. 63, and you don't know who you're looking at.

"They also stagger the practices so all the players can be evaluated. I've been to some all-star games in the past where they practiced both teams at the same time on opposite sides of the field. From an evaluator's standpoint, the evaluation is diluted because you can only watch so much at one time. But they don't do that here. They do a really good job."

Generally speaking, scouts like Sullivan get the most out of the practice week, getting to see players perform several days in a row and put together a thorough evaluation.

But the game has its value as well, particularly with the pride on the line and the stakes for these players trying to get noticed by any one of the 32 NFL teams.

"There are guys, as we all well know who look good in practice, and when it comes time to do it, they tighten up a little bit," Sullivan said. "And vice versa. Guys that aren't great practice players, when the lights come on, they show up. You can see that.

"You also see in practice how they interact with their teammates, how tough they are. If they get nicked are they going to push through it or sit out? It's about getting to know the players as best you can in a four- or five-day period."

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