Monday, April 6, 2009

Pro Day Rewind: That's A Wrap

We wrap up the Pro Day season with a week that, while it had fewer workouts, also contained one of the biggest of the year—USC’s Pro Day.

I was fortunate enough to attend two last week—USC’s outstanding workout as well as the sometimes overlooked, but no less important, Hawaii Pro Day, which was held in Carson, California.

But before we talk about the big dogs and my Los Angeles trip, let’s talk about some of the other schools and workouts.


Head Coach Rick Neuheisel is a long way from stealing any luster from the Bruins’ crosstown rivals. There aren’t too many players who will go in the NFL Draft and even then, they're not likely to go early.

Running back Kahlil Bell is one player who hopes to crack the second day. Bell stood on most of his Combine numbers, though he ran the 40 and jumped both the vertical and broad jumps. He ran a 4.75 and a 4.76, jumped a 32 inch vertical and a 9’5” broad. He looked solid in position drills, and that may get him onto a team. From there, he’s going to have to put his nose down and earn his spot. I think he could stick as a backup, but that may also be his ceiling.

Defensive tackle Bringham Hartwell didn’t get any all-star invites or an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, but he didn’t let that stop him from putting his best foot forward. Hartwell benched 225 pounds 36 times, one short of the top amount benched by a lineman at the Combine. He also ran the 40 in 5.14 seconds. Like Bell, Hartwell has a long way to go to get picked up in the Draft.

Unfortunately, Bruin quarterback Ben Olson was unable to workout due to a foot injury. Their other quarterback, Patrick Cowan, is still recovering from ACL surgery and only did position drills where he threw passes.


On Wednesday, I was happy to be one of the credentialed media attending USC’s Pro Day. It was the second year in a row I have been at USC for this event and as always, it was a well-run and exciting day. As you can imagine, it was heavily attended by NFL personnel, including Saints coach Sean Payton who, with his defensive staff, took a hard look at ‘The Triplets’ – Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing. Also present was 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz (who was fresh off a trip to Georgia where he watched Matthew Stafford on Tuesday), Vikings coach Brad Childress and multiple members of teams like Arizona, Carolina and Seattle. Very few teams were absent though some, like Denver, did not make the trip.

The workouts we all witnessed were impressive across the board. Not only for the potential four first round picks – quarterback Mark Sanchez joined the aforementioned Triplets – but also folks like Safety Kevin Ellison, wide receiver Patrick Turner and oft-forgotten, but still solid linebacker Kaluka Maiava.

Still, any discussion about USC starts with Sanchez. After the excellent performances Matthew Stafford put on at Georgia’s Pro Day and for the Lions on March 31st, Sanchez had to have a fantastic day to remain in the conversation for top quarterback in the 2009 Draft.

He did not disappoint. Sanchez threw upwards of 80 passes over about 45 minutes, the majority of which were scripted. However, at the end of his workout he took requests from the Detroit Lions to throw a few different ways. The former Trojan responded beautifully and without hesitation. Sanchez threw long passes, short passes, passes on the run, passes with a three-step drop, a five-step drop, against the wind, with the wind, and across the wind. He threw with perfect accuracy, tremendous velocity, and with a sense of purpose that was palpable as you watched his workout.

Of course, you cannot put to rest the one big question mark about Sanchez at a Pro Day, and that’s experience. Still, after having seen him in person and watching tons of tape, I have become less and less worried that the experience (or lack thereof) is a huge problem. Sanchez has all the tools and the intangibles (leadership, personality and work ethic) to be a success in the NFL. Is he better than Stafford? It's debatable. But I think he could develop into a fantastic quarterback and given that he had dinner with Jacksonville quarterback coach Mike Shula and was closely watched by everyone during his workout, I’m not the only one. In the right system, or with a team who can bring him along slowly (for instance, if he sat behind David Garrard for a year), the sky is the limit for him.

The other story on Wednesday was the outstanding workouts by the linebacking trio of Cushing, Matthews and Maualuga. Of the three, perhaps the biggest impression was made by Matthews.

Matthews has had to fight his way through his college career. Starting as a walk-on, he eventually became an important part of the USC team, especially on special teams. But as of the Pro Day, we can stop focusing on the walk-on story and start discussing his NFL prospects, which looks to be bright.

Matthews looked great in drills, showing good smoothness and fluidity as well as solid ball skills. He caught the ball nicely in drills and overall had a great workout. He added a 4.57 in the 40 to his day and that's not too shabby. In an interview with Matthews, he told me he was on his way to a workout with Atlanta on Saturday, then flying to meet with Denver, Cleveland and Tennessee.

Cushing also had an outstanding day. Cushing, to me, is a safe pick...a guy whose versatility and consistency could make him a contributor from day one on any defense. Cushing looked explosive and quick in his position drills, though he was a tad stiff in the hips at times. He made some great catches as well, including an eye-popping effort during which he had to fully extend his body to make a great catch, then landed and ran out the rest of the drill without missing a beat.

The New Jersey native also ran a 4.70 in the 40, though I saw some times from scouts at 4.68 and a 4.75. In speaking with Cushing, I was also impressed with his decision to head back home and his reasoning that he wanted to go back to work with his high school coach whom he said, “…really made me the player I am today”.

While I think Maualuga might have more playmaking upside and Matthews more untapped potential, Cushing will enter the NFL as an impact player immediately, an outstanding linebacker I would not be shocked to see in Pro Bowls shortly.

The final linebacker of the trio was Maualuga. Maualuga pulled a muscle at the Combine during his first 40 and was unable to do any position drills in Indianapolis. That was very much on his mind Wednesday as he ran his 40 yard dash after he did all the other drills. He told me that he wanted to make sure scouts and coaches saw everything he couldn’t show them in Indianapolis.

Maualuga may not have had the dynamic day Matthews and Cush did, but that doesn’t mean he performed badly. While he looked a little stiff at times, I thought he had a very solid workout.

By the way, that 40 clocked in at a 4.69 according to my stopwatch and looked very respectable next to his 4.43 shuttle and 7.22 three-cone. There were some concerns that while rehabbing Maualuga might gain some weight, which is really all about questions people (mostly media) have about his attitude and work ethic.

I say just because the guy moves to the beat of his own drummer doesn't mean he can't march. Maualuga can flat out play. In my opinion, he's a guy who will need to adjust in the Pros—go less for the big play and more for the basics during his initial year in the league. It will be a few years before teams turn him loose, which is similar to another standout USC defensive player from back in the day by the name of Junior Seau.

Seau used to make huge plays at USC...and whiffed on them at times as well. I'm not saying El Rey is Seau, but he could be and if Seau could adjust, so could Maualuga. In the right system (perhaps one involving Mike Singletary?) I think he could develop into a monster. Maualuga mentioned visiting with Atlanta and having several other teams on tap for visits and workouts.

All three of the linebackers should go in the first round and with Sanchez, April 25th could be a huge day for USC.

Other players of note:
Safety Kevin Ellison has been battling the perception he isn’t quick enough to be a safety at the next level and that he might have to convert to linebacker. That may still be some teams’ perception, but several scouts I heard talking about him felt his 4.70 in the 40 along with a 4.15 short shuttle, 7.32 cone, and solid position workout will keep him at the safety spot. With the Triplets at linebacker getting all the glory, it’s easy to forget Kaluka Maiava, but teams shouldn’t. Maiava had a solid positional workout, showing his athleticism and range, as well as running a 4.68. Finally, wide receiver Patrick Turner had an outstanding workout, shagging balls for Sanchez and improving his draft stock considerably. Turner, who started off by running a 4.63 in the 40, made some very nice catches, including a great one at the sideline where he tiptoed along the line to make sure he completed the catch in bounds. He ran good routes and while he may not be a high draft pick, he will find a home and get a chance to catch on in camp. I think Turner could become a very solid receiver going forward.

Overall, it was yet another in a long line of well-attended, well-executed, and successful Pro Days for USC.


The second stop in this week’s Pro Day tour was down in Carson, California for the University of Hawaii’s workout. While not the size of USC's, the day was still a well-attended, well-run event with several players whom scouts were keenly interested in.

Held at the Home Depot Center, Hawaii’s Pro Day was attended by about 30 scouts from teams such as Carolina, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Seattle and both New York teams.

It was held at two different locations on the Home Depot Center property. The timing and workout portion was held on a small, side field covered in Field Turf with a small tent set up for lifting weights. The positional drills were held a short distance away on a field also used, so the signs said, for David Beckham’s soccer camp.

We started out in a small meeting room where UH head coach Greg McMackin and associate head coach Rich Miano showed the scouts some highlight videos featuring the various players who would soon be working out. After that, the players’ heights and weights were recorded and we adjourned outside for the vertical, broad jump, and timing drills.

Defensive lineman David Veikune was certainly one of the main attractions for scouts on Thursday. While he stood on most of the results of his Combine performance, he did re-run the 40-yard dash. He ran a 4.80/4.81 in the 40, with 10-yard and 20-yard splits of 1.64/1.71 and 2.82/2.78 respectively.

Veikune also did positional drills and since there is some question as to just where he will fit in at the pro level, he drilled as an outside linebacker and worked some coverage as well. The scouts wanted to take a hard look at his footwork which was another reason he worked out as a linebacker.

Veikune may have to make the switch to a linebacker, especially if he ends up in a 3-4 scheme. What he showed on Thursday had scouts saying he could indeed make the switch.
Scouts and teams are just going to try to find a way to get this playmaker on the field because on tape, all Veikune does is make plays. He’ll need to learn how to work out of a two-point stance, work in coverage and other things, but he’s smart enough and a hard enough worker to get the job done and still cause havoc in the backfield when they need him to.

Another player scouts were itching to see was cornerback Ryan Mouton. Mouton had pulled a hamstring at the Combine and was hoping to make an impression this time out.

He began his day on a very high note with an outstanding 11-foot broad jump. He chose to stand on his bench and vertical from the Combine and got set to run the 40.

Unfortunately, he pulled up lame again in the 40 on Pro Day. Mouton said later he felt it at about the 20-yard mark and was clearly in pain when he crossed the finish line. Still, he ran an impressive 40 time (especially considering). Various scouts had him at anywhere from 4.42 to 4.48. I had him timed at 4.46.

And he did that while clearly pulling up in the last leg. Imagine how he might have timed had it not happened.

The injury looked worse than it turned out to be, as he sat in the corner of the practice area for some time. Still, he was out for the day and there were more than a few disappointed scouts and that tells me he was—and likely still is—very much on the radars of several teams. In fact, he already has a meeting with Jacksonville according to the Honolulu Advertiser.

Several other players are worth talking about as well. Defensive lineman Josh Leonard benched a fantastic 41 times, ran a 4.97 in the 40, had a 31 1/2 vertical and looked solid in drills. Another Leonard, linebacker Adam Leonard, had a so-so 40, but that was due, in part, to some bad starts.

As I saw in San Jose State with corner Coye Francies, once you stumble a few times, it can get in your head. It certainly affected Leonard and probably contributed to his slower than expected 40 time. But his film and other drills will keep him hopping and he will have the chance to show his stuff at team visits and private workouts. He looked good in position drills, so while the 40 time might drop him, how far is a subject for debate.

Finally, I want to talk about long snapper Jake Ingram. That’s right, I’m writing about a long snapper, and I loved what I saw in Ingram.

Ingram was a guy the staff talked about during the film session as a perfectionist and a hard worker—the first guy at practice and the last one to leave. The tenacity and hard work paid off as Ingram did every drill he could, ran a 4.90/4.86 in the 40, showed a 30 1/2 vertical, a 9'9" broad jump, benched 18 times and ran a 4.59 short shuttle.

I wasn't the only one impressed. I saw Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons talking at length, and a lot of it was shop talk. Of course, a snapper has to do more than snap the ball so teams will take a long look at a guy like Ingram to make sure he can cover and block. Ingram looked good whenever he was asked to do something and came off as personable and as a nose-to-the-grindstone type of guy.

It's not often I spend much time talking about long snappers, but Ingram had a very solid day.

And so ended another road trip and the final Pro Day. Now the hard part comes for analysts and scouts— to take every scrap of info from Pro Days, the Combine, and tons of game film then rank where each and every player goes on their big boards.

Photo Credit: Long Photography, College Press Box (USC)