By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
The odds of making it to the NFL are long -- of NCAA seniors, approximately one player in 50 gets drafted.
Georgia Tech student-athletes probably rank among the best at figuring those odds. Last Friday afternoon, 14 Yellow Jackets graduates -- or soon-to-be graduates -- took the first step in BEATING them, taking part in the program’s annual Pro Day at the John and Mary Brock Football Practice Facility.
Their message to more than 30 representatives from 21 National Football League and two Canadian Football League teams was simple: Just give us a chance.
“This is always something that I think every kid from the time they start playing football dreams about and it’s great to have an opportunity for them to be able to come out here and at least get tested and show off all the hard work they’ve put in,” said head coach Paul Johnson, who has had 38 players make it to the NFL -- approximately four a year. “If you come out and do something eye-popping it’s going to help you, but the bottom line is these guys are going to watch the tape and see how they play in the games and then try to put the two together. Most of these guys just want a chance.”
A vast cross-section of position players took part -- offensive players included B-back J.J. Green, wide receivers Ricky Jeune and Antonio Messick, offensive linemen Shamire Devine and Freddie Burden, while the defense was represented by D-linemen KeShun Freeman, Antonio Simmons and Francis Kallon, linebackers Terrell Lewis and P.J. Davis and DBs Lance Austin, Lawrence Austin, Step Durham and Corey Griffin.
Davis, Burden, and Kallon came back to take a second bite of the apple at Pro Day. Davis and Kallon had opportunities in NFL camps last year, while Burden is at 100 percent, unlike last year, when he was limited to the bench press, because of an ankle injury.
“It’s always good to see those guys,” said Lance Austin. “It’s always good to see those guys come back and compete and have high energy.”
Adding to the energy was the supportive contingent of friends and family watching from above the field in gallery. Former Jackets, including kicker Harrison Butker, who wowed the Brock crowd at last year’s Pro Day, nailing a 58-yard field goal, then Kansas City Chiefs fans, and a ton of current Jackets, who were on the field, among them quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
“It’s very exciting. You get to see the guys that you’ve played with for the past couple of years get to come out and potentially live out their dream,” said Marshall. “So it’s always very exciting to be able to come out and just watch those guys perform because they’ve been training hard for the past couple of months.”
Friday offered a unique opportunity to run, catch, lift and do various drills in the comfort of the Brock Center.
“This is a job interview,” said Freeman. “I’ve put in so much hard work and this is a dream of mine that I’ve had since I was a little kid. So it’s worth it.”
The Jackets, many of whom have been training at the Brock Center and at Georgia Tech with director of player development John Sisk since the end of the 2017 season, went about the audition attacking with ferocity and intensity and performing very well.
Simmons made Pro Day honor society. Nicknamed, “Amp,’ Simmons was amped up and tore it up. He easily won the bench press, putting 225 up 30 times, and admitted he could have done a couple more reps. He also ran a 4.52 40, the fastest time of the day and one of five times under 4.6 (Lawrence Austin (4.55), Lance Austin (4.57), Green (4.57), and Griffin (4.58) also were sub-4.6.).
“This actually was my first time running the 40,” said Simmons. “I’ve just been working on my starts. So that was my main focus, my starts and my technique. I knew if my 10-yard split was good I knew my 40 was going to be good.”
Running at 252 pounds, Simmons, who said he’s gained about 15 pounds and is five percent leaner in his body fat percentage while training at Goldin Athletic Training Association (G.A.T.A.) in Duluth, was pleased with his showing and promised that his best is still to come.
“I’ve got a lot to prove. I still haven’t hit the peak of my potential,” he said. “So give me a chance.”
He’ll actually get one on March 30 at the Pro Day in Jacksonville.
Jeune is another Jacket expected to get a flyer from NFL teams. He showed he could get up, producing a 36” vertical, the highest of the day (Griffin was next at 35.5”). He also showed his usual sure hands, pulling in passes on the “5-Route” drill.
“It was good to come out here and show people how hard we’ve been working in the offseason and I think I did pretty well,” said Jeune, who’s been working with Chip Smith Performance Systems in Norcross, and also has picked the brain of former Jackets and current NFL players DeAndre Smelter and Justin Thomas. “(The scouts) all said I did a great job out here and we’ll keep in touch. So we’ll see. Of course it would be nice to get drafted but as long as I get a shot I’ll be happy.”
For many, getting a shot means getting out of their comfort zone and into a different position.
Freeman, who played his entire career at defensive end, got a look at linebacker and did some drills suggesting a move to fullback.
“When they told me it was kind of funny,” said Freeman, whose 10’6” won the broad jump -- he was one of four different Jackets to go 10 feet or further, joined by Griffin (10’2”), Lawrence Austin (10’1”), and Green (10’0”). “But any way I can get my foot in the door and work I’m willing to do it.”
He was even asked about his successful fake punt last Nov. 11 against Virginia Tech, which was good for three-yards and a first down.
“One of the coaches asked me that,” Freeman said, with a laugh. “He said, ‘I saw some special teams stuff.’ Hopefully I can do a little better than I did on that at fullback.”
Freeman can ask Davis about changing sides of the ball to achieve your dream.
Davis was back at Tech’s Pro Day seeking to do just that. A linebacker his entire career, and the team’s leading tackler two years (he was second despite missing three games as a senior), Davis got feelers at fullback at last year’s Pro Day. He resisted then, but had a change of heart when he nearly made the Jacksonville Jaguars, then played for a short time north of the border with the B.C. Lions of the CFL.
P.J. came to the Brock for Pro Day 2018, fully embracing and actively chasing a job at fullback. Among his suitors was Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a fan of his from the 2017 Pro Day.
“We had a good conversation,” he said. “Last year he was very interested in me at fullback but I tried the linebacker route. That’s really a big reason why I came back. I wanted to get back in front of Coach Quinn and see, ‘Can I get another chance?’ He came and talked to me and asked me about my film and everything from Jacksonville. He said he’s going to be looking at it and we’ll keep in touch.”
The Austins also talked with Quinn, among others. The scouts were about the only thing taking away from yet one more chance to compete against each other. Lawrence had a slight edge in the 40 and the pair tied with 16 reps apiece on the bench.
“Me and Lawrence tied on the bench. As long he didn’t beat me I’m satisfied,” said Lance, with a laugh. “I feel like he had a great day as well. It might be our last time playing together. So it’s a blessing to come out and compete with him one more time.”
“It’s a great opportunity. I’m just thankful that we get an opportunity to compete. I thank Georgia Tech for giving us the opportunity,” said Lawrence. “We talked to a couple of teams after and they liked what we did so we’re just looking for an opportunity. We’re taking a tenacious attitude and are ready to compete anywhere.”
Devine was pleased with how he competed. He, of course, felt he could have done better, but in typical Shamire fashion, kept things in perspective and keep things light.
For example, when asked about his vertical he said, “I don’t remember. I jumped. They had to lower it because my arms are too long.”
He also stated that he was open to ANY challenges.
“I’m excited to do what anyone says. Coach walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, I need you to run a route.’ ‘I ain’t fast but I’ll do it for you,’” he said. “I’m always excited. I’m excited to graduate, I’m excited to get out in the business world, and I’m excited to play football at this point. They said I did well but I feel like I could have done better.”
With Pro Day behind them, Tech’s 14 reps will decompress for a little bit, then resume training -- Devine also will complete his final two exams -- and wait for a call back to show their wears again.
“It feels like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” said Lance. “You put all this work in for one day. I felt like I had a good showing on the field today, along with my other teammates.”
“Now it’s vacation time for a little bit and get back to grinding after that,” said Green. “Hopefully I get a phone call sooner or later but I’m not stressed about it. I know at the end of the day it comes back to film. Once they watch the film somebody will give me a shot.”