It’s the proverbial proving ground for NFL prospects. Show up and show out for the collective masses to see. Get measured, inspected and tested in a variety of physical and mental challenges. And it all happens within a week’s time at the NFL Scouting Combine, an influential stop for those hoping to enter the ranks of professional football.
For several 49ers, the combine experience is forever etched in memories and can never be forgotten. Strong performances equate to higher draft selections, while disappointing efforts can leave you sliding down draft boards faster than a trip on Splash Mountain.
At the end of the day, combine performances won’t make or break you. It’s just a piece of the draft puzzle being put together in 32 meeting rooms across the league’s landscape. The magnitude of such circumstances however, will certainly test your mettle.
We caught up with a handful of current 49ers who’ve recently been under the combine microscope to hear their stories and also to preview this year’s edition, which begins Thursday. So let’s grab the stop watches, lace up the track shoes and enjoy our second portion of “Combine Snapshots.”
In case you missed Part 1 yesterday, here it is.
Vernon Davis had seen the projections. He knew what the so-called draft experts were saying. But he wasn’t buying it. Fresh off an All-American season at Maryland, Davis still felt he had something to prove.
As the NFL Scouting Combine approached he was nervous. He felt the pressure. It’s not that he doubted his abilities, but with so much riding on the outcome of the next few days, Davis’ nerves were wracked.
“It’s not like anything I had ever done before,” he said. “And you really need to show up and put up some big numbers or everyone’s perception of you can change.”
After four days of drills, everyone’s perception of Davis did change – for the better. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Terrapin proved to be every bit as athletic as advertised. His 4.38-second 40 was the fastest ever by a tight end at the combine, and he answered the biggest question mark about his game by annihilating the blocking drills. With a 42-inch vertical and 10’8” broad jump, he leaped his way up draft boards across the NFL.
But there’s more to the combine than what takes place on the field. The teams need to get to know the man behind the numbers. And in the process of meeting with nearly all 32 teams, Davis found out something about himself too.
“I learned I could be a business man,” he said. “I was a sales man out there, trying to sell myself.”
Obviously, the 49ers thought he made quite the pitch.
It’s been six years since Davis wowed the world in Indy, and if he could do the combine over again he wouldn’t change a thing. And if a young player came up to him asking for advice on how to handle the four-day physical fitness test, his answer would be simple.
“Be prepared for anything and just go in there with the attitude that you’re going to work hard.”
That’s what Davis did, and it worked out pretty well.
How much of the combine does Taylor Mays remember? Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 seconds.
Well to be fair, the former USC safety selected 49th overall had an enjoyable experience in Indianapolis for the most part. It was just that ever-so-brief period of time that sticks out most.
“They tried to tell me I ran a 4.43 when I ran the second-fastest time there behind (Raiders wide receiver) Jacoby Ford,” Mays recalled. “Then they told me later there was a malfunction on my time. But if there was a malfunction on my time, where did the 4.43 come from?”
Slow motion replays depicted Mays’ 40-time being one of the fastest from any combine participant last year. Initially, Mays was told he’d run a 4.24. But after time passed, the four-year college starter was informed his time was actually 4.43. “When people told me I ran faster than a guy who ran a 4.31, it made a little more sense.”
No matter the circumstances involved with Mays’ final time (recognized by many as 4.31), the 230-pound safety’s performance warranted attention.
It wasn’t the first time he had done so. Mays put together numerous highlights while competing at one of the nation’s top programs. But scouts wanted to see more. Did he value interceptions as much as big hits? Could he use speed functionally as a defensive back in the NFL? Mays answered repeatedly, “yes.”
“I wanted to show I could backpedal, move side to side, turn and run, that I wasn’t just one-dimensional,” he said.
And with a lot on the line, Mays rose to the occasion.
“It’s tough to know what to expect when you’re putting your hand down on the line and you’re running in front of NFL coaches and GMs,” he said. “You can’t teach that adrenaline. But I felt good and I felt prepared.”
Having gone through the experience, Mays hopes less stress is put on the 40 and more is placed on drill work and game tape. But he knows people want prospects to perform in person. If that’s the case, why not better accommodate the athletes?
“Guys are going to sleep at 11 o’clock then have to wake up at six and perform to the highest ability that they’ve ever performed in their life,” Mays said. “It doesn’t really make sense; you just wake up and roll with it.”
Even on limited sleep, Mays entertained the masses. He expects former teammate Tyron Smith to do the same. The offensive tackle prospect is “really a beast.” Mays estimates the 300 pounder has around seven- or- eight-percent body fat and could be one of the fastest linemen ever.
Isaac Sopoaga wanted to represent himself. The 330-pound Samoan wasn’t going to compromise his identity just to impress some execs at the NFL Scouting Combine. If they like me, they like me, the defensive tackle thought, if not, I’m sure another team will.
He showed up to his interviews in an island hat made from coconut tree leaves along with his traditional beaded Samoan necklace. Some teams laughed. Others thought it was ridiculous. “This is me,” Sopoaga would tell them. “This is who I am.”
The hat and beads were normal to him. What was ridiculous is what Sopoaga did when he got underneath the 225-pound bench press the following day. He didn’t work out much at the University of Hawaii. He never used traditional weights growing up in American Samoa, yet was strong enough to decimate offensive linemen by the time he got to college. So why change things up?
Sopoaga had no clue how many reps he’d be able to pump out. But like he does before every competition, he prayed, cleared his mind and went to work.
Eighteen reps in, he felt good. So he paused and asked how many the leader had cranked out. Forty-one. No problem. Twenty-three reps later, tied with the leader, Sopoaga was still going strong. But he didn’t want to show anybody up.
Once again he paused. This time he looked at the remaining six competitors –they’re not a threat, he thought. So he put up his 42nd rep and simply racked the bar. No sweat. If he had known the record was just seven reps away he easily could have set it. Still, Sopoaga was happy just being the best in his class.
All those teams who thought he was a goof in the interview process weren’t laughing anymore. And now that Sopoaga can nearly double his combine output on the bench, neither are the offensive linemen he faces every Sunday.
Legitimate questions existed about a junior defensive end out of Ohio State who was best served to play outside linebacker in the pro game. It was rightfully so. Thaddeus Gibson had reservations entering the combine too, but made sure he was ready to demonstrate unseen aspects of his repertoire.
“I think there was a lot of pressure for the most part, you wanted to do well,” recalled Gibson, a fourth-round selection of the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. “Just to get an invite to the combine, you wanted to go there and perform.”
Like many of his fellow college teammates, Gibson was sequestered at the team’s training facility for six weeks leading up to combine. He also saw a nutritionist, electing to put down convenient fast foods for healthier alternatives seldom seen around college campuses.
In changing positions, Gibson was thankful for an event like the combine where he could show more skills than rushing the passer.
“When I came out, they wanted to see was if I could cover a tight end, if I could I drop into space, if I could I catch the ball – things like that,” added Gibson, who was released by the Steelers only to be claimed by the 49ers mid-season where he would later make his NFL debut.
Though he valued a strong 40 time and a good showing in the bench press, it wasn’t the same as displaying linebacker skills. “I wanted to prove that I could do all of those things,” said the college defensive end with 82 tackles, 10.0 sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and one interception to his credit.“I was excited to do it.”
Now that he’s been given opportunity to play in the NFL, Gibson is hopeful that a pair of former teammates will follow suit. Seniors Brandon Saine and Dane Sanzenbacher are two names to watch according to Gibson. “Saine, our running back, I think he’s going to torch the 40 time and surprise a lot of people. I’d say look out for Sanzenbacher too. He’s awesome as a conventional slot receiver.”
But no matter where each Buckeye ends up, Gibson, like all other Ohio State alum, will be interested in seeing how they perform at “The” NFL Scouting Combine.