The atmosphere was oddly, yet unsurprisingly tense at the Nicolet Football Center Tuesday for a big day in the lives of several young men: Northwestern football's Pro Day.
Six former Northwestern football players were joined by other local NFL draft prospects – including, most notably, Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo – on the field and in the weight room. The players did their best to impress the more than 30 scouts in attendance. Here’s a recap of the whole day.
Colter, recovering from ankle surgery that forced him to miss the Senior Bowl in January, did not participate in drills, but was in attendance for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, he was there in support of his former teammates. Colter was the most vocal person in the whole building, providing constant encouragement during drills.
"It was good to see him in high spirits," Tyler Scott said. "He was supporting us all the way, and it was awesome to see. I can’t wait to see what he does at his day, and I’m sure most of us will come back and support him."
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Colter was also seen, on multiple occasions, speaking with scouts. Colter is making the transition from quarterback to wide receiver in an attempt to forge an NFL career out of his multifarious talents, and he drew enthusiastic reviews during Senior Bowl practices before having to withdraw. NU will hold a separate Pro Day for Colter after his recovery, likely in April.
"It’s great [to see him]," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I’m disappointed he can’t work out because of the injury, but we’re going to do that in a couple of weeks."
"He’s an incredibly versatile athlete, and a great guy that played multiple positions here for us," Fitzgerald continued. "He studied at the quarterback position and didn’t play a lot of wide receiver except for in-game, so I think there’s a great upside there once he focuses in on [playing receiver]."
Among Northwestern players, Lawrence stole the show Tuesday. Right from the jump, he sent murmurs and rumblings through the horde of scouts with a 40-yard dash time rumored to be sub-4.5. He continued to impress in shuttle and agility drills, and then capped off the explosive display with a vertical jump measured at 39 inches. Lawrence also churned out 12 bench press reps.
"I’ve been working hard this whole year, so I’m definitely pleased," Lawrence said. A few points of emphasis for him have been in-cuts and "accelerating through the ball," and he said he was happy with his performance in those areas during pass-catching drills.
Coming into the day, Lawrence wasn’t high on any draft boards – if he was even on them at all, that is. His hands looked a little shaky at times Tuesday, but with his impressive athletic showing, maybe he could get some longer looks from scouts between now and May 8-10.
Scott, Proby, Budzien, Hampton
Tyler Scott’s day didn’t go as well as he had hoped. The defensive end, who is seen by many as a fringe NFL prospect (possibly as an outside linebacker), didn’t look great during agility drills. He and Probly both lost their feet several times while making cuts.
Perhaps Scott’s game isn’t really suited for the combine-like atmosphere though. He’s not a player who wows with his quickness, but is one who makes up for it with effort and strength. Scott did talk a bit about what he’s been working on as he prepares to make the jump to the next level.
"[I want to show] that I’m flexible," he said. "That I’m more flexible than what I’ve shown on film. I was a little stiff, so I’ve worked on those areas. I’ve worked on my hips, and opening those, and getting better with my drops. I’ve just got to work on my technique, and staying low when I come off the line. Sometimes I’m popping up – and if I do that at the next level, people are going to get their hands on me. At the next level, everybody is bigger, stronger, faster."
However, Scott did throw up 23 reps at the bench press. Of NU players, Proby was second at the bench with 18 reps, followed by Lawrence with 12, kicker Jeff Budzien with 10, and receiver Mike Jensen with 6. Scott’s and Proby’s vertical jumps were also both measured at 28.5 inches.
As for Budzien, 10 bench press reps isn't too shabby for a kicker. But more importantly, he apparently had a solid kicking performance. According to the Northwestern Sports Twitter account, Budzien nailed 15 of 16 fields goals from 50-yards-and-in, and 6 of 9 from over 50 yards. His long was 58. Given questions about his leg strength for a potential NFL kicker, those numbers tell a pretty good tale for Budzien and his pro prospects.
On a somber note, the day ended in disappointment for defensive tackle Will Hampton. At the 35-yard mark of his first 40 run, Hampton pulled up with a quad injury that ended his day before it even got started. Players prepare extensively just for this day, so it was an extremely tough blow for Hampton to be forced out of the spotlight so prematurely.
During the summer before his senior year of high school, Garoppolo, a local product, attended a one-day football camp at Northwestern. He exhibited his talents for Fitzgerald and other NU coaches.
"I didn’t know if I was going to get an offer, but I just wanted to come out here and impress the coaches. It [Northwestern] is a local college, close by to my house, and I always wanted to play for them. There are great facilities, a great atmosphere here, I just got cut short a little bit. But everything happens for a reason. It was a blessing in disguise. I ended up at Eastern for a reason, and I loved it."
He was subsequently cut from camp.
How ironic it is then that, roughly five years later, Garoppolo was the center of attention at Northwestern’s Pro Day. Garoppolo has shot up draft boards over the past two months after impressing at college all-star games and the NFL Combine. Some analysts even say it’s not out of the question that, come May, Garoppolo could be a first round pick, and one of the top rated QBs in the draft.
Tuesday didn’t do anything to dissuade the making of those prophecies. Garoppolo’s day began early with individual workouts with Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, like all scouts, wouldn’t disclose anything specific, but said Garoppolo is "a smart kid," and one he thinks is going to be a good NFL quarterback.
Later, during passing drills open for all to see, the ball was zipping off of Garoppolo’s right hand. His ball placement was by no means perfect, but it seems as if the hype is justified. He was also very good with his footwork, a subject around which there have been a lot of questions.
"I can do them [5 and 7-step drops] in my sleep now," said Garoppolo, who became accustomed to a spread offense at EIU. "I’ve been doing it for the past two months. Right after the all-star game, I got out to California and started doing them. It’s a repetition thing. I wasn’t used to them, we didn’t do that in my offense in college, but I kept getting more and more used to it, and now I’m comfortable with it finally."
"[I’ve improved] tremendously," he continued. "With the footwork especially, but also with the knowledge of the game. I feel like I’ve come such a long way. I knew the college game inside and out, but the NFL game, there’s a huge step. I’m trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can, and it’s a process. I feel like I’m doing well with it."
Garoppolo also addressed the ‘small school question’. "It always comes back to that," he said. "That will always be tagged with me, it’s something I’ll always have to live with. But I like carrying that with me, I’m proud to be from Eastern Illinois."
The local kid from the small school seems to be coping well with all the media attention and hype. "You’ve got to enjoy the process," he said. "It’s just playing football; and that’s what I love to do."
Fitz on Combines/Pro Days
Pat Fitzgerald had an interesting take on the value of combines and the training that goes into them. We’ll let his words speak for themselves:
"This goes now into high school age, with the proliferation of all these pro-combine-type workouts for high school kids," Fitzgerald said. "They’re starting to train earlier and earlier.
"I think we ran a ‘40’ in like 32 yards across Carl Sandberg [Fitz’s high school], and you made up the time and you felt good about yourself. And then it didn’t really matter and then you went and you tackled people. Now it seems like these guys are doing dynamic warm-ups and all these different drills, and they know how to do the drills better than they know how to play football. As you start to see this more and more, you hope you don’t see [the ones who are] better at the drills [become] the lesser football players.
"And that’s a big part of what we’re doing right now with the evaluation for college prospects. You see kids look really good in shorts, but the tape doesn’t lie. And that’s the great thing about football, it’s not a game played in shorts, it’s a game played in pads. We put a lot more stock into what we hear from high school coaches and what we see on video than what they do on the track."
And maybe Fitz’s comments provide good perspective for all of Tuesday’s happenings. Yes, players spend endless hours preparing for days like these, and yes, these days do provide concrete measurements of speed, agility and strength; but no, they are not the be-all and end-all of evaluations, and no, football isn’t played on a bench or on a 40-yard strip of turf.