Regional combines offer the overlooked a chance to get noticed
For most of the players here, it's probably the first and only time they will step inside an NFL facility.
It's 12:15 p.m. in Florham Park, New Jersey, at the New York Jets training center.
At the beckon of Stephen Austin, director of the NFL Regional Combines, the players huddle around at the 50-yard line and take a knee. It's quiet. Even with over a hundred players, Austin's dedicated staff (which includes four veteran NFL scouts), the Jets facility personnel, and NFL support staff, the place feels empty. It's cold inside this dome, not more than 45 or 50 degrees.
The players range in age from 21 to 42. They hail from FBS powerhouses like Michigan and Virginia Tech, obscure Division III schools including Brockport and Fitchburg State, and everywhere in between. They're here because they're eligible for the NFL draft, or they're free agents, or because they have some pro experience but no contract. They're also here because they weren't invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. The cost of admission is $190.
"The Regional Combines are the NFL's insurance policy against missing talented players," Austin tells me before this combine, the fifth in a series of nine from which ex-NFL scouts selected top performers to move on to the Super Regional Combine in Detroit on March 30 and 31 to perform in front of scouts from almost every NFL team.
"The primary difficulty is that there's 750 football programs, and NFL teams just can't cover them all in detail," Austin says. "This is a pretty comprehensive safety net."
But this net doesn't catch many players. Last year, the system produced 21 who got signed, only a handful of them who stuck around or landed on a practice squad.
Ron Hill, NFL Vice President of Football Operations, joins Austin in front of the group of kneeling players.
"You're at a point in your lives where you need to make decisions," Hill says. "Are you going to be playing football, or is this football thing over?"
Outgoing Lehigh University quarterback Chris Lum was a runner-up for the 2011 Walter Payton award, which honors the most outstanding offensive player in Division I Football Championship Subdivision (or FCS, formerly Division I-AA). A native of Lake Orion, Michigan, Lum was eyed by top Division I programs in high school, but the offers never came after he broke his arm early his senior year.
Lum ended up playing Division I-AA ball at Lehigh. In his senior season, he put up gaudy numbers -- 4,378 yards passing (65.9 completion percentage) with 32 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. But Lehigh competes in the Patriot League, which doesn't often produce NFL talent. In 2011, the Jaguars made Lum's teammate Will Rackley, an offensive lineman, just the eighth Patriot League player ever taken in the NFL Draft.
But Lum believes in his abilities and says he doesn't feel slighted being here rather than the NFL Combine.
"I know my situation," Lum says. "Coming from a smaller school, I'm going to make the best of it. The players at the NFL Combine definitely deserve it. They're great players. I'm just going to have to find a different way to get (to the NFL)."
Lum has been commuting from school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Tess Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey, to work on his technique for combine-specific drills like the short shuttle drill. It's the same facility where Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco trained before getting drafted 18th overall out of Division II program Delaware by Baltimore in 2008. Lum has also been working on his quarterback skills four to five days a week with former Giants passer Scott Brunner, who also trained Flacco.
About 300 miles northeast in Newton, Massachusetts, running back Johrone Bunch has been training mostly by himself. Last year, his senior season at Division III school Mount Ida College in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference, Bunch became the conference's all-time leading rusher and finished fourth in all of D-III, tallying 143.8 yards per game for a total of 1,582 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. And he did so after recovering from an ACL tear his junior year.
The odds are taller for Bunch, who's a sturdy 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds. In the 11-year history of the program, no Mount Ida player has worn an NFL uniform.
"After my morning classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, around one o'clock, I do my speed work," Bunch says, mild-mannered and visibly awed by the Jets facility. "My speed workout is usually an hour-and-a-half session. At night, I work out heavy lifting. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I do my speed workout early in the morning and at night I work heavy when I get out of class, probably at 8 or 9."
Bunch was raised by a single mother in Meriden, Connecticut, in the middle of eight other siblings. He's got child of his own now, a 4-year-old daughter who lives with her mother. He sees her almost every weekend he's home from school. He's the only one in his family to attend college.
"I couldn't stay in the house growing up," Bunch says. "I was always at the Boys and Girls Club. Always there. From the time it opened to the time it closed. I hated going home. My mom was always working. We didn't have food on the table for everyone, everyday. Sometimes the younger siblings had to eat before us. If I didn't eat for a couple days, I didn't mind."
Today, Lum and Bunch are numbers in matching navy t-shirts. Lum wears 204. Bunch is 137.
Austin breaks the players down into five position groups. Bunch, a dozen other running backs and 15 wide receivers jog to the goal line in the far end zone, where the vertical jump station is located, to stretch. Some players chat, others take to their individual pre-game rituals. Bunch minds his own business. He gets loose and waits for his turn to spring from the cushiony turf.
He's disappointed -- 31 inches.
"Vert was probably my weakness," he says. "I wasn't comfortable or warm enough to get off the ground the way I know I can. I'm not making any excuse. But I've jumped a lot higher than that."
From mid-field, Austin blows the air horn. The players jog with their pack to the next station, where a different group of scouts await them. "Move it!" one scout shouts.
"We've got four ex-scouts, plus Stephen Austin's folks here," Hill says. "Larry Dixon, Dick Daniels, Cornell Gowdy, John Beake -- the former Broncos GM and former executive at the league office -- they're attending every event and doing the evaluations. They're scouts with 100 years of experience on the field there."
After biding his time on the sideline for nearly an hour while Jets personnel weighed and measured each player -- Lum is 6-1 ½, 206 pounds -- Lum finally gets to dig in to the turf.
He's at the short shuttle drill. The scout gives him the green light.
Lum bends down in a three-point stance and touches the 40, his weight shifting to his left leg. He dashes to the right and cleanly touches the 35, immediately moving his weight back in the other direction. Across the 40 again and to the 45 but with more momentum this time, he pivots, keeping his body toward the scouts, then makes one last break across the 40. Click.
"I ran 4-flat, he says. "Anything 4.1 and below I'd have been satisfied with. I've really been working on my technique, and I think it showed."
Meanwhile, Bunch thinks he made up for his vertical jump with the 40-yard dash. The combine won't release times until later in the week, but he felt sharp.
"I reached the low 4.4s during my training. I came off a bit slower here, but I picked up real fast."
Austin explains that the ability tests are the first component of scouting. "We get the basics: size, speed, steps -- does he have those minimums that are pretty hard lines in the sand that a player has to be above or a team will have no further interest?"
The second component is the "eye test" at position drills: Does he look like a pro?
"We almost all agree who we like and don't like," Austin says. "We have mental pictures that we carry around."
After four hours, Lum finally gets to grip a football.
The quarterbacks take turns throwing receivers and running backs swing outs, then deep outs, then digs, and then deep go routes along the sideline.
"It's challenging because I've never thrown with these receivers," Lum says. "Some are better than others, but the timing isn't always there."
Still, they rely on each other to get it right. There are precious few reps to make an impression.
Twenty-nine-year-old running back R.J. Cobbs, who played one season with the Giants in 2006, lines up wide to run a deep sideline go.
Lum drops back behind the goal line, plants, and lets fly a crisp, tight spiral that drops over the left shoulder of Cobb, who catches in stride near the 40-yard line.
The players burst out in applause.
"Who was that!" Cobbs shouts as he runs back with the ball. "Who was that?"
"204," another player shouts.
There's less camaraderie at the running backs station.
For this exercise, each man takes a handoff, runs over several dummies and makes a sharp cut.
It's Bunch's turn.
"I really don't feel any pressure," he says. "I have nothing to lose and all to gain. I come from a small school and not many people are going to look at me. But if I perform well they'll have no choice."
Bunch cleanly takes the ball from the scout, hurdles the bags, accelerates toward the scout holding the dummy, gets low and breaks left.
He tosses the ball to a scout and jogs back to the line to wait five minutes for another turn.
"There's levels we identify these players at," Austin says. "We have the A-list that goes to the Super Regional. The B-list is players we really like but for one reason or another we can't invite."
Players on the C-list, Austin says, "get closure from the sport with dignity and a very professional full-fledged NFL tryout."
Lum feels good about his performance. "I bring a lot to the table," he tells me. "I'm accurate, for one."
He begins flipping the football he's been holding.
"It's about completions. You've got to get it to the receiver. Size, I know I've been told that's an issue. But I'll get up after taking a hit. I'm a tough guy. Didn't miss a game last year. I'll stay in there and complete the ball. That's what it's all about."
Bunch has dreams of making it in football too.
"I'm feeling good. I felt great running," Bunch says. "Just being here in these nice facilities. I just feel like, a person like me, I came from nothing. I always wanted to make something out of nothing."
Now, the players have to hope that they've done enough to catch the eye of the NFL.
"It's not how you get there," Hill says. "It's what you do when you get there. It's what you do with that opportunity."