With the NFL's Scouting Combine in the rearview mirror, the draft calendar now shifts to the various Pro Days around the country as prospects look to impress scouts with one final demonstration of strength, speed, smarts and agility. The Pro Days at big-time schools like Alabama or Ohio State might get the spotlight, but this past Tuesday Holy Cross hosted their own Pro Day featuring a number of talented small school players from around New England, headlined by Brown quarterback E.J. Perry, who was named the MVP of the Shrine Bowl and was an invitee at the Combine.
For Holy Cross, who featured two of their own athletes at the Pro Day, receiver Tenio Ayeni and defensive end Benton Whitely, it was a chance to show off their state-of-the-art facilities that have helped the Crusaders win three-straight Patriot League titles, as a nice cross-section of the NFL world descended upon their campus.
"A lot of these young guys, you think about them as little kids, probably someday it was their dream to play at that next level, and then to have an opportunity to show out in front of all of these NFL guys, and to host that here at Holy Cross, it's pretty special," said Holy Cross head coach Bob Chesney.
Patriots college scouting coordinator Brian Smith helped execute the day in conjunction with other NFL scouts who all seemed very familiar with the process and each other, something that might be surprising when you consider how competitive things can get on Sundays in the fall. Smith and all the scouts spend much of their springs traveling around to attend the Pro Days, as the teams round out their extensive research on all draft-eligible prospects.
"I'm very appreciative of the schools that host the events and are so hospitable to us throughout the year to allow us the opportunity to evaluate their players, and also they work they do on their end to help prepare their kids for days like [Tuesday]," said Smith. "I'm sure it's such a high-stakes, high-pressure situation for the athlete – we forget sometimes they're still so young and full of anxiety. Personally, I'm appreciative when a place like Holy Cross goes out of their way to make the process as smooth and efficient for everyone so that the player has the best experience possible, because at the end of the day it's about giving the player the best opportunity for success, even if that opportunity may only come during those three hours in front of the scouts on that day."
The Pro Day also featured athletes from smaller local schools like Assumption, Framingham State, Bridgewater State and Ana Maria, along with the well-represented Ivy League institutions Harvard and Brown. Nearly every NFL team was in attendance, as scouts put the prospects through height, weight and wingspan measurements, followed by the usual slate of Combine drills like vertical jump, bench, 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and short shuttle.
The sense of opportunity permeated the day, as the prospects vocally supported each other throughout the drills with family and friends proudly watching on from the sidelines as they tried to make a lasting impression on any one of the scouts that could change the trajectory of their lives in the coming months.
It was also another opportunity for Perry to once again show his stuff as he's made plenty of noise this spring with his performances both on the field and off it, as cameras caught Perry taking the time to clean up trash from a sideline during the Combine. The quarterback's throwing session at the end of the workouts was a highlight of the day as he connected on a wide variety of throws including some impressive downfield strikes.
Perry's former Brown teammate Jakob Prall, whose own draft process was cut short by COVID-19, was part of the receiver group despite being out of football for almost two years. Prall embodied what the day was all about for the players, as he's still chasing the dream while providing a familiar set of hands for his old QB to throw to.
"He was a heck of a player, and with COVID he kind of got left out and he's been training ever since," said Perry of Prall. "I love that, you know, a guy who's got nothing on his plate, been training six days a week for the last two years and he showed out today."
That's the kind of players and attitudes that were on display, good college football players giving everything they had to simply get a shot with an NFL team later this spring.
"You know, it's fun. You get to throw the football, that's awesome. The only thing that kind of stunk is you don't have pads and guys trying to hit you," said Perry after the session. "We've been out here the last six days doing the exact same thing, running it through, except when we're here alone, we can do it three, four times through. We all love this. Everyone who plays this game is trying to play at the next level, loves doing it. So, it's awesome."
Also in attendance to support Perry was former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck, who made the trip out to Worcester after sparking up a relationship with Perry while in Indianapolis for the Combine.
"Yeah, it's cool, I got to meet him at the Combine and he is a Massachusetts guy, Massachusetts legend," said Perry. "He's talked to me a few times about the process and given me some great advice.
"You know, people want to help you and, and that's something they always say and it's been great to get people around you to help me and give me some good advice."
The road from Holy Cross' Pro Day to the NFL might be long and uncertain, but for one day these small school prospects got all that any of them could ask for, an opportunity, and that's more than many others get.
"I hope that they had a great day," said Chesney. "I hope that they certainly maximize their ability. I hope they get a chance to show everybody what they're really all about and it doesn't work for everybody, but at the same point in time to maybe have one guy's dream realized here on this field today is pretty special."