Feb. 27, 2016
It’s a typical work-a-da Friday morning on a 31-degree day in Indianapolis--and there are 10 former University of Notre Dame football players in town in the midst of their own extended job interviews.
The scene is Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the National Football League Combine, where those 10 former Irish all are taking part in a four-day extravaganza that will have significant impacts on their pro football aspirations.
The players arrive in waves, based on position, so offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin and running back C.J. Prosise came to Indianapolis Tuesday. They departed after their Friday on-field workouts in front of NFL Network cameras with their exclusive access (no other media are permitted inside the stadium) and a long list of head coaches, general managers and scouts representing every NFL club in a deathly-quiet environment inside the Indianapolis Colts’ home facility.
In between, the other five Irish players—receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown, defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara and linebacker Jaylon Smith—began their four-day journeys into the NFL world.
How big is the Combine? The NFL credentialed 1,200 media to cover the week-long event. Long-time Lucas Oil Stadium general manager Mike Fox suggests the NFL Network alone has more production trucks on site than NFL Sunday night and Monday night football games combined would require.
What does the Combine involve? Here’s what the 330 invited players do:
-- Day One: The players arrive in Indianapolis and check in to the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel, go through hospital pre-exams, X-rays and an orientation, plus a first round of interviews at the hotel, as requested by the individual pro teams (most about 15 minutes in length, with each team allowed 60 interviews). For Day, an Indianapolis native, this would be the equivalent of a "home game," yet he’s still required to bunk at the Crowne Plaza.
-- Day Two: Players are measured, go through extensive medical examinations, do a round of media interviews and continue conversations with pro team personnel.
-- Day Three: On tap are more team interviews and psychological testing at the Crowne Plaza, an NFLPA meeting, plus bench press tests in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium.
-- Day Four: The final day features on-field workouts, including skills drills, 40-yard dash timings and station drills prior to departure. The players wear Under Armour black shorts and shirts, trimmed in neon green—and they are identified by position and number (so Russell is DB46, Smith is LB34, Martin is OL29, etc.) and by names on their backs.
There are plenty of sights to be seen.
Wander through the media area—with three separate podiums and multiple other tables set up for player interviews—and there are John Clayton and Sal Paolantonio of ESPN working their cell phones. There’s Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys executive who has been part of the NFL scene for decades (he’s now the NFL Media personnel guru).
That compares with the 1980s when maybe a half-dozen print reporters roamed the hotel lobbies chasing interviews—and there were no television cameras or radio stations in sight. The writers found players on street corners, and hotel bars often provided seating areas for impromptu interview sessions. Former Notre Dame running back Jerome Bettis once helped match up rookie players with sportswriters in his spare time during his year in Indianapolis.
The concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium holds dozens of makeshift video sets for various media as well as NFL teams doing their own coverage of the event—held in Indianapolis since 1987 after the NFL in 1985 opted to combine events held by three separate scouting organizations. Among team media on site is Larry Michael, former executive producer of Notre Dame football radio broadcasts on Westwood One and now radio play-by-play voice of the Washington Redskins.
Wednesday and Thursday featured all-day streams of NFL head coaches and general managers available in the interview area for 15 minutes at a crack (Broncos coach Gary Kubiak at 10:15 a.m. and Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy at noon, Seattle coach Pete Carroll at 3 p.m. and Broncos vice president/general manager John Elway at 4 p.m. Thursday).
Buffalo Bill coaches Rex and Rob Ryan are walking around the Combine in old-school Cookie Gilchrist (or is it Thurman Thomas?) and Jim Kelly jerseys.
Turn left or right and there’s another head coach or general manager—and even Tom Coughlin, the former New York Giants’ head coach. All sorts of business (media and team-oriented) is transacted in every nook and cranny—not to mention over drinks in popular Indianapolis restaurants including St. Elmo Steak House (little chance of getting in there unless a reservation had been made months ago) and Palomino.
Register to cover the Combine and Rick Serritella’s NFL Draft Bible arrives via email.
That document provides rankings by position (it says Stanley is the second-rated offensive tackle, Martin the second-rated center, Fuller the fourth-ranked wide receiver and Smith number one among linebackers).
It also provides known representation for players (Fuller, Stanley and Martin all are with CAA, Creative Artists Agency; Prosise with Roc Nation Sports) as well as workout locations (Stanley with EXOS in San Diego; Prosise with EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Illinois).
At about 11:20 a.m., Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa appears at a podium in the media interview area. Once his formal interview ends, a trail of cameras and reporters follows him into the hallway as he heads to an NFL Radio Sirius/XM interview set. Defensive linemen from Florida and Utah are ushered to other tables in the media lounge.
Meanwhile, on the video monitors around the room, Stanley (officially measuring 6-5 ¾ and 312 pounds) is shown live on the field, running the 40-yard dash in 5.26 (with two close-up, slow-motion replays of his form) in full-length tights and a sleeveless shirt. At 11:50 a.m., Stanley takes a second run at the 40—this time running 5.18. NFL.com lists his time at 5.20.
Notre Dame is well represented at the Combine.
Irish team doctor Brian Ratigan, credentialed as part of the Pittsburgh Steelers medical staff, assists in the detailed individual player medical evaluations at Lucas Oil Stadium. He’s also in great position to help any of the Notre Dame players, based on questions about their physical history. "We can offer in-depth background or specifics about our players that otherwise might get missed," he says.
Notre Dame director of athletic training Rob Hunt is also in Indianapolis as one of three college trainers invited to take part in the full week of medical activities (he was invited by the PFATS—the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society).
Ratigan and Hunt spend most of their time in the half-dozen field-level, conference rooms where each Combine invitee is "presented" from a medical standpoint. Players all are graded and MRIs requested by teams when necessary. For Ratigan and Hunt, it’s a great way to ensure that procedures and policies at Notre Dame are in line with what happens at the NFL level.
Ratigan notes that back in 1988 there were maybe a half-dozen MRIs done in conjunction with this event. This year the number will be about 350.
Adds Ratigan, "There are 17 MRI units in use at the Combine, including four portable units. If you need to have an MRI in Indianapolis this week, this is probably the only place to get it done."
Among NFL staff on hand is Peter O’Reilly, senior vice president for events (that means he played a key role in the organization and planning for the Combine), a 1994 Notre Dame graduate and a former head football student manager in the Lou Holtz era.
At 12:05 p.m., Martin (he’s OL29) is put through his paces live on the field by an NFL staffer. NFL.com lists his 40 time at 5.22.
Mike Mayock, the former analyst on NBS Sports telecasts of Irish home games, is a constant presence at the Combine, as part of the long hours of NFL Network coverage—and even holding his own press conference (it produced a 19-page transcript).
Here’s a sampling of Mayock offerings on Irish players:
Q. I was wondering if there are any guys that are outside that top 100 that could be good fits for Detroit.
MAYOCK: Yeah, I think a guy like C.J. Prosise from Notre Dame, about a 220,
222-pound player. What I like about him is he was a wide receiver until this past year and jumped in at tailback and looked completely natural at the position. So I think he's probably a fourth-round guy. I like his size. I like his speed, and I like his upside. He might make some sense paired with Ameer Abdullah.
Q. I was just wondering how similar you feel Jaylon Smith's situation is right now is to that of Willis McGahee back in the '03 draft in terms of proximity to the injury to the pre-draft season and just how far he might fall in light of where his medical sits.
MAYOCK: Well, it's a great question. I've had this conversation with some general managers and coaches just this past week. First and foremost, I feel horribly for the kid, injuring the knee, especially when he injured it in the bowl game. Secondly, if he did not get hurt, he'd be in the conversation for the first pick in the draft. That's how good his junior season was. A little bit like Myles Jack in the sense that I saw him take a big leap forward as a full three-down linebacker this year. He's sideline to sideline with speed, he's as exciting a linebacker prospect as I've seen since Luke Kuechly as far as an insider, off-the-ball linebacker. That's how excited I was for him. Now, the next step of this is the medical evaluation, which takes place in Indianapolis. So two things can happen: He could have a fairly clean evaluation of that knee where it's going to be a "typical ACL-type situation,", a "typical time frame," and a team will be able to gauge with pretty close proximity when they can get him back this season. What happens after that is if that analysis of the knee, the medical, is compounded by potential nerve damage or any other extenuating circumstance, then you start saying, uh-oh, what's going to happen, when are we going to get this kid, and will he ever get to be 100 percent again. So they're really the two levels I think you see. He could have been the first pick in the draft. Now if he gets a clean evaluation, he's still going to be a first-round pick, probably a top-15 pick, because he's that special. If there's any cloudiness or murkiness around that knee between now and the draft, teams are going to look at it differently, and since we don't know yet what it is, I can't go there, but I think that's as close as I can get today.
Q. Ronnie Stanley has been linked with the Ravens in a lot of mock drafts.
MAYOCK: I've seen an awful lot of Ronnie Stanley. He was a great high school basketball player in Las Vegas. He's got basketball feet. He's a prototype left tackle. I think he's closer to (Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy) Tunsil than a lot of people do. They're very similar, great feet, long arms, both are pass protectors first, which is what you want in this pass-first league. . . . I think Ronnie Stanley is a day-one starter and would be a solid option for Baltimore at six.
At 12:38 p.m., Martin again is live on the monitors, displaying his footwork while defending against a prospective edge rusher. Two minutes later Stanley does the same thing. Prosise runs a 4.46 an hour later and then adds an identical 4.46 follow-up about 2:10 p.m. NFL.com lists him at 4.48.
At 2:40 p.m., an NFL staffer ushers Irish defensive lineman Romeo Okwara (hard to miss in his Irish-issue, signature green Under Armour shoes) into the interview room and he sets up shop at Table 4 in front of more than a dozen media—including a reporter from his hometown Charlotte Observer.
"It’s been fun being here with the greatest athletes coming out this year," says Okwara, who was peppered with a handful of questions about his Nigerian heritage, his soccer background and teammate Smith (mostly about Smith’s health).
"It’s a long process, a lot of medical interviews, a lot of meetings, but we’re lucky to be here. You’ve got to have fun. People seem to appreciate my versatility because I played a couple years at outside linebacker and a couple at defensive end. It’s cool knowing all I’ve been through to get to this process."
At 3:30 p.m. Day takes a seat in the media area, and he’s followed five minutes later by Brown.
"I’ve been out in California, training with some of the best guys in the country at Proactive (Sports Performance in Westlake Village, California)," says Day. "It’s special, going and grinding every day—it’s a blessing. And I’ve played in this stadium (Lucas Oil) lots of times, so it just feels natural.
"And the bond with all the Notre Dame guys has been great—Cole Luke reaching out to me and wishing me luck, Isaac Rochell trying to come down and visit me here."
Brown is asked what he wants to prove this week. His response? "That I have everything they need."
Late in the afternoon, one of the last players to make the interview circuit is Smith, doing his first formal interviews since before the Fiesta Bowl. The subject, no surprise, is his surgically-repaired knee. Smith draws a massive crowd of media and cameras at the middle podium.
"The past two days have been very interesting, medical testing, just doing a lot of evaluations," says Smith, who notes he’s only been back on his feet for a week, seven weeks post-op. "I can’t tell when I’ll be back, but I’ll be back 100 percent, I just don’t know when. It’s just a healing game, a process. It’s just moving forward, that’s all I’m focused on.
"I’m having a blast. I can only control what I can control. I just take the recovery process day by day.
"I’m hoping to go top 10. I view myself as the best player in the draft."
Smith said he’d met with nine NFL teams Thursday and would have more meetings Friday night. The Detroit Lions? Yes. The Miami Dolphins? No. The Buffalo Bills? No.
"Whoever drafts me, it’s a long-term decision. I’m a guy who’s going to be around for a while at an elite level. It’s been great to watch a guy like Todd Gurley (former Georgia running back who came back from a knee injury) do this last year.
"It tests your patience. It’s the first time I’ve been injured in my life. It’s making a man out of me."
Billy Joel’s "The Stranger" hit album back in 1977 included a cut titled "Everybody Has A Dream."
For Martin, Stanley, Smith, Day and the rest of the Irish who traveled to Indianapolis, those work-related dreams continue unabated for the weeks and months to come.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.