NFL scouts 11 Illini players at Pro Day

Illinois football players Kevin Mitchell (left) and Rashard Mendenhall warm up before doing drills at Pro Timing Day at Irwin Indoor Practice Facility in Champaign on Wednesday. Erica Magda

Illinois football players Kevin Mitchell (left) and Rashard Mendenhall warm up before doing drills at Pro Timing Day at Irwin Indoor Practice Facility in Champaign on Wednesday. Erica Magda

By Daniel Johnson

For those 11 athletes who are lucky enough to be considered for the NFL, Wednesday was their chance, for better or worse, to show NFL scouts what they can do.

Russ Weil, Mike Ware, Justin Harrison, Kevin Mitchell, Anthony Thornhill, Justin Sanders, DaJuan Warren, Antonio Steele, Jason Reda, Chris Norwell and Rashard Mendenhall were those subjected to the discerning eye of scouts representing every NFL team at Illinois’ Pro Timing Day. Noticeably missing were linebacker J Leman, who is still recovering from ankle surgery, and guard Martin O’Donnell, who has chosen not to continue with football.

The players that did participate were put through a variety of drills measuring everything from speed, quickness, strength to the width of their hands.

They were aware of the procedure and process that would take place with the Timing Day, but at times it seemed to the players that they were less athletes than pieces of meat on display for potential buyers.

“You’re getting weighed, measured and everything else, and I know at the (NFL) Combine, it’s worse,” safety Kevin Mitchell said. “It’s just one of those things that teams are really looking for the best guy for that mold and, obviously, they’re going to evaluate every nook and cranny that they can. Hopefully, you’re just going to test to be what they want to see.”

One of the biggest and arguably most over-hyped aspects of Timing Day was the 40-yard dash. Every scout at the Timing Day watched with stopwatch in hand.

A great 40 time can often give a player a huge draft “stock” boost if evaluators can see that he has speed, an element that is at such a high premium in today’s NFL. While some players have a background in other sports to help them with the running aspect of the drill, others, like Mitchell, do not.

“I was kind of nervous coming into it because I have never been involved in track and I only had a month to really get that start down,” the safety said. “I was kind of trembling last night, I couldn’t sleep too well but it went OK. I think that (Justin) Harrison and I ran a lot better than people would have thought.”

Some players, such as Mitchell, Harrison and Weil, had more to prove at Timing Day than others, like Mendenhall who is by most accounts a first-round lock. Even with the hype surrounding Mendenhall, the Skokie, Ill., native still gave a limited workout to those scouts that wanted to see him.

“I think that me, being a heavier back, a lot of people see me as a power back; that’s really not my style too much,” Mendenhall said. “I was fortunate enough to go to the (NFL) Combine and have a pretty good combine, so there really wasn’t as much weight on my shoulders as other guys.”

For those players that might have more “weight on their shoulders,” Timing Day was their chance to disprove any flaws that scouts may have perceived and build positive reviews.

If a player cannot generate enough interest to garner a draft pick, he may still be picked up through free agency. The New Orleans Saints signed former Illini running back Pierre Thomas as an undrafted free agent last year, a route that some of the athletes are aware they may be taking.

“The good thing about free agency is you can pick whatever team offers you a contract,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes, it is better than going (in the late rounds of the draft).”

Whether a player lands in the first round, seventh round, or as an undrafted free agent, the 11 that participated in Timing Day have a much different set of challenges in front of them than their former teammates. Come time for the NFL Draft in April, they will see if their work has paid off.