Scenes From a Pro Day
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — It was a classic Belichick move. Enter quietly through a side door with no prior warning, officially speaking. The only NFL head coach at the University of Maryland’s Pro Day wore a light blue Johns Hopkins Blue Jays pullover and did nothing but chat with Terps coach Randy Edsall for two straight hours. The two stood at the 15-yard line—surrounded by players, scouts and media, yet out of everyone’s earshot. It was their own imaginary island. The drills moved and they didn’t. The players whom Bill Belichick was presumably inquiring about stole glances, but wouldn’t dare approach.
“Oh yeah, we noticed that,” said former Terps wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the main draw last Thursday. “I think we all wondered what they could be talking about.”
Edsall doesn’t make friends in football by blabbing about his private conversations with coaches, but he did share some typical questions coming from thorough NFL personnel men during an early-morning sitdown with The MMQB. We were there to visit Byrd Stadium for a behind-the-curtain look at a college football pro day.
“I’m up-front and honest with our players, in that we’re not going to lie for them,” Edsall says. “We want to make sure that people will come back and they can trust what we say.
“It’s amazing just how much information they can gather on a kid. They want to know what a guy’s home life is like, how many parking tickets a guy got on campus. Different scouts and organizations will ask different questions, and some are very, very thorough about what they do, because all these little things add up.”
‘To whom it may concern’
When all the RSVPs were counted Wednesday night, the program was expecting to host its biggest turnout of NFL scouts since Edsall took over four years ago. But by 10:15 Thursday morning, 45 minutes before player measurements, not one had shown up. Finally the first scout arrived, and the media relations staff got wind of the holdup: Twelve miles east, Khari Lee, a fringe tight end prospect, was working out at Bowie State. More than half the flock of 42 NFL personnel men went to see him that morning.
Over coffee and sausage biscuits, the late-arriving scouts took stock of their notes from the morning and traded war stories.
“You ready for this s--- to be over?” asked a bearded young NFC scout.
AFC scout: “Yeah, how many have you been to?”
NFC scout: “22.”
AFC scout: “Ouch.”
Each pro day has its quirks. Some universities bar family and media from the premises—at Michigan and Iowa, reporters waited outside. Others are teeming with press and relatives, an arrangement most NFL teams prefer because it provides an opportunity to interview family. Almost all universities ban agents from attending, leaving a handful waiting in nearby parking lots to take the player and his family to a post-workout lunch.
At Clemson, Dabo Swinney offers up his prospects for a group Q&A with all of the scouts. At Maryland, Edsall opens his doors the night before so scouts can conduct prolonged interviews with players who didn’t attend the combine.
One peculiarity greeted scouts as they walked through the front doors of the Gossett team house attached to Byrd Stadium last Thursday morning: a stack of letters printed on Prince George’s County Public Schools letterhead, written by Terps receiver Deon Long’s former high school coach.
“To whom it may concern,” wrote Craig Jefferies, former Dunbar High coach, now at Oxon Hill High. “I coached three NLF [sic] All-Pro players: Vernon Davis, Josh Cribbs and Vontae Davis… While at Dunbar, Deon was the best athlete and football player I have ever coached.”
The Davises were first-round choices, while Cribbs went undrafted but became an All-Pro return specialist. Long is a projected seventh-rounder. Recommendations can go a long way when coming from a trusted source: In 2009 when offensive tackle Will Beatty was a prospect for Edsall at UConn, Giants coach Tom Coughlin called Edsall to inquire. Edsall, once Coughlin’s quarterback when the two were at Syracuse, considered his answer carefully.
“I told him, ‘Will will be fine, with you, because of the type of organization you have,’ ” Edsall says. “But there are some teams I wouldn’t be able to say that to. If you have structure in place and hold him accountable, he’ll be fine.”
The Giants selected Beatty with the 60th pick in 2009. He has been their starting left tackle each of the last four seasons.
‘Run them into the wind’
Beyond the word of coaches and peers, and that all-important tape evaluation, there are a few more empty boxes to be checked at pro days. After breakfast is over, scouts gather in the main football auditorium. In Maryland’s version of the morning briefing that is standard for most schools, a team rep updated the assembled on the citizenship status of one player and relevant injuries to others.
The program has had plans for an indoor facility in the former basketball stadium, venerable Cole Field House, for several years, but the university didn’t release official plans until August. Until that project is completed, pro days will be subject to outdoor conditions on the turf at Byrd Stadium. This time around a southeasterly wind whipped against the team house beyond the south end zone. “Run them into the wind first and then run them fast second,” one NFC area scout suggested.
After some discussion in the scouts’ briefing, it was decided the 40-yard dash would be run from south to north, then north to south. Before that would happen, coaches, scouts and players filed to the bottom floor of the team house to the weight room, where more than a dozen draft-eligible players wearing nothing but Under Armour tights lined up to have their height and weight measured. The information was then written into scouting forms and compared to that player’s measurements throughout his career in a quest to identify some sort of trend.
After bench press and before on-field workouts, an Eagles scout went the extra mile and asked linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil if he could measure the circumference of his knees, ankles and wrists, a Chip Kelly special. The against-the-grain procedure reminded me of a scene from another pro day: Kelly at Michigan State, where he spent a half hour away from the action chatting with white-bearded department of psychiatry professor Dr. Lionel Rosen, a favorite of Spartans football players who does some work for Kelly. (Neither would share the specifics of their conversation.)
The specifics on pro day matter less for Diggs and Long, both of whom auditioned at the combine, and more for players like Cudjoe-Virgil. A projected undrafted free agent, he was a walk-on for the Terps after transferring from Division-II Seton Hill to pursue a kinesiology major. A Trinidad-born graduate of Towson High just outside of Baltimore, ‘Kujo’ was invited to the combine but unable to participate because of injury.
“There’s going to be somebody who elevates their stock today,” Edsall said. “They know Stefon and Deon, but a guy like Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil or [linebacker] Cole Farrand, they want to see what they’re able to do today.”
Last year it was cornerback Dexter McDougle who did some serious convincing at his pro day. Despite missing the final nine games of his career with a shoulder injury, he went 80th overall to the Jets after an impressive pro day that included a 4.43 40.
It’s the 40 that yields perhaps the strangest pro day scene: Player X runs his forty, and 42 scouts click their stopwatches almost simultaneously, each almost wordlessly consulting with the scout next to him before jotting down a number on a piece of paper. No iPads, no scientific timer; just old-fashioned consensus.
Both Cudjoe-Virgil and Farrand walked away happy; the former said he’d been clocked at 4.59, and Farrand had a 34.5-inch vertical, a 4.2 short shuttle and 10-foot-1-inch broad jump.
“I felt that this was make or break for me,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “I played a few different positions throughout the defense and [had to] take a step back and accept that role. I know I’m more of a late-round, undrafted guy, so this gave me a chance to boost my stock a little bit.”
Following the workout and after players took the 12-minute Wonderlic at the end of the day, Cudjoe-Virgil went to the chalkboard for San Diego and Philadelphia.
‘A calculated guess’
The eyes on Diggs were looking for something different. The junior, Edsall’s first blue-chip recruit at Maryland and hailed as a potential first-round pick when last season began, saw his stock drop in a stacked wide receiver class after compiling only 792 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2014. He had a complete combine with a 4.46-second 40 and a 35-inch vertical, and spent much of the pro day cheering on his teammates. Whether he knew it or not, that’s what the scouts wanted to see.
“I was just so happy to be around my guys,” Diggs said, “because I haven’t seen them in so long. It was great to see those guys do well.”
Keenan McCardell finds himself in unique demand in the months leading up to the draft. A 17-year NFL veteran coming off his first season as Maryland’s wide receivers coach, McCardell is the go-to expert on both Diggs and Long.
“They want to know what kind of teammate a guy is, what kind of character the guy has, what kind of learner he is,” said McCardell. “They might see the janitor walking around and ask, Hey, do you know Stefon Diggs? How does he approach you? How does he speak to you? They dig deep.”
When McCardell was an NFL coach in Washington he saw players moved down or get dropped from the draft board altogether due to behavior at pro days. “A guy can take himself off the board by his demeanor, the way he carries himself,” McCardell says. “Especially if he already had a red flag.”
Diggs’ size (6-0, 195 lbs.) and injury history might present a caution flag for teams, but his personality checks out. Dolphins defensive tackle A.J. Francis, an alumnus on hand for pro day, was among the chorus of voices vouching for Diggs: “He’s the best player I’ve ever played with, college or pro.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has made a practice of taking participants out to dinner the night before a pro day. And he doesn’t interview the young men as much as he observes them and dispenses advice.
“It’s something we feel is very important, what coach does behind the scenes,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “Talking to the player is going to give you the best feel for his personality. We have to make a calculated guess, and you take other people’s opinions, but we feel most strongly about a guy after coach Tomlin and myself interview a player.”
Players always have a way of distinguishing themselves beyond the times, for good and bad. Two years ago Francis chose to run his 40 and other drills shirtless, girth flopping about in the crisp April air. On Thursday, Long struggled with his starts on the north and south 40s, requiring several tries before getting it right. Said one scout when the day was over: “At a certain point, you wonder if a guy like that can handle the pressure.”
‘They just want to see if you’ll lie to their faces’
Of course, teams can learn as much or more about a player’s demeanor from the comfort of their offices. The internet, especially in light of the NFL’s current crisis of player discipline, created the biggest shift in scouting, Edsall says.
“As a coach, I’m going to give Bill Belichick information, but he’s going to make the best decision for his organization,” Edsall says. “Whatever I might say isn’t going to get a kid drafted higher or lower. The thing that’s really changed this process is the internet. There were things you could hide before. Now you can’t.”
And when coaches and scouts start asking questions, you might as well assume they already know the truth. Francis remembers being asked if he’d ever hit a women, smoked weed or driven drunk.
“They just want to see if you’ll lie to their faces,” Francis said.
The players who could answer yes to those questions don’t easily integrate into Belichick’s Patriots or Edsall’s Terps. When Edsall was hired in 2011 more than 24 players transferred and the team dropped from nine wins to two in his first season. Among his highly publicized discipline tweaks: no hats or earrings in the building. John Feinstein of the Washington Post wrote that Edsall arrived “spouting off about rules as if he had invented the idea of discipline.” Edsall has since improved to four wins in 2012, then seven in ’13 and ’14.
“Edsall is a well-structured, by the book guy,” Diggs says. “That's just how he runs his program; it's been the same since Day 1. I know it helped me become a better student and a better man.”
Maryland athletes are getting work in New England, much like Edsall’s UConn products before them. Joe Vellano, a UDFA in 2013, and former Packers UDFA Kevin Dorsey are on the Patriots’ roster. Francis spent time on the Patriots’ practice squad before the Dolphins picked him up.
In telling NFL personnel the whole truth about his players, Edsall hopes to establish the kind of trust necessary to call a team and insist that an undrafted or late-round prospect who does the right things is worth a shot. In other words, the right man’s word can matter more than the workout.
Edsall recalls being a young assistant coach at Syracuse in the 1980s and vouching for a defensive back who hadn’t performed up to his athletic capabilities. Edsall found longtime Bears scout Bobby Riggle and suggested the player would shine at the next level. Riggle offered some advice that stuck with the coach: “You’re young, so let me give you a little bit of information. If he hasn’t gotten it done at this level, he isn’t all of a sudden going to flip a switch. A leopard doesn’t change his spots.”
Editor’s note: Robert Klemko is a 2010 graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism. His youngest brother, Cross, is a junior at Maryland and an intern with the athletic training department.
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