SAN ANTONIO - It was a competitive edge that helped the East defeat the West in last year's U.S. Army All-American Bowl, 30-17, even though the West appeared to have more talent.
The East coaches want that competitive spirit to exist again this year. They decided on Sunday night and then informed the players on Monday morning that practice performance will determine the starters for Saturday's game.
"It is important to win. We are representing a lot of people, half the country," said East Coach George Quarles. "I understand it is an all-star game and it is supposed to be fun but you want the kids to compete.
"Everybody is going to play in the game, but these guys want to be starters. I could tell some of them were really fired up about that opportunity."
Sharrif Floyd is one of the players determined to earn a starting spot. During one-on-one drills on Monday morning, his intensity far outmatched any other lineman.
"Our defensive line coach let us know that if we have a bad day, we will get less playing time," said Floyd, a five-star defensive tackle prospect from Philadelphia, Pa. "It is good because it will keep us going."
Quarles served as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the East in 2008 and 2009 before being named the head coach for this year's game. In 11 years as the head coach at Maryville High School in Tennessee, Quarles has led the team to a 140-11 record and seven state championships.
Coaching an all-star team presents a unique set to challenges.
"Getting all these players to mesh together in a short amount of time and trying to keep everybody happy - especially on offense because there is only one football -can be difficult," said Quarles. "And you are not going to be able to put in an entire playbook, so you get in what you can."
The East will be running a spread offense because it best suits the team's personnel. Quarles' goal is to have "five or so" running plays and "eight to 10" passing plays to choose from.
"They are already starting to understand the plays, but the timing is not there, which is to be expected because this is the first time most of them have ever been together," he said after Monday's practices. "The effort was really good, though."
Living up to the hype early on
Keenan Allen showed why he is considered the nation's top safety prospect and Kyle Prater lived up to his billing as this year's top wide receiver recruit on Monday.
Allen recorded four interceptions. No other East defender picked off a pass during the day's two practices.
"Keenan made one interception where he was beat and he turned his hips and I didn't think he'd even knock it down but he picked it off and took it back for a touchdown," Quarles said. "He is pretty special. A lot of these guys are, but he definitely stands out for sure."
Prater used his height advantage to haul in a number of passes during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder from Hillside, Ill., made an impressive one-handed grab for a touchdown.
"I have never faced a wide receiver like him," Allen said referring to Prater. "He is just so big, fast and strong. He makes it look real easy."
Prater expressed similar sentiments toward Allen.
"Keenan is just a ball hawk," he said. "He plays hard, plays fast and he knows where to be at the right time. It is like he knows where the quarterback is going to throw it before the quarterback even knows. It feels like he is everywhere."
The average height and weight of the East's 10 offensive linemen is 6-foot-6, 299-pounds. But it was actually the defensive line that got the better of the offensive line on Monday.
"That is pretty normal in situations like this because the defensive big men can kind of pin their ears back and go and it usually takes the offensive line just a little bit longer to mesh," explained Quarles.
Floyd said he doesn't think there is an offensive lineman on the team that can contain him.
Is there one that might be able to slow him down?
"We'll see," Floyd said with a smile. "I'll let you know by the end of the week. The offensive line does have a lot of height and size but height doesn't mean anything because you still have to stay lower than me. Technique is everything."
The East's strengths
After taking in Monday's practices, Rivals.com analyst Barton Simmons pointed out a few units that impressed him.
"There is a lot of speed and some great possession guys at wide receiver," he said. "Kyle Prater was really impressive today. I think Markeith Ambles and Christian Green both were really impressive and then you have a couple tall spindly guys like Ivan McCartney and Martavis Bryant so that is a position that looks really good.
"I'd also say that the defensive line is going to be a strength for the East. They have a lot of big guys who are really physical, particularly on the interior led by Floyd and Jeffrey Whitaker. And then you look at the safeties, you have three five-star recruits at that position alone so that is definitely going to be a group where big plays come from on defense.
"A lot of times in all-star games the success of the team is going to lie on the quarterback's shoulders and I think we have still kind of yet to see how the East's quarterbacks are going to respond. It was a little windy and cold today so they were a little inconsistent. I think if the quarterback play for the East is consistent on Saturday, this team is going to be really impressive."
***A.J. Derby, who hails from Iowa City, Iowa, was originally planning to play safety for the West squad, but he was moved to the East to play quarterback. The change was made because Joe Boisture is out with a back injury. Boisture is set to enroll at Michigan State later this month and is still expected to participate in the Spartans' spring practices.
***Tennessee bound Michael Palardy will kickoff and handle place-kicking duties for the East. Will Hagerup, who plans to sign with Michigan, will serve as the team's punter.