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D’haquille Williams sat inside the NFL combine’s media room, off to the side at an auxiliary table designated for lesser talents, and described what it was like to have football taken away from him. Williams had a chance to play himself firmly into the first round of this year’s draft at the start of the 2015 season, but his dismissal from Auburn in early October had turned him into a salesman in Indianapolis.
He earnestly answered several probing questions about the off-field issues that had ended his promising college career: first a “violation of team rules” that left him sidelined for the bowl game of his breakout 2014 season, then the incident last fall in which he reportedly punched four people, including a teammate, at a bar near campus. Watching the final two months of Auburn’s disappointing season from afar, understanding that he had failed everyone after being tabbed to steer this team into national title contention as its marquee receiver, had stripped him of any pretension.
“Plenty of nights I went to sleep and I cried,” Williams said. “I really cried, because I didn’t just hurt myself, I also hurt my family, my friends, my teammates, coaches who gave me chance after chance. I hurt them, and so I had to really collect myself as a person because when I lost football it felt like I lost a lot of things. That’s something I put my heart into, and just to lose it overnight, it wasn’t worth it. I cried night after night, stayed up overthinking, and now it’s just moving forward and forgetting that.”
Of course, it takes more than a contrite apology to repair a prospect profile tarnished by behavioral red flags, whether they stem from legal troubles or mere anecdotes that cast doubt on a player’s maturity and NFL readiness. The long list of prominent prospects with something in their past worth looking into shows exactly how broad that spectrum can be.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
What happened: Arguably the draft’s most enticing risk, Nkemdiche was charged with possession of marijuana after falling from an approximately 15-foot wall at an Atlanta-area hotel in December, according to the police report.
At Ole Miss’s pro day on March 28, Nkemdiche vowed he wouldn’t bring along his older brother Denzel, who also starred on the Rebels’ defense, to his future NFL home city—a declaration meant to provide some small encouragement to teams who dinged the ultra-talented DT for his dicey inner circle earlier in the evaluation process.
What he said: “It was a rash decision by me, uncharacteristic and that’s not who I am. That’s not what I stand for, that’s not what my family stands for. It was embarrassing for me and my whole family and the whole Ole Miss family, and I told [NFL teams] that’s not the kind of player they’re getting. They’re getting a straightforward player. I’m never going to return to that.” (Feb. 26)
Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky
What happened: Spence could have joined the dozen-plus Ohio State prospects on their way to being drafted in April, but he was permanently banned from Big Ten action late in the 2014 season after testing positive for Ecstasy for the second time in his college career.
He spent last season at FCS-level Eastern Kentucky and returned to the spotlight this winter with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, but the MMQB’s Robert Klemko reported that the circumstances of his Ohio State exit combined with a public intoxication arrest in May could keep him out of the first round.
What he said: “You can’t live like I was living and expect to last in this game. It’s not going to happen. I’m still hurting sometimes and I’m not even doing that stuff, so imagine if I was still doing like that—going out, not getting no sleep and then trying to go to practice the next day and stuff like that.” (Draft Season Podcast)
Laremy Tunsil, OL, Ole Miss
What happened: Nkemdiche dragged the draft’s presumptive No. 1 pick into shakier territory when he confirmed that Tunsil was in the hotel room with him the night of his arrest in Atlanta. Tunsil also served a seven-game NCAA suspension last season for accepting impermissible benefits, the result of an investigation that was tipped off by domestic violence charges he and his father filed against each other (and later dropped) following an altercation last summer. The careers of Todd Gurley, Cam Newton, A.J. Green and many other future stars targeted by the NCAA explain why NFL teams almost never bat an eye at that type of discipline.
What he said (about the seven-game suspension—he has not publicly commented on the Nkemdiche incident): “It was an unfortunate situation and I learned from it. It was tough to get motivated with all that going on but I wanted to make the team better any way I could.” (To The MMQB’s Robert Klemko, Feb. 18)
Roger Lewis, WR, Bowling Green
What happened: As a senior in high school, Lewis was charged with two first-degree felony counts of rape days before National Signing Day. He was acquitted of one count and had the second charge dismissed in return for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor falsification charge and serving three years on probation.
This week, a judge denied Lewis’s request to have his probation sanctions lifted before they were due to expire in September. The NFL’s heightened sensitivity to the way fans process sexual assault allegations could force teams to think a few beats longer about adding Lewis, who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his last two years with the Falcons.
What he said: “What really happened was I was falsely accused. Sometimes you gotta go through stumbles in life. … That whole situation came up as me messing with another girl. A girl can get mad, a girl can get in her feelings about things, but that made me wiser. Now that I’m in the National Football League, it’s going to get 10 times, 20 times, even worse, and why not have that one good girl, you know? That whole situation, that’s why it really made me wiser and made me think who I need to surround myself with and just evaluate girls even more.” (Feb. 25)
Dak Prescott, QB, and Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State
What happened: In the week following Mississippi State’s pro day, both Prescott and Jones were arrested in Starkville: Prescott was arrested and charged with driving under the influence two days after he threw for scouts on campus (breathalyzer tests were inconclusive; Prescott’s first court date is scheduled for April 11), and Jones was arrested for driving with a suspended license in Starkville a few days later. Neither player’s draft stock is expected to nosedive, but their timing couldn’t be worse.
What Prescott said: “I’m very remorseful for my misjudgement. I want to apologize to my true supporters, my family, Mississippi State University, the NFL, and the kids who look up to me. I won’t ask for forgiveness; however, I’ll show the true man I am and exhibit my character through my actions and behavior moving forward.” (March 13, to NFL.com)
Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
What happened: Elsewhere in bad timing: Boykin was charged with felony assault of a police officer while out after curfew two days before the Horned Frogs’ bowl game in San Antonio. Paired with a sprained ankle that sidelined him for a game and a half in November, the incident made for an unceremonious end to a senior season that began with expectations of Heisman Trophy contention.
What he said: “Just look through my college career, and you’ll only find that one mistake. It’s not going to be easily overcome, but it’s something that you have to take on with a straight mind and just own up to it.” (Feb. 15)
Joey Bosa, DE, and Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio State
What happened: Bosa and Marshall were two of the four players suspended for the 2015 season opener for “marijuana and academics,” according to ESPN. Bosa, a projected top-10 pick, responded by moving into an apartment by himself and laying low over the course of his final season in Columbus, as SI’s Joan Niesen documented in January.
What Bosa said: “I just thought separating myself … and being able to control who goes in and out of my life, I just thought it would be a smart idea to lay low for a while.” (To SI’s Joan Niesen)
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
What happened: Cook wasn’t named one of the Spartans’ three main captains for his senior season, which Cook, his teammates and his coaches have gone out of their way to downplay in the lead-up to the draft—Cook was one of Michigan State’s nine alternate captains in 2015. Are we going to throw in his snub of Archie Griffin’s handshake on the podium at the end of the Big Ten championship game? Let’s not.
What he said: “Being a captain is a title, but nobody needs a title to lead. Not being a captain never hindered my ability to lead, and it never made me doubt myself. It did, however, make me want to work harder and be the best quarterback I can be.” (The MMQB)
Marshaun Coprich, RB, Illinois State
What happened: Coprich was suspended in the spring prior to his senior season for trying to sell marijuana to an undercover police officer, but he was reinstated later that summer after pleading guilty to a felony charge. The diminutive back nearly topped the 2,000-yard mark for a second straight season in 2015, but he will still have a year of probation to serve once he’s drafted.
What he said: “I’m not a bad kid. I made a bad mistake, I learned from it and I’m moving forward. I look forward to no more mistakes in my career.” (Sept. 2015)
Demarcus Robinson, WR, and Alex McCalister, DE, Florida
What happened: Two highly-touted talents whose turbulent college careers took fatal hits as the draft declaration period approached this winter. Robinson clarified at the combine that he was suspended a total of four times while at Florida: thrice for smoking marijuana as a freshman, after which he spent 45 days in rehab, and once late last year for having impermissible contact with a marketing official. McCalister was dismissed from the team in December for a violation of team rules, bookending a 6.5-sack season with one-game suspensions for the first and last games on the Gators’ schedule.
What Robinson said: “I know I have made mistakes and I've learned from my mistakes. It's just about telling the truth and getting it out all in the open now. I'm not the same person I was three years ago.” (Feb. 25)
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pitt
What happened: The first round-bound wideout sat out the first game of the 2015 season after being charged with a DUI over the summer and received 12 months’ probation.
What he said: “We’re always going to make mistakes. One thing I strive for and the people around me always keep in my head, you never make the same mistake twice.” (Aug. 10, 2015)
KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame
What happened: Russell was one of five Notre Dame players investigated for honor code violations of academic dishonesty and missed the entire 2014 season as part of his two-semester suspension from school. He returned to the team in 2015 and snagged two interceptions before going down for the year with a broken right tibia in late November.
What he said: “There’s not going to be a character issue. That’s the last of my worries. That’s easy.” (To SI’s Pete Thamel in Jan.)
Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers
What happened: A woman accused Carroo of slamming her to the ground during a brawl outside the Rutgers training facility in Sept. 2015. Carroo missed two early-season games before the simple assault charge against him was dismissed and the restraining order lifted after the alleged victim elected not to pursue the case.
What he said: “I knocked the majority of the story out at the Senior Bowl, so when I met with these teams it was more of: Let's talk football, we heard the story, we know the story, we know you’re a good kid, let’s just talk more football.“ (Feb. 28)