When Jerrell Young contemplates his football career, he thinks often of those who came before him.
On Saturday, Young will finish one phase of that career, playing in his last college football game. As a member of the East team in the East-West Shrine Game, he'll take the field at the Tropicana Dome in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, with kickoff scheduled for 4 p.m. ET. Coincidentally, that is the same venue in which he made his very first start for the University of South Florida Bulls, in the 2008 magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl against Memphis.
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and linebacker Jacquian Williams also played in that St. Pete Bowl, and now both are in the NFL, representing Young's Bulls. In fact, as key players on the New York Giants' defense, both Pierre-Paul and Williams are still fighting for this year's Lombardi Trophy, with an NFC Championship Game showdown in San Francisco looming this weekend.
Young would like to follow in the footsteps of his former teammates and help spread the word about the steadily rising program at the University of South Florida. This week, he's trying to advance that cause by putting on a solid display in the East team practices held each day at Shorecrest Prep in – where else – St. Pete.
"I feel good," said Young on Wednesday after a punt-coverage drill that capped a two-hour practice. "I'm going through the week and trying to get my name out, and not just my name but the University of South Florida. It's a good feeling to get that brand out. We've still got people playing right now in the NFC Championship [Game] with Jason Pierre-Paul and Jacquian Williams. It's just trying to get the logo out. I know we haven't been around that long, but this is another stage to help the program's recruiting."
The East-West Shrine Game, the longest-running of the myriad college all-star games, is the perfect opportunity for Young to put his skills on display, and not just because it's now in his own backyard. The game will be important – and he says the ticket demands from friends and family have been daunting – but the more critical part of the week is the daily practices. Lining the track and packing the stands on all sides for every workout of the field are scouts, general managers and personnel pros from all 32 NFL teams.
In addition, former NFL head coaches Brad Childress (West) and Bobby Ross (East) have been recruited to lead the two squads into Saturday's game, and they brought with them NFL-ready systems to challenge the college players.
"You get an opportunity to evaluate over 80 players from across the country, getting NFL coaching in an NFL setting, running NFL offenses and getting to compete against some of the top players in the country," said Dennis Hickey, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' director of player personnel. "It's a great opportunity for us to evaluate these young men."
That opportunity was made easier by the Shrine Game's move from Orlando, where it had been held the past two years, after a four-year stop in Texas and more than eight decades in California. Hickey can easily mobilize his entire scouting department to every practice for both teams, and of course he has done just that. Hickey also thinks the location makes sense (and obviously hope others do too, in years to come) because of its charitable background. Proceeds from the game benefit primarily the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
"Especially having it here in Tampa with the Shriners headquarters being in Tampa, it makes total sense," said Hickey. "Obviously, it's great for us. We have all our scouts here and it's very convenient for us. It's a whole range of talent, but for us it's a chance to evaluate all these guys against top players in an NFL environment, which is what we like to see. A lot of the scouting we do throughout the country, we don't see players in that environment, so this is a really good opportunity for us."
Hickey, of course, won't (and shouldn't) comment specifically on the Buccaneers' internal evaluations on any draft-eligible players. All teams have to keep that sort of information close to the vest in the months that lead up to the draft. Still, one can't help wonder if Young's hometown-based football career could continue into the professional ranks. He played his high school football at Gibbs High School in St. Pete, the same program that produced former Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King.
Again, Young is keenly aware of those who came before him, and he doesn't deny that he would relish the opportunity to follow in the path of King, who was the Buccaneers' second-round pick out in 1999 and a starter by the end of his rookie season. Young, who almost sheepishly admits that he has always rooted for both the Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins, was a big fan of that era's Buccaneer team, specifically mentioning Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice.
"You know I think about it," said Young. "It would mean a lot, being a hometown guy. The last hometown guy from Gibbs was actually Shaun King who played for the Bucs. It would be special, it would be a special feeling and a lot of the community would be behind me, but that's out of my control."
Indeed, there is a long way to go before the Buccaneers and their NFL competitors finalize their respective draft boards and actually get ready to pick in late April. The Senior Bowl, another prominent college all-star game, will kick into gear next week in Mobile, Alabama, and the NFL Scouting Combine falls in late February. After that, university pro days will dominate the schedule and teams will set up private visits for a number of potential draftees. Young won't find out which way his football career will turn next, and whether it will keep him anywhere near home, until the spring.
For Young, this is a process that began at Gibbs and built up steam during his days at USF in Tampa. He hopes it continues in the level, where he can help Pierre-Paul and the others prove that there are a lot of NFL-ready players on the Bulls' roster. For the Buccaneers, the draft is an annual process that really only goes into hibernation for a few weeks in May. The East-West Shrine Game, now conveniently located within driving distance of One Buccaneer Place, is but one important mark on an 11-month calendar.
"It all starts back in May and just kind of builds up, watching the previous years and then kind of narrowing it down throughout the bowl season as the college season wraps up," said Hickey. "Then we go to the postseason with the all-star games and the Combine and workouts and all that. It really is a year-round event."