ST. PETERSBURG – Former Florida State linebackers Jacob Pugh and Matthew Thomas have their unique reasons for reuniting in Saturday's East-West Shrine Game.
Thomas is here because he finally began to live up to his five-star talent – once he figured out how to stay on the field.
Pugh is here because his bloodlines, size and talent make him an NFL prospect.
The common thread between the two: Both have something big to prove to scouts during practice at Shorecrest Prep and in the all-star game at Tropicana Field.
"I can play," Pugh said. "But they didn't see that on film."
Those scouts only saw it in spurts when Pugh was in Tallahassee. He had six tackles for a loss in 2016 and established himself as a versatile defender who could play linebacker and defensive end. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Dade City native figured to be a key contributor to a 2017 defense that was expected to be one of the best in the country.
It didn't happen.
Pugh missed two games with a concussion, then was ejected against N.C. State because of targeting. When he returned the next week against Wake Forest, he found himself marginalized in the game plan, in part because he didn't know the playbook well enough. He finished the season with only 21 tackles – his lowest total since his freshman season.
"I feel like I didn't fit into Florida State's defensive scheme …" Pugh said. "I didn't see the field. No hard feelings toward it. I love (the coaches). I just feel like I could have played more, could have did more for the team.
"I can't blame nobody but myself."
One of Pugh's biggest impacts came off the field, when he publicly questioned the Seminoles' lack of leadership as the season slid toward a 7-6 failure. Pugh admitted that he wasn't in position to fill that void.
"I ain't feel like I was in the position to lead the team," Pugh said. "It was like the blind leading the blind."
Pugh has been upfront with scouts who have asked about that issue this week. More importantly, he's trying to produce himself on the field, during linebacker drills and pass rushing, to get a shot in the NFL like his uncles, former Pasco High stars Darren and Troy Hambrick.
Thomas' talent and productivity aren't in question. He led FSU with 77 tackles in 2016 and with 85 last season. The bigger concern surrounding the 6-foot-3, 217-pound weakside linebacker is his off-field image.
"I'm trying to change my image up a little bit, trying to show people I'm not what they say I am," he said. "I'm definitely getting a lot of questions about my past and issues I had."
There is no record of any arrests for Thomas in Tallahassee, but he played only played 36 games over five years due to injury or suspension. He was arrested in his hometown of Miami in May on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly intoxication, but entered into a pre-trial intervention program. Upon his completion of that program, the charge against him was dropped in November.
"I tell them the truth about what really happened and how I've moved forward from it," said Thomas, speaking generally and not addressing that case specifically. "Everybody makes mistakes, and I definitely learned from them. I feel like if they had never happened, I wouldn't be here today, so it was for a purpose. The whole thing is a learning experience."
East-West Shrine Game
3 p.m. Saturday, Tropicana Field
TV/radio: NFL Network; 1040-AM
Tickets: $15 general admission