New Orleans player made the most of his chance last year at Illinois' event. Evan Wilson and others will try to do the same Thursday.
CHAMPAIGN — Evan Wilson passes the eye test upon first glance.
He’s tall. He’s big. The genetic makeup of a tight end is evident.
The former Illinois player knows, however, he must pass numerous other tests in front of multiple NFL scouts this morning at Illinois’ pro day. Like the 40-yard dash. Three-cone drills. Bench-press reps. Vertical jumps.
His chance of a future in the NFL depends on it.
Illinois players don’t find themselves filling up mock draft boards this winter like they have in the past. Only one — linebacker Jonathan Brown — has had his name consistently floated about, albeit as a late-round selection. For a majority of seniors on last year’s Illinois football team, the best chance they have of landing with an NFL team is to shine at pro day.
Glenn Foster did last year. The Chicago Mount Carmel product didn’t have the illustrious career at Illinois like fellow defensive linemen he played with in Corey Liuget (first-round pick in 2011), Whitney Mercilus (first-round pick in 2012), Akeem Spence (fourth-round pick in 2013) and Michael Buchanan (seventh-round pick in 2013).
Yet he landed a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints after an impressive pro day saw him produce a vertical jump of 391/2 inches and 29 bench-press reps of 225 pounds, both tops among all Illinois participants in last year’s pro day.
“It was an amazing day for me,” Foster said. “When I got to pro day, because I didn’t get invited to the combine, my mentality was I had to prove the whole NFL wrong. I just had a huge chip on my shoulder to show that I belonged in the NFL.”
He’s there now. Foster is coming off a rookie season in which he played in 12 games, made seven tackles and recorded three sacks. Not All-Pro numbers by any means, but numbers no one really thought possible last spring. Just making an NFL roster was considered a long shot for the undrafted Foster. Running the 40 in 4.79 seconds isn’t bad for a lineman, either.
“My agents told me the numbers I was putting up during training leading up to my pro day were off the charts,” Foster said. “We already had a game plan, which was to wow those scouts in attendance. That was my mission. It was surreal I did so well at times because I hardly got any sleep the night before. I was so anxious.”
Wilson and other former Illini who will go through drills this morning probably feel the same way.
“Watching in the past and seeing all the great players go through it, I could never really envision myself there,” Wilson said. “I’m sweating every day thinking about what I need to do to get better. It’s your potential future.”
Wilson didn’t have a breakout season catching the ball, hauling in six passes for 67 yards and three touchdowns. But the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Wilson isn’t putting too much stock in those numbers when it comes to his professional hopes.
“One thing I’ve noticed from hearing from the NFL veterans during my training is that they might not have had that great production in college, but all they needed was that one chance,” Wilson said. “It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. It’s what you do do with that opportunity that a lot of free agent guys get. It doesn’t matter how you get in the league, but it’s your longevity once you get in.”
Wilson spent six weeks training this winter at St. Vincent’s Performance in Indianapolis. Getting faster was a focal point of the sessions.
“The big thing they emphasize here is just running mechanics and being able to stay stable through your core,” Wilson said. “One thing I’ve improved on is my balance in my hips and my core. That really ties into everything, from getting faster to working on your change of direction. I think that’s what they do an excellent job in.”
Just as important as showcasing their athleticism and skills necessary to help an NFL team is how players interact with the various scouts and team personnel they meet.
“Some of the most important moments are the 15 minutes when you go in and meet with the coaches and general managers,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “Being able to show that, ‘Hey, I’ve got something here that can help teams outside of my football skills,’ is big. Glenn Foster showed that, and one of the biggest things he was able to show to teams was when he was speaking with them. He brought more to the table than just being a good football player.”
Foster is about to enter the second year of a three-year contract with the Saints. He’s set to make $495,000 during the 2014 season, far from the highest-paid player on Sean Payton’s team. But it’s a lot more money than most people thought Foster would make in the NFL at this time last year.
Maybe one of the plethora of players Illinois will have at its pro day Thursday can become the next Foster. A relative unknown outside of Champaign-Urbana whom NFL teams hardly knew.
“At the end of the day, you only can control what you can control,” Foster said. “All the rounds of the draft and how that pans out, you can’t control that. What you can control is your work ethic and how you perform on the pro day. Just max out your opportunity at the pro day. The last thing you want to do is have a regret.”
Giving it a shot — or not
The all-time leader in total offense at Illinois won’t give the NFL a shot.
Nathan Scheelhaase is not one of the Illinois seniors on the 2013 team who will go through workouts this morning at the practice fields inside Irwin Indoor Facility.
Scheelhaase is residing in Louisville, Ky., and involved in ministry work. Coach Tim Beckman said he talked to his former quarterback about the assistant director of player personnel and alumni relations role Matt Sinclair used to have to gauge Scheelhaase’s interest in the position.
“I tried to bring him back,” Beckman said, “but he’s not ready to dive into that yet.”
Toward the end of the 2013 season, Scheelhaase didn’t bring up the possibility of pursuing a pro football career like several of his classmates did. Beckman said he leaves decisions like that up to the players.
“Nathan is a mature individual who has dreams of other things than just football,” Beckman said. “He knows what he wants to achieve in his life. Whatever Nathan decides to do and whatever he wants to do, I’ll fully support.”
Here’s a look at the individuals expected to go through workouts at Thursday’s pro day:
Jonathan Brown, LB — Will need to run faster in the 40-yard dash than he did at the NFL combine (5.03 seconds)
Spencer Harris, WR — First-round draft pick if NFL teams were selecting players with the best beards
Steve Hull, WR — Wideout who emerged last year out to answer some question marks regarding health, inexperience
Ryan Lankford, WR — Speedster will need to show scouts he is progressing past dislocated shoulder
Corey Lewis, OL — Right tackle should get an NFL spot based on how he’s dealt with adversity, injuries at Illinois
Tim Russell, QB — Likely just throwing to wideouts, but holder would crave chance to do the same in the NFL
Evan Wilson, TE — Already has highlight-reel catch against Miami (Ohio) on tape but needs to impress Thursday
Former Illinois players
Jason Ford, RB — 16th-leading rusher in UI history spent 2012 preseason with Pittsburgh
Russell Ellington, LB — Had productive 2009 season at UI before eventually transferring to Morehouse College
Keith Lewis, DB — Chicago native played the 2012 season at Virginia University of Lynchburg, a Division II school
Alex Pierce, OL — Right guard at Eastern Illinois started 47 games in his four-year career with the Panthers