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December 13, 2009

Shrine Bowl: Sizing up the rosters

MORE: Shrine Bowl loaded with big-time talent | All-star games coverage

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The top players from the states of North Carolina and South Carolina have arrived in Spartanburg, S.C. for the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. And while practice doesn't start until Monday and the game is nearly a week away, it's not too early to take a look at who has the advantage on paper.

While it's always important in the trenches, the skill position players often make the biggest difference in all-star games like last year when Stephon Gilmore, Walt Canty and Jerrodd Williams led the South Carolina squad to a come-from-behind 24-16 win. Gilmore's ability as a dual-threat quarterback was especially important as neither team was able to develop a consistent passing game.

This year the quarterback edge could go to North Carolina as NC State commitment Tyler Brosius is the best pure passer on either side. While rumor has it that North Carolina wants to run the ball and could even use a non-traditional offense, Brosius' skills throwing the ball can't be overlooked. He'll be looking to fellow NC State commitment Reggie Wilkins and Duke commitment Joshua Snead in the passing game and it wouldn't be a shock to see five-star athlete Keenan Allen play both ways. In fact, Allen might be especially dangerous in a Wildcat formation if NC decides to go that route. Tight end Ethan Farmer could be utilized in the passing game as well.

The South Carolina defensive backs will be charged with keeping Brosius and his receivers in check and will play a big role in run support. Four-star cornerback John Fulton leads the charge for SC and cornerbacks Xavier McFadden and Sheldon Robinson are also excellent in single coverage. Linebackers Bashaud Breeland, Brandon Golson and Justin Parker will also be counted on in coverage and will need to be able to run laterally in run support.

While North Carolina might hold the edge under center, South Carolina has the better offensive balance on paper. SC can power the ball behind offensive lineman A.J. Cann with two big backs in five-star Marcus Lattimore and four-star Mustafa Greene. The North Carolina defensive line, weakened by the absences of Alfy Hill and Fre'Shad Hunter, will be hard pressed to stop the run. Undersized defensive tackle Tra Thomas will need to be stout in the middle and undersized rush end Kareem Martin is more effective as a pass rusher than he is against the run. That will put a lot of pressure on talented NC linebackers Prince Shembo and Chris Smith who could both see time at defensive end.

The strength of the North Carolina defense is in the secondary so it will be interesting to see how often South Carolina allows quarterback Dylan Thompson, who has a strong arm, to air it out. Thompson has some talented targets to throw to led by Martavis Bryant whose size creates a bit of a mismatch with NC cornerbacks James Scales and others. Four-star cornerback A.J. Marshall doesn't have elite speed but he has good size and terrific instincts so he will be asked to check Bryant often. DeAndre Hopkins also has excellent size and Bruce Ellington is an amazing athlete who signed with South Carolina to play basketball. This is where the ball-hawking skills and range of Allen and fellow safety David Amerson will come into play. Both players are long, fast, athletic and excel at going up and getting the ball. If the SC running game stalls, this will be a very interesting matchup.

While the SC offense is balanced, the defensive line could be the strength of the team and it will be interesting to see if the NC squad can keep them in check. The North Carolina offensive line, led by three-star tackle Takoby Cofield will have its hands full with South Carolina rush end Corey Miller and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, a dynamic inside-outside combination. Not only will the tackles need to keep their quarterbacks clean but they will be charged with making blocks in space and at the second level to boost the NC rushing attack, especially when NC goes to a non-traditional set. They will try to hold their blocks long enough to allow Brosius to look downfield or allow dual-threat quarterback Anthony Carrothers and running backs Kevin Parks Jr. and Snead to turn the corner.

If this game is anything like last year's, it will come down to who has the better offensive playmakers and that edge on paper goes to South Carolina. However, if Allen plays on offense at either wide receiver or in the Wildcat, he could be the difference maker in the end. We'll find out on Saturday at Gibbs Stadium.



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