The idea of going through a job interview and having the whole process watched and critiqued by hundreds is a bit strange, but it’s the way football players get matched up with their employers.
On Wednesday, Mississippi State held its on-campus Pro Day with all 32 NFL teams in attendance looking for their next stars. In this instance, there were plenty of strong candidates among the 20 Bulldogs who participated in a variety of tests and measurements.
“This is a great opportunity for our guys,” Dan Mullen said. “We have every NFL team represented here today, and it is exciting for all of them to come look at our prospects. Our senior class is walking out the door having been to four, and in some cases five, straight bowl games. Most of the guys that are here working out are college graduates and have earned their degree. This is a great opportunity for them to live a dream and move on to professional football.”
NFL Combine participants Preston Smith, Benardrick McKinney and Josh Robinson were the headliners, but several of their former teammates made fast impressions on the scouts and coaches in Starkville Wednesday.
Perhaps more impressive than anyone was Matt Wells. The linebacker/safety measured in at 6’1” and 222 pounds, while clocking a 4.4 second 40-yard dash, though some scouts had him in the high 4.3 range. His 35” inch vertical (tops for the day) and 9’10” broad jump (second-best) added to the idea that he is an extremely athletic player. Several teams made an effort to find him when the day was done.
“He did great,” Smith said of his old defensive teammate. “We always knew he was fast, but we wanted everyone else to realize he was fast. That shoots him up the board.”
In terms of performance, cornerback Jamerson Love might have had the best day of any. The speedy corner clocked a 4.38 on his first 40 and followed it up with a 4.37 on his second run, according to nearby scouts. That was the fastest time of the day and 9’11” broad jump was also tops among all participants. The only thing he didn’t beat everyone in was the vertical jump, where his 34” was just barely behind Wells.
As for brute strength, defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls and running back Nick Griffin tied for the high with 26 reps each on the 225-pound bench press. Each drew the attention of those watching, and Griffin’s day was particularly impressive. Despite being on the large end of the scale for running backs, he still delivered a 34.5” vertical and 9’5” broad jump, each among the top performances regardless of position.
Offensive linemen Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Clausell all put up over 20 reps on the bench press, as well, though their showings in positional drills were likely the most important factor.
Of note on the pass-catchers, slot receiver Jameon Lewis made a number of impressive catches, while tight end Malcolm Johnson created a bit of a buzz among those watching with his performance in route-running and agility drills. One of those pass-catchers, tight end Brandon Hill, also worked out with the linebackers, a position he previously played in high school, and showed well both in size and versatility. He was joined there by former tight end and current linebacker Christian Holmes, whose 32” vertical and 9’8” broad jump were impressive.
Jay Hughes at safety and P.J. Jones at defensive tackle rounded out the defensive side of the ball, while receiver Robert Johnson showed off agility in positional and cone drills.
While Smith and McKinney didn’t run timed and measured drills, they did take part in a wealth of positional exercises. Despite Smith being a lineman and McKinney being a linebacker, each of them worked in both sets of drills. Smith is on the big end for a linebacker and McKinney on the small end for a lineman, but each has the versatility to do either well in the right scheme, and the reviews from scouts were favorable.
“I wanted to do it to help myself and make myself a little more marketable to NFL teams,” Smith said of his choice to participate in linebacker drills, too.
Beyond just being good and potential first or second round picks, Smith and McKinney are perfect examples of what Mullen has been building at MSU. It’s the first time under Mullen all 32 NFL teams have been to Pro Day in Starkville and they turned out in droves to watch a bunch of guys no one else wanted when they were looking for a school to go to.
Are recruiting rankings that bad or does MSU develop that well? It’s “probably a little bit of both,” according to Mullen, but it’s certainly unique that the two biggest stars Wednesday, and all three of the Bulldogs invited to the NFL Combine, were relative afterthoughts in the recruiting process.
“Mississippi State was my only offer,” McKinney said, “so I have to thank Melvin Smith for recruiting me. I have a lot of respect for Coach Collins, because he made me the linebacker that I am today. He always told me to be the best linebacker in the SEC.”
Said Preston Smith, “I wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, but Mississippi State gave me a chance. We want to show that stars do not define players. Hard work does. All stars mean is that you are the best player in high school, but you have to perform at the next level, too. The stars do not mean anything once you step on the field. The coaching staff here has helped me a lot. They believe in us and they want to make sure we are the best players we can be.
Following the workouts, the players spent the majority of the rest of the day in meetings with the coaches and scouts who watched them all morning, and discussions with teams will begin to heat up over the coming weeks in advance of the NFL Draft in April.
For Mullen, he’s just glad his guys got the chance to show what they can do.
“When you see the opportunity our players are having, it shows how we develop our players not just on the field, but physically,” Mullen said. “We take a lot of pride in that. I think that shows a lot of younger guys that if they come here and work their tail off, they can be successful.”