Welcome to the 2019 combine, an event that is gaining steam among the NFL’s loyally rabid viewing base (now thrusting many of the most popular events into prime time) and losing steam among those who actually judge players for a living. Unless you’re Dave Gettleman, there aren’t a whole lot of evaluators who need in-person visuals to fall in “full bloom love” with someone anymore.
The best part of being on the ground in Indianapolis is getting medical information on the players and, in quick-burst interviews, getting to know them a little better. We took a stab at the latter, catching up with four of the top prospects heading to Indianapolis this week to talk about setting the bench press record, buying a fast car and doing Pilates.
Without further ado, let’s get to it….
Some interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
ANDREW THOMAS, LT, GEORGIA
• 6' 5", 320 pounds
• Jacobs Trophy award winner, two-year starter at left tackle, first-team All-SEC
SI: Are you the best offensive lineman in this class?
AT: Definitely, I’m a competitor, I want to be the best every day and I work hard. I feel like for the last three years, I’ve dominated in the SEC and I feel like I’m the best tackle in college right now.
SI: You had your pick of great pass rushers to work against. Who was the best?
AT: When I first got there, blocking the guys on my own team like (current Giants linebacker) Lorenzo Carter or (current Texans linebacker) Davin Bellamy, those guys. But on the field, (former Auburn and current Rams linebacker) Jeff Holland during my freshman year and this year K'Lavon Chaisson from LSU. He has great length and his first step, he was so much quicker than some of the rushers I faced in the past and I had to get used to it.
SI: You’ve been doing mock interviews, what’s the best weird preparation question you got?
AT: I’ve heard some stuff, like would you rather be a cat or a dog? Or, what’s the difference between a dress and a skirt? Stuff like that. They told me to just answer the question, show my personality a little bit and move on to the next one.
SI: I heard you’re a great musician. How did that come about?
AT: Funny story, when I was in daycare my favorite movie was Drumline but it was rated PG-13 so I would have to have the daycare call my parents so they could let them know it was okay for me to watch it. That was my favorite movie going up so I picked the drums.
SI: Does your experience playing the drums translate at all to football?
AT: It definitely does. When it comes to instruments it takes repetition and that’s the same thing with football and offensive line. It’s the same techniques over and over and drilling them into your head. Reading music is the same thing as recognizing plays. And one of the things we’d do in high school band was called a site read we would go to a concert and then we’d have to site read a piece of music we’d never seen before and react to it. It’s kind of like when you’re on the field and you see a play called but something happens that you’ve never seen before. You just gotta react to it.
JULIAN OKWARA, DE, NOTRE DAME
• 6' 4", 248 pounds
• 15.5 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, three-year starter
SI: A lot of players do what they can to find comfort during their down time because the week is so hectic. You mentioned you’re a reader, are you reading anything good?
JO: Yeah actually I’m reading “Legacy” by James Kerr and it’s about the [legendary New Zealand rugby team] All Blacks and being a leader. I started it during my senior season and am just finishing it off right now. It’s about the All Blacks and how they became what they are today. One of the things they talked about was cleaning up the locker room. As captains at Notre Dame we had to make sure the locker room was clean and I took pride in that. We even had Ed Reed come in one day and talk about the same thing. When he was playing for a Super Bowl everyone had to clean their locker room. It’s something I pride myself on, keeping my space clean.
SI: One out of every three tackles you made in college was for a loss. That’s pretty incredible. How did you become that kind of player and, while I know everyone wants to be their own guy, who do you enjoy watching at the NFL level?
JO: I think I just played in a great defense where I had the freedom to move around and make plays. We were put in great situations to be an athlete and play fast and physical. We played in a great scheme and I think being a dominant pass rusher and being a dominant player has to do with my athleticism, it’s something I rely on when I play on the field…honestly playing free and fast is what allowed me to get in the backfield.
And yeah, I watch a lot of Von Miller highlights before games. I think being able to rush the passer sometimes and drop in coverage sometimes, in the flat, take the tight end—I’m honestly open to do whatever, wherever a team wants me to play in a 3-4 defense I’ll do whatever, covering guys, rushing outside at the quarterback or in a 4-3 defense setting the edge and make plays.
SI: You’re only doing the bench at the combine this year after suffering a broken left fibula back in November (and are donating money for every rep). What are you hoping to show there?
JO: I think my strength is something that’s always being talked about. I think I’m one of the stronger guys out there that maybe guys will be surprised with, I don’t know. I know I’m a strong guy. It’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m a competitor. I like competing and I’m looking forward to showcasing my athletic abilities.
SI: Are we talking top-of-the-position bench press numbers?
JO: We’ll see. We’ll see.
C.J. HENDERSON, DB, FLORIDA
• 6' 1", 202 pounds
• Lombardi Award semifinalist (2019), 93 total tackles, four sacks, six interceptions, 20 passes defensed
SI: I heard that your speed has led to a love of fast cars. You’re about to come into some money as a projected first-round pick. What’s the first car you’re going to buy?
CJH: Yeah I look forward to buying a Hellcat Charger. My first car was a Dodge Charger so I really liked Dodge the most, definitely one of the cars I wanted. I don’t have a particular color in mind, I don’t want it to stand out too much.
SI: You played in the best conference in football and faced a lot of good receivers. Who was the best and what did you learn from that matchup?
CJH: I got to go against some really talented receivers in college but I think the best one I got to go against was my teammate, Van Jefferson, in practice and everything else, that was who prepared me for each and every game. He’s definitely one of the best guys I went against.
SI: Who do you watch that you love at the next level?
CJH: I really like to watch all of them. Different techniques and the way they play against different routes, then just taking a little piece from each and every one of their games helps me out a lot. I think Patrick Peterson is a guy I really like to look to.
SI: You pride yourself on your speed and said you were looking forward to the 40-yard dash in prime time. Do you think you have a shot at the fastest time this week?
CJH: Yeah, I think it’s possible.
GABE DAVIS, WR, CENTRAL FLORIDA
• 6' 3", 212 pounds
• 152 catches, 2,447 yards, 23 touchdowns
SI: What is something you did in your preparation for the combine that kind of surprised you; something you may not have tried before?
GD: I did some bikram yoga but the thing I did that I liked the most was Pilates. Pilates helped me with my core strength, glute strength as well. My girl Sarah really got me right. That’s something I’ll be doing for a long time. Pilates is definitely difficult but something I think every athlete should do, engaging the inner core that no one knows about is really important.
SI: Every year there seems to be that crazy combine “riser” who had a great set of workouts. Do you feel like you could be that player coming out of this week?
GD: Absolutely. I’m just passionate about the game, I’ve been putting in the work to perform my best and I think they’re just going to see a great all-around football player.
SI: Do you have a favorite wide receiver you like to watch, and maybe pattern your game after?
GD: Larry Fitzgerald. Ever since I was 9 years old, Larry Fitzgerald. He’s a great all-around player from blocking to running great routes to not dropping the ball to being unguardable. Then you have some other guys, Mike Thomas, Keenan Allen, guys like that. My guy who is on the Saints, Tre’Quan Smith, I looked up to him when I was at UCF because I’ve never seen him drop a ball.
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