Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich. AP Photo
INDIANAPOLIS - Perhaps the most inspiring story at this year's Combine is that of Boston College's Mark Herzlich (6-4, 244). The linebacker's remarkable comeback from cancer has been well-documented over the past couple of years.
So has his growing relationship with former Patriots great Tedy Bruschi.
"Tedy reached out to me first. I remember the date - September 29, 2009 - because that was also the date I was told I no longer had cancer," Herzlich recalled.
"One thing he told me that night, he said, 'Mark, you're a survivor now. Be proud of being a survivor.' Those are words that have stayed with me throughout the whole process. To me, that meant, 'Get your story out there. Raise as much money as you can. Be helpful to other people.' He was that way to me. He does his charity work still. I played in his golf tournament last summer... so, I still stay in touch with him all the time. I help coach at his camp. He's a great guy. He's definitely an inspiration and a motivator."
Asked Sunday morning during his press conference inside the Baker & Daniels Club at Lucas Oil Stadium to put a percentage on where he is now compared to before his medical ordeal, Herzlich had a quick and easy answer.
"Yeah, I'm back 100 percent," he said unequivocally. "My times running are just like they were, my reps lifting are just where they were. So, I don't expect any problems the next couple of days."
He added that he stopped thinking about his cancer about halfway through last season at Boston College.
Given his size and strength, the former Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year (2008) could be either an inside or outside linebacker at the next level, depending on which scheme he ends up in. The question of Herzlich's best fit is one of the common questions he gets from NFL teams.
"They'll ask me where I feel comfortable and I'll tell them and they tell me, 'Well, this is where we want you.' A lot of teams look at me as a Sam in the 3-4 or the 4-3. Some other teams have told me I could play inside in the 3-4. I had versatility at Boston College and can do a lot of things. I think it's helped me."
If there's an area of his game that needs work right now, it's in pass coverage, he conceded.
"We did not do much man-coverage in college... played a lot of zone. At the Senior Bowl, I worked... on a lot of man skills. That's something I'm definitely trying to get better at."
Versatility, mental toughness, and maturity are just a few traits this affable, articulate player possesses - not to mention a strong connection with the Patriots through Bruschi and current defensive lineman Ron Brace, a former BC Eagle teammate. Put it all together and it would seem to add up that Herzlich might be a player who could end up continuing to play football in the New England area in the near future.
Reed the right fit?
Despite lacking ideal size for the position, Arizona pass rusher Brooks Reed(6-2, 263) is projecting as a 3-4 outside linebacker for most NFL teams.
"It's probably 80-20 right now 3-4 as opposed to 4-3, hand down guy," Reed said of teams showing interest.
Reed had 6.5 sacks last fall after notching 8.5 as a junior. Thanks to his long, blonde hair he's drawn comparisons to a certain Packers pass rusher.
"He's a great athlete. I know a lot of guys compare me to him just because of the hair or whatever," Reed said of Clay Matthews. "He's a great athlete and he played in a system where he was a stand-up linebacker where I'm trying to make that transition right now. So I think it's going to take me maybe a little bit more time to understand that position. But I think I have the athletic ability to do that."
Reed readily admits he doesn't come from a sophisticated college defense. He's been working with former NFL linebacker Barry Gardner, who spent time with the Patriots in 2006.
"We had a pretty simple system down at U of A and having my hand down we didn't really do much except rush the quarterback," Reed admits. "He kind of opened my eyes to the whole 'scheme' of things, 4-3 and 3-4. Putting that on the field and training, adding technique along with it. It's kind of a building process for me but I think I've come a long way."
He's trying to make a transition from defensive line to playing on two feet that Arizona legend Tedy Bruschi made more than a decade ago. Reed says he's never had the chance to meet No. 54.
"I wish. I wish I could meet the guy," Reed said with a big smile. "I've never talked to him. Never been able to shake his hand. But I've seen a little film on him."
Reed has another connection to New England, one that he's found tough to maintain of late. Former teammate Rob Gronkowski had a huge rookie season for the Patriots and Reed says that's made him tough to talk to.
"I haven't talked to Rob yet. He's kind of hard to get a hold of. He's gone big time now," Reed said with a laugh.
Be like Tom!
Cam Newton wasn't the only big time but maligned quarterback to reference Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in his Combine press conference.
Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, between shooting down questions about drug rumors, also brought up the NFL's best when asked what he looked forward to at the next level.
Interestingly, while Newton hopes someday to be an icon, No. 12 and 18 have clearly already reached that level. Nothing proves an athlete's elite level like be referenced by only his first name. Like Mike. Or Tiger. Or Shaq.
Mallett said he was looking forward to, "Competing against the guys that are at the top of the game right now. Trying to be like Tom and Peyton and guys like that is something I strive for as I watch the way they play the game. They control the game at the line of scrimmage and that's what I like to do."
Call Gatorade, all the kids today, they wanna be like Tom!
Spikes, Hill learned together
Florida underclassman safety prospect Will Hill, like so many Combine prospects, has an off-field issue that teams are asking about. Hill's has to do with a Twitter account controversy that crept up last year as well as a suspension that came when Urban Meyer simply said the safety "wasn't ready to play."
Now married, and the father of three children (all age 1 or under, including two one-year-old boys from different mothers), Hill claims teams have asked quite a bit about his various issues but that they've also accepted his answers.
"Everything was blown out of proportion," Hill said Sunday at the Combine. "Will does this. Will does that. Everybody doesn't know that I've been married for a year now. All that Twitter stuff was, I'd say, seven, eight months ago. Before my marriage. Everybody's just going off previous things, not knowing the real Will Hill. I'm a family man. I have three boys. They all look up to me and how do I look projecting that to my kids.
"[Teams] are accepting. They know guys make mistakes. I was a sophomore when I was taking these (Twitter) pictures and doing things like that. You have to live and learn. I'm learning from this experience just being here and telling me what to do next time. Or don't do this and don't do that. For me, I deleted my Twitter. I have no Twitter now."
Hill said he's kept up with a couple of his former teammates that now call New England home, guys he's leaned on for years dating back to their time together in Gainesville.
"I talked to [Aaron] Hernandez and [Brandon] Spikes. When I first got here, like nobody wouldn't talk to me at Florida and those two guys right there took me under their wing. So I talk to them quite often. They tell me how the league is and what to expect," Hill said.
Spikes had his own minor internet video controversy early in his career with the Patriots last summer. According to Hill the pair of now former Gators have discussed their internet issues.
"Yeah, we sat back, kicked back and had us a few laughs about it," Hill said of Spikes' video. "But at the end of it you know what to do now and what not to do. I learned from his mistake also. If you do do something, closed doors, stay back, stay to yourself. People out there don't need to know what you're doing."
Like so many Gators in recent years, Hill's other connection to New England is having listened to Bill Belichickaddress the team during his annual spring visits to the Florida campus.
"I haven't really spoken to him, but I've seen him around," Hill said of Belichick. "That's Urban Meyer's like best friend. So he comes to speak to the team and delivers messages to us."
Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan and Ohio State counterpart Cameron Heywardhave more in common than just a first name. Both prospects began their athletic careers thinking they had a chance to go to the NBA, both believing they could end up being like a pair of current Boston Celtics teammates.
"When I started out, I was a basketball guy," Jordan said. "And that's what I thought I was going to be. Technically, I thought I was going to be the next AI (Allen Iverson). I don't think I have the frame for that. I think I'm a little bigger than he is. I thought I was going to be Kevin Garnett. But that didn't pan out as well. Football suits me."
Heyward, the son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, had both artistic and athletic aspirations, the latter of which had him dreaming of an even bigger NBA star.
"My true love was drawing. There is a picture I drew of my dad with a Zest bottle that got in the newspaper. I love drawing," Heyward recalled. "I also love basketball. I thought I'd be the next Shaquille O'Neal. I thought I'd grow to be 7-foot. It never happened. Once I got into football, I couldn't leave it alone. I loved it so much. Even though I was uncoordinated for a while, I started to get the hang of it. I think my coaches were like 'What is he doing out here?' ... I finally grew into my body."
The 2011 draft class doesn't include elite safety prospects, with the possibility that no player at the position will go in the first round, with few even going in the first three rounds. Balance that out with the fact that the Patriots currently sport a safety depth chart that includes Patrick Chung, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Jarrad Page and Josh Barrett, and safety isn't likely among New England's needs near the top of the draft.
If the team looks to safety, it's probably with an eye on a depth player capable of contributing on special teams. And with the success the team had with a defensive back out of Rutgers last year, maybe that player could come in the form of Scarlet Knight's strong safety Joe Lefeged (5-11, 210).
Projected as a potential fourth-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com, Lefeged would be more than happy to contribute in the kicking game early in his NFL career.
"I think I can play any role on special teams. I returned punts. I can return kicks. I played gunner last season. I blocked four kicks in my career at Rutgers," Lefeged said. "I think I can do it all. I can change the game playing special teams. That's one thing that I take a lot of pride in. Special teams is a part of the game. You can win a game or lose a game by the way you play on special teams. I know that and that's something I take a lot of pride in."
Another option with an eye on special teams play, although he may go as high as the second round, is Florida's Ahmad Black (5-9, 184). He lists his strengths as a physical style of play, and comes from a school where special teams are a part of the culture.
"When I came in to Florida that was the only way that anyone could play," said his fellow Gators safety Hill, who's a late-round prospect. "Like [Tim] Tebowcame in, he had to do a little something. He had to do a little punt. That was the pet peeve of Urban Meyer. He said you had to play special teams in order to play at Florida, especially since I'm on the defensive side of the ball. I became comfortable with it doing punt, punt block, kickoff and if I have to do that in the NFL I'd love to because I know how to do it now."
McCourty the mentor
Lefeged said that he kept in touch with his former Rutgers secondary teammate Devin McCourty throughout the last year as the first-year Patriots cornerback was making his mark in the league on the way to a Pro Bowl rookie season.
"Nobody else expected it, I expected it from him," Lefeged said. "Because I've been around him for three years. I know what he can do. He's a hard worker. He deserved to be a first-round pick. He's someone I look up to, someone who I follow. He was a leader on our football team. He's a leader now, he still talks to me often. He's been texting me since I've been down here.
"Me and him always argue about who's faster," Lefeged continued with a smile. "So we're going to find out come this week. But he's a competitive, great person and someone who I look up to. He taught me a lot of things and I'm trying to follow in his footsteps a little bit."
Report: Kaczur to be cut?
According to the Boston Herald, the Patriots approach offensive tackle Nick Kaczurabout taking "massive pay-cut" from the $3.4 million salary he's set to earn in 2011. The Herald, citing a source close to the situation, says that's not something that Kaczur, who missed all last season with a back injury, is willing to do.
Asked if the Patriots would cut Kaczur instead of paying him the high salary the source said, "They're going to have to."
Notes and Quotes
According to pool reports from inside Lucas Oil, Pittsburgh wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin struggled in his route running during drills. ... Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett showed off his strong arm in drills, at times too strong, but had a solid day throwing the ball. ... Overall, throughout many of the wide receiver/quarterback drills, a lot of footballs hit the ground. ... Newton had an up-and-down day. He impressed with a 10-6 broad jump and 4.59 40, but struggled quite a bit with his throwing, air mailing many receivers. ... Richmond quarterback Pat Devlintalked this week about his greatest strength being his accuracy and he displayed that during drills, according to pool reports having one of the highest completion percentage in the workouts. He could be a guy to keep an eye on as a potential developmental Patriot. ... Oklahoma safety Quinton Carter played Pop Warner with Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray and against his future Sooners teammate in high school. ... A number of players at the Combine, including Newton, wore Under Armour's new E39 compression shirts with built-in body monitoring technology. The shirts won't be available to the public until 2012. ... Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea put up 49 reps at 225 pounds, breaking the previous Combine record (45) that was tied by Mitch Petrus in 2010. "I did OK. I didn't do great," said Paea, who is of Tongan decent and was born in New Zealand. "My goal was 50." Paea tried for but could not lock out the 50th rep. ... Black said that Meyer told him early in his career at Florida that he'd never play for the Gators. A few years and 11 career interceptions later Black is a top safety prospect in this year's class. How'd he change Meyer's mind? "Just intercepting a couple balls and give him a bigger paycheck," Black joked. ... NFL Network analyst *Mike Mayock said that he expects North Carolina defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Quinn to blow up the Combine testing and run a 4.5 40, and that Quinn is, "as good a natural pass rusher as I've ever seen." ... Sunday concluded the media's access to the 2011 NFL Combine. Players will continue to do physical testing over the next couple days with much of the action broadcast on NFL Network.