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Inside South Carolina's NFL Pro Day: The Scout's View

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Yesterday 14 Gamecocks were put to the test in front of dozens of scouts and coaches for our annual NFL Pro Day. The rainy Wednesday morning started off with representatives from 28 of the 32 NFL teams filing in to the Crews building at Williams-Brice Stadium with their clipboards and stopwatches, ready to get numbers and information on all our NFL draft-eligible players: Ladi Ajiboye, Blake Baxley, Garrett Chisolm, Chris Culliver, Josh Dickerson, Patrick DiMarco, Hutch Eckerson, Tori Gurley, Jarriel King, Spencer Lanning, Brian Maddox, Cliff Matthews, Weslye Saunders and Charles Turner.

I talked with two scouts throughout the day, Mark Sadowski with the Chicago Bears and Tim Mingey with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who both helped coordinate this year's Pro Day with Director of Football Operations Jamie Speronis. I wanted to learn more about the overall player evaluation process, how Pro Day fits in and what scouts take from it, and the work and lifestyle of an NFL scout.

It's no secret that NFL football is big business and teams' personnel decisions can be crucial to a team's success on the field and its bottom line. The groundwork done by scouts is a huge part of the process. The work of an NFL college scout includes extensive research, data analysis, traveling to watch different players, watching film, and more.

It varies by team, but there are generally about five to seven college scouts on a staff and they divide the country into regions (west coast, southeast, northeast, etc.) and they are responsible for researching and evaluating players in their respective regions. The busiest time of year is the fall during the season when they're visiting schools pretty much every day, but evaluating players is a year-round task.

"As college scouts we really get cranking in August with two-a-days and preseason camps," said Sadowski. "Then September on through December we're going to a school a day within our areas or regions, catching games on Saturdays, working and doing reports on Sundays then starting all over on Monday."

"Immediately after the draft in April scouts start watching tape for next year, trying to round up the best film on the next group of guys," said Mingey. "Some guys, quarterbacks for example, you just have to see live during the season so you start working on setting up your schedule for the guys you want to see, start interviewing and doing background research, then after the season assess at the combine and pro days."

"Pro Day is the final piece of the evaluation process," Mingey explained. "We start looking at players at least a year out. It's the final look we get at a player before the draft."
 
Mingey estimated he goes to five to seven Pro Days per week during the spring all across the southeast. He was at Coastal Carolina the day before our Pro Day evaluating their players and in a helpful move for scouts, players from South Carolina State University were coming up to Columbia to hold their Pro Day on campus at USC following the Gamecocks.
 
Mingey confirmed my thought that having 28 teams represented is definitely "above average" interest from scouts. Anything above about 15 teams is a good number, he said. The Carolina Panthers were the most heavily represented team at yesterday's Pro Day, which is understandable due to the short travel distance and familiarity with the program. The Panthers currently have three former Gamecocks on their roster in Captain Munnerlyn, Eric Norwood, and Travelle Wharton (read last week's update post about Travelle).

Although Pro Day is the final look, it's not the be all, end all of the process. Mingey described it as one piece of a big puzzle while Sadowski likened evaluating prospects to  a recipe with Pro Day as just one ingredient. Sadowski further explained the rest of the recipe:

"One of the ingredients is preseason practices, how does he look from where I saw him last year and then we scout him throughout the year, his playing, his games, that's another piece of the recipe. If he goes to an all-star game, a bowl game, that's another piece of the recipe. Then you have the Combine and now this is kind of the last piece, but it's not big. We're just finalizing measurements, last time we'll get a chance to see them live. We're getting final measurements how big they are, how fast they are, if they're faster than we thought they were when we saw them on tape. Some guys can help themselves, but rarely hurt themselves."

A player's final evaluation grade can range anywhere from first round to undrafted free agent and will often end up being the product of many different evaluators' grades. The area/regional scout is usually the first to evaluate a player, then a player may be evaluated by a crosscheck scout - a scout from another area/region who hasn't yet seen the player - to see if their grades match up. The evaluating process could continue up the line to the assistant and/or head coach and the general manager. The cumulative evaluation has dozens of components, both on the field and off the field.

It's also possible for Pro Day to re-open a scout's eyes and spark a re-evaluation of a player who had perhaps been overlooked previously or maybe didn't participate in the combine. Some guys who did attend the combine may not do every drill at Pro Day if they are satisfied with their combine numbers, while others may want the chance to show improvement from the combine, as Cliff Matthews did on Wednesday by completing three more reps on the bench press than he did at the combine.

"Perhaps someone we graded lower or had even closed the book on, the scout may go back and watch their film again, give him another look," said Mingey. "I may want to see a DB get thrown at more to see his ball skills if perhaps he didn't get thrown at much during the season. Teams may have specific things they want to see from a player they haven't been able to evalute so they'll get more info on that."

Sadowski echoed the same sentiments, saying, "maybe they didn't get enough or a lot of playing time, especially at a place like South Carolina where you have a bunch of great athletes. With the rotation they don't get as much playing time as they might like, so you get one last chance to look at them and if they test out well than absolutely."

The tests at Pro Day include many objective measures of athleticism. Players started the day in the weight room yesterday getting their height and weight recorded followed by the bench press test - the number of repetitions bench pressing 225 pounds.

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Scouts look on during the bench press test

With the rainy weather, the rest of the testing moved to the indoor facility at the USC Field House instead of outdoors in Williams-Brice. There players were measured in vertical jump, broad jump, 40 yard dash, and various shuttle runs. Different scouts lead and instruct players at each station (for example a Titans scout measured height and a Seahawks scout oversaw the bench press test).

Everything is VERY specific and detailed, which is no surprise for such a high-stakes and thorough process. Players must stand a certain way when getting their height taken and the scout overseeing the bench press test laid out plain guidelines for what counts as a rep: no excessive bouncing off the chest, keep hips down flat on the bench, and no "short strokes" - full extension or it doesn't count.

Each scout keeps a chart with each participating player's name and boxes to fill in with their results for each measure or time. While some scouts may pair up to share 10- and 20-yard splits on an overall 40-yard dash time for example, most scouts like to keep their own charts and records and it's considered proprietary information to each team. For those of you who were wondering why we don't release results from Pro Day, that's why! And it's also why there's not much to share as far as what the scouts thought of any of our guys in particular - they couldn't say even if they wanted to.

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Scouts recording 40-yard dash times

A lot of the secrecy is all a part of overall strategy and competition. Scouts pay attention to who other scouts are watching or paying the most attention to and it can become part of draft day strategy. Some teams may even try to hide their interest in a certain player by hardly talking to him, which can lead to some draft day surprises, even for the players themselves. Scouts tend to know what other teams position needs are. So for one example, if the rest of the league knows a team needs a defensive lineman and they're spending a lot of time at a pro day talking to that school's linemen other scouts will definitely make note of their interest and perhaps get an idea of which teams they're in competition with.

One of the most valuable parts of any Pro Day can be the position-specific drills which are most subjective and customizable. Scouts go beyond the 40 times and measurements to see some actual football skills - it's a time to get them on the field and put them through actual NFL drills. Some coaches or scouts may ask to run certain drills to get information unique to their team.

"Some stuff you're not necessarily measuring how fast they can do it put how 'quickly' they can do it visually, if they have balance, athletic ability to play on their feet and stuff like that," said Sadowski. "Every position through one way or another we are trying to visualize their athleticism, balance, ability to bend, etc. One of the most important things a lot of people don't realize we look at is how they're able to take orders and be coached. We have NFL coaches [at Pro Days] putting them through drills and if they can't understand and execute what's being asked of them, that can be a problem. They can be the best athlete, the fastest, but if they can't execute what's being asked there's an issue with that."

Mingey also mentioned the importance of getting to know the players when evaluating them live. "We also get a feel for the player's attitude and personality, how they can follow instructions and coaching, how they respond to doing well or not doing well."

Sadowski continued, "if we don't have a chance to talk to them at an all-star game or at the combine this is a great time for us to sit and talk about them, their family, personal life, how they're doing in school, and stuff like that, get a good feel for them as a football player but also as a person...We do a lot [of background research], maybe too much, but it helps out in the end because you get a good feel for a person either good or bad and it's always good to know as much as you can."

While he couldn't go into specifics on individual players, Sadowski left the Gamecocks' Pro Day with a very positive feel and praise for how South Carolina runs Pro Day:

"Pro Day here was a great day for us as scouts. We've been planning this for weeks so it's nice when everything goes well. Everything was very organized and the [South Carolina] coaching staff was available to answer any questions about players. With this format we're able to evaluate several players in a relatively short amount of time. At South Carolina we know we're going to see good players in a highly organized way so it's great for us."

Craig Fitzgerald, the Gamecocks' Director of Football Strength & Conditioning, also felt it was a successful day for the Gamecocks.

"The guys did great today. It's neat to see their last performance situation. They all peaked at the right time. We had a lot of him here training with us, a few guys go away and train and they all did an awesome job. They were all competitive and ran the tests hard, neat to see. They were ready and did a heck of a job. It was neat to see Cliff Matthews do three different position groups."

Matthews performed the position-specific drills for defensive linemen (he played defensive end at Carolina), linebacker, and tight end. Why?

"I'm looking for a job, I'll do whatever it takes," said Matthews.

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Cliff Matthews at Pro Day

All the Pro Day testing wrapped up around 1:30 PM and the scouts went their separate ways, on to the next Pro Day to continue their evaluations as the NFL Draft looms at the end of April. Even with the current NFL lockout, the scout's job doesn't end as college football continues as usual.

After the draft they'll be right back to work preparing for the class of 2012 and the next round of Gamecocks looking for their start in the NFL. See you again this time next year!

-Brittany Lane

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