March 5, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. – It is a little after 6 a.m. when Phillip Lolley arrives at the Auburn football complex on Tuesday. It is Pro Day, and Lolley is responsible for more than 100 scouts and coaches, representing all 32 NFL teams, and 16 former Auburn football players.
Many of the NFL folks have been in town since Monday, getting a last look at video of departing Auburn players and taking a hard look at video of players who will be draft-eligible in 2015.
“They want to know everything,” says Lolley, Auburn’s director of football external relations. “Any prior problems? Any discipline issues? They are going to invest a lot of money in these guys, and they want to know. They are already watching film on next year’s guys. It’s just like recruiting. When you get near the end of one year, you’re already working on the next year. They are doing the same thing.”
The day begins with coffee and donuts and some laughing and storytelling. Edmonton Eskimos coach Chris Jones is the only CFL representative in town. He’s here to look at players and to see his old friend and mentor. When Lolley was a high school head coach, he gave Jones, from South Pittsburgh, Tenn., his first coaching job.
“These guys don’t want to talk to me right now,” Jones says. “They all have stars in their eyes. Give them a few weeks, and it will be different for a lot of them.”
Buddy Nix, who was an Auburn defensive assistant for Doug Barfield and later the general manager of the Buffalo Bills, is now the assistant to the Bills president. Jones played for Nix when Nix was the head coach at Chattanooga.
“Things are good,” Nix says. “I have an office at home. I don’t travel a lot. It’s good.”
Lolley is busy answering questions and making sure things are organized. Time is nearing for players to begin their drills. Those who will work out include a possible No. 1 pick in left tackle Greg Robinson, a probable first-round pick in defensive end Dee Ford, perhaps the top running back in the draft in Tre Mason and All-SEC cornerback Chris Davis. It also includes a walk-on and even former Auburn safety Demetruce McNeal.
Lolley has a soft spot for the guys who aren’t high-profile, who hope to get the attention of the NFL scouts in town.
“We’ve had lot of free agents and low-round guys who made it out of here,” Lolley says. “I recommended Spencer Johnson. Jay Ratliff was another one. Rod Hood was another one. Kevin Hobbs was another one. Daren Bates. Those guys got a shot and took advantage of it.”
For the scouts and coaches, it’s time for a meeting. They’ll hear from head coach Gus Malzahn and position coaches for the players who will work out. Malzahn talks about every player and why he believes they deserve a hard look.
Running backs coach Tim Horton talks about Tre Mason’s “bull” yards, yards that a running back gets on his own. He might run through a tackle or make a player miss. Bull yards, Horton says, accounted for 46 percent of Mason’s yards. He says, when he was running backs coach at Arkansas, Felix Jones had 39 percent and Daren McFadden 32 percent.
Mason rushed for 1,816 yards in Auburn’s run to the BCS Championship Game, but Horton says he never let it change him.
“He’s a smart kid,” Horton says. “He’s accountable. You didn’t have to worry about him missing a class or missing a workout or anything like that.”
Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith says Davis has a “really unique skill set. Ryan White, he says, “is a smart guy with really good feet. He can do some good stuff.”
Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes has perhaps the easiest job. Everyone in the room is quite familiar with Robinson, who made a major splash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“I never saw him take a lazy step,” Grimes says. “Right up until he said he was going to the NFL, this guy did everything he could to help Auburn win.”
Defensive line coach Rodney Garner says Dee Ford has a “tremendous first step” and can do everything he needs to do. “As good a football player as he is, he’s a better young man,” Garner says. “He has no baggage.”
And so it goes until it’s time for the real fun to begin.
The scouts and coaches go to the weight room, where players are tested on how many bench press reps they can do with 225 pounds and in the high jump and the broad jump. Ford does 29 reps, a remarkable number. He’s aggravated because he can’t make 30. Fullback Jay Prosch does 27. Davis leaps 40 ½ inches.
Auburn teammates, most of them together again for the first time since January, loudly cheer each other on.
“It was great to be around my teammates,” Ford says. “I’ve missed them. It was fun to be in that environment. That’s how we are every day in there.”
From there it’s on to the indoor practice facility for 40-yard dash times, other drills and position work. Walk-on Blake Poole causes something of a stir when he runs a 4.42.
Ford, who was not allowed to work out at the Combine because doctors were concerned about surgery that was done more than two years ago, is the star of the show. Robinson and Davis, for the most part, stand on their times from the Combine.
As they finish, players talk with reporters. Most are relatively pleased with what they did. Malzahn talks, too, about pride in those players, what they’ve done on this day and what they did last season. And finally it’s over.
There’s a lunch of barbecue, fried fish, chicken fingers, baked beans and macaroni and cheese for the coaches, scouts and Auburn staff. Garner is talking about how much the Auburn defensive line improved from the start of last season to the finish.
“When I watch the Washington State game and watch the game against Florida State, it looks like I cut all the ones that played against Washington State and signed a bunch of free agents,” Garner says with a laugh.
Soon, the NFL guys are gone, some of them back to their home cities, some down the road to Alabama State and some to other campuses.
The players will continue to work, some on the Auburn campus and some in other cities, and continue to wait for draft that will come in May.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: