A Study of Character
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Just after 10 a.m. Wednesday, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio stood at the front of a team meeting room filled with NFL scouts and coaches to fulfill a cookie-cutter ritual that occurs at most college football pro days. He read the list of combine participants, said a nice word or two about each and asked if there were any questions. There were none.
Then Dantonio broke with tradition, according to two people who were in the room, which was closed to the media.
“No questions?” asked the 60-year-old coach. “Well, then I have something to say.”
Dantonio told the scouts that there had been a lot of conversation about quarterback Connor Cook’s leadership. Cook won 35 games in three seasons as starting quarterback at Michigan State but curiously was never voted a team captain by his peers. By the time the NFL combine commenced last month in Indianapolis, Cook was branded a “character” guy—a red flag to scouts and GMs. (Cook wrote about his combine experience and the question of the captaincy for The MMQB on Tuesday.)
Dantonio went on to explain that his redshirt senior quarterback, who entered the 2015 season with legitimate No. 1 overall draft hopes, was actually voted one of the rotating nine captains who subbed for the main three. But that was beside the point, Dantonio said, because he never believed the captain snub would become an issue. Cook, the coach said, was the consummate leader on the field. And the coach told the room that in regards to preparation and responding to adversity, Cook was better than anyone he’d else coached at Michigan State.
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More on Cook in a minute, but first let’s attack this notion of “character concerns,” that catch-all scouting phrase that seems to dog a handful of top prospects every draft and often well into their pro careers.
From Cam Newton to Maurice Clarett, not all perceived character concerns are created equal. For instance, NCAA pay-for-play violations can carry college penalties similar to those for drug use, but the two transgressions are hardly alike in the eyes of NFL scouts. And, fair or unfair, a quarterback who isn’t a captain can be just as unattractive to some teams as a defensive lineman who gets drunk and falls through a window—if not more unattractive—simply based on the relative positions they play on the field.
Right now, Cook, Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche and a host of others are having their lives picked apart by strangers who will decide their NFL future. The evaluators talk to friends, family and coaches, but mostly they want to hear from the player himself. They want to watch him squirm as he’s asked for the 50th time: What were you thinking?
The issue is further muddled when media members ask those evaluators to assess prospects publicly under the condition of anonymity. Draft scribe Nolan Narwocki stepped into it when, before the 2011 draft, he gave voice to an unnamed general manager who described Newton, the eventual No. 1 overall pick, as a “narcissistic con artist.”
None of the personnel men who offered their thoughts on this year’s “character risks” went to such extremes, and The MMQB is comfortable that no one is taking an opportunity to deride a player so he might slide to their team in the draft. Here are some comments on prominent 2016 prospects who are under scrutiny:
Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Arguably the top defensive prospect in the draft, Bosa was suspended for the 2015 season opener along with several other teammates for unspecified reasons (ESPN’s Joe Schad reported the suspensions were for “marijuana and academics”). Then Bosa was briefly detained by Columbus police in an August encounter, according to ElevenWarriors.com. By year’s end, Bosa was living chaste and alone in an apartment awaiting his ascent to the NFL, per Joan Niesen of Campus Rush.
One scout chalked up Bosa’s lifestyle to the overwhelming celebrity that comes with playing football in Columbus: “If you spend time with him there, it’s like being around a pro player. Ohio State is bigger than the Bengals and the Browns in Ohio, and that’s a lot of temptation in college.”
Other evaluators who spoke with The MMQB saw Bosa’s behavior as a trend that seems to follow Urban Meyer teams, from Gainesville to Columbus. “There seems to be some concern with a number of the guys in the Ohio State program,” one scout said. “There are some issues but nothing anybody can get absolutely confirmed.”
Evaluators old enough to remember the pro career of Joey’s father, John Bosa, see a family resemblance. John was drafted 16th overall in 1987 by the Dolphins, but played just three seasons at defensive tackle in the NFL. Said one scout: “John had a little bit of a wild-man mentality back in the ’80s.”
Eastern Kentucky OLB Noah Spence
The former Buckeye was dismissed from the football team and banned from the Big 10 after failed drug tests in 2013 and 2014, the latter for ecstasy. At one point, according to Fox Sports, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told him, “You either change your life or lose your life.” After transferring to Eastern Kentucky, Spence was arrested again in May for alcohol intoxication and disorderly conduct in downtown Richmond, Ky. (Those charges were expunged after Spence did community service.)
Several mock drafts have pegged Spence as a late first-rounder, thanks in part to his 11.5 sacks in one season for the Colonels. But two evaluators who spoke with The MMQB questioned that prognosis: “I don’t hear that he’s first-round guy at all,” said one evaluator. “I hear second or third round. There are a handful of teams that won’t touch him at all.”
Another evaluator saw the incident at Eastern Kentucky as a sort of final straw: “There’s a pattern there that’s troubling. Multiple issues. For you to get dismissed at Ohio State with that talent, that’s troubling. Then you slip up at Eastern Kentucky for drinking and throwing the bottle into the street. I don’t think that maturity adjustments have been made.”
But that may not dissuade everyone. “Where do you take him?” a scout asked. “When GMs and head coaches are desperate for their jobs, they roll the dice with a guy like that. You watch Spence rush the passer and you say, Well, he’s not that bad a guy.”
Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche
In December, the former No. 1 overall prospect fell from a fourth-floor window of an Atlanta hotel and was subsequently charged with marijuana possession. During a combine media session, Nkemdiche admitted to being drunk during the incident but denied marijuana use. Then, oddly enough, Nkemdiche said teammate and potential No. 1 overall pick Laremy Tunsil was in the hotel room with him that night.
Nkemdiche, a potential first-rounder, seems to concern scouts more than Bosa, but less than Spence, due in part to his apparent honesty during the interview process.
“When you sit and talk to the kid, you say, ‘Okay, he does want to be really great,’ ” said one evaluator. “I believe him when he’s talking. I’m sure he’s been coached up—they’ve all been coached up—but I never felt like this kid was bulls---ing us.
The major concern shared by four coaching and scouting sources who have studied Nkemdiche is Robert’s older brother, Denzel, a former reserve linebacker at Ole Miss. Denzel was hospitalized twice in 2015 after being found unresponsive. Ole Miss called it a “personal matter.” Nkemdiche has assured multiple NFL teams during interviews that his brother will not be joining him at his NFL destination.
“People are worried about the brother,” said one evaluator. “That’s the biggest fear. How do you say no to family? People so easily say it should be easy decision because there’s a lot of money at stake. Well, you don’t throw away 20 years of brotherhood.”
Said another scout: “The bottom line with him is people around him enabling him, not a lot of real trouble. The public opinion on him is a little harder than it should be. There’s some smoke here but no big fire.”
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Back to Cook, and his Pro Day throwing session hosted by George Whitfield. The mentor of high-profile quarterbacks from Cam Newton to Johnny Manziel, Whitfield has taken on three clients in this draft class: Cook, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones and Northwestern State’s Austin Rivers. Whitfield began working with Cook back in July 2013, after Dantonio initially denied Cook’s request to seek outside coaching that summer. Dantonio relented at the request of Cook and his father, Chris, a former football player at Indiana.
At this point in the pre-draft cycle, the trio of Whitfield, Cook and his father are tired of answering the captain question. But there’s more than that; Cook came under fire for the appearance that he snubbed Archie Griffin when the college football legend presented him the MVP trophy for the Big 10 title game in December. Cook said his actions were misinterpreted, but the damage was done. Another drop in the bucket.
“He has comeback wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl and an appearance in the college football playoff. He beats Ohio State,” Whitfield says. “But now he’s getting dogged for the non-captaincy and some personality stuff, which is the same thing as knocking Beyonce because she doesn’t snowboard very well.”
If the implication being made is that Cook is the Beyonce of throwing footballs, he underperformed Wednesday. Without pads, against air, Cook put several balls out of the reach of his receivers and had several imperfect throws dropped. But that’s not entirely what scouts came to see. They came to meet individually with Cook’s coaches, and to watch Cook in his element, surrounded by family and teammates.
“Is the guy a leader in the building? That’s what you want to see,” said one evaluator. “So he passed the test as a QB, but it’s more than that for that position. I think there’s some maturity issues there.
“But his track record at Michigan State is pretty sweet, so this league could be wrong on him.”
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Five things you need to know about the draft
1. I’ve abandoned the idea that Cleveland will pass on a quarterback with the No. 2 overall choice and wait until later in the round or early in the second to take a passer. For one, I don’t think there’s enough faith around the league in the likes of Christian Hackenberg or Connor Cook: There’s a growing consensus that both are developmental projects who would be considerably stunted by being thrust into the spotlight of a losing program like Cleveland too early. Secondly, and most importantly, new VP of football operations Sashi Brown’s No. 2 in Cleveland, Andrew Berry, is the ranking football mind in the building, and the bulk of his experience in the NFL has been in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning. Berry is a man who understands the value of prioritizing the quarterback position.
2. Two of the top five quarterbacks expected to be taken in the draft have their Pro Days this week. Today it’s Christian Hackenberg at Penn State and on Friday, Jared Goff at Cal. Neither performance is likely to remedy concerns—for Goff, it’s his ability to handle the ball in inclement weather; for Hackenberg, it’s the dramatic dip in production late in his career. One scout chalked up Hackenberg’s poor 2015 to the Bill O’Brien breakup and a “shotgun wedding” with James Franklin.
3. In the most stunning Pro Day news yet, Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman, fresh off November sports hernia surgery, ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash and afterward had the gall to say he wasn’t 100 percent yet. For players recovering from injury, such as Coleman and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack (knee), individual workouts with teams will carry exaggerated weight in the coming weeks. Coleman now has the opportunity to leapfrog Laquon Treadwell as the first receiver taken.
4. NFL observers at Michigan State’s Pro Day noted the oddity of having all 32 teams represented and a potential first-round quarterback on the field, with the conspicuous absence of a single NFL head coach. The big Pro Day draw on Wednesday was, understandably, the University of Georgia, followed by Baylor. However, it’s likely any team interested in Cook will have allotted time for a personal visit with the quarterback.
5. I think Cris Collinsworth’s prediction that quarterbacks will go No. 1 and No. 2 in this draft will turn out prescient. I think Collinsworth’s hunch, which he shared on Pro Football Focus, that the team to trade up will be Los Angeles is a good guess. The Rams are among the top five teams in terms of draft capital and have every incentive to make a splash entering their first season in Los Angeles.
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Quote of the Week
“Pick that guy. You can coach people, but you can't make them look like that.”
—Baylor coach Art Briles on his imposing physical freak defensive end, Shawn Oakman.
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Stat of the Week
Number of quarterback pressures by Alabama interior lineman A’Shawn Robinson, graded a top-15 prospect, on his 307 pass rushes last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which released its college data to the public this year. By comparison, less heralded Mississippi State DT Chris Jones had 46 pressures on 284 pass-rush snaps. While it’s true that Alabama’s scheme and wealth of talent can sometimes mask the contributions of role players who might be stars in other systems, it’s fair to wonder if a one-dimensional interior lineman is worth the Top 15 grade Robinson has been enjoying from draft analysts.
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Scorching Hot Take of the Week
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