Illini try to impress scouts at Pro Day

By By: Stephen Bourbon

After years of training on the field, some of the draft chances for former Illinois football players boiled down to one training session to impress NFL scouts.

On Thursday, seven Illini gave their auditions for the NFL in hopes of being drafted or signed for the upcoming 2014 season.

Nineteen scouts came out to the Irwin Athletic Center on Thursday morning to watch former Illini players such as linebacker Jonathan Brown; wide receivers Ryan Lankford, Steve Hull and Spencer Harris; offensive lineman Corey Lewis; defensive back Pat Youman; and tight end Evan Wilson.  

Lankford, who missed the final six games of 2013 with a shoulder injury, said he felt back to being at 100 percent and showed it. A former track athlete, Lankford ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds, which would have been fourth-best among receivers at the NFL Combine.

“I was very pleased with the 40 time,” Lankford said. “It was stressful, it was fun, it was nerve-wracking. I just really wanted to be out here, especially when we hit the turf, to come out here and be calm and relaxed.”

Hull tried to match his workout numbers to his late-season production. Hull led the Illini with 993 yards receiving in 2013 and seven touchdowns. He posted a 4.54 40-yard dash and a 36.5-inch vertical jump.

“I left some numbers out there that I could’ve done better, but the individual stuff felt really good,” Hull said. “I felt fluid. I felt like I put on a good demonstration for them.”

While players like Lankford and Hull were making their first impressions, linebacker Jonathan Brown was hoping to erase his first impression.

At the NFL combine, Brown said he was “disappointed” with his workout. He posted the slowest times among outside linebackers in the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill and shuttle. His 16 bench press reps was second-lowest among those who participated.

Thursday was a much better showing for Brown, who improved in almost every category — the lone outlier was Brown running .01 seconds slower in the 20-yard shuttle. Brown ran a 4.85 40, much better than his 5.03 at the combine, and put up two more on the bench than he did in Indianapolis with 18 reps.  

“I was very disappointed with the combine workout,” Brown said. “So I came back last week and into this week, worked hard and improved.”

The key to improving his 40-yard dash time was strikingly simple.

“The first thought that went across my mind was, ‘Don’t trip,’” Brown said. “After that, you just want to run fast, want to run fast, want to run fast. I think that kind of hindered me a bit. When I got out here today, my mind just went blank.”

Offensive lineman Corey Lewis is still chasing his dream of playing in the NFL despite chronic knee injuries. Lewis is believed to have played the entire 2013 season on a torn ACL, the fourth of his career. After having surgery to repair his knee on Dec. 18, Lewis weighed in and participated in bench press, putting up 26 reps.  

“I was hoping to get 30, my technique kind of went out the window,” Lewis said. “I wasn’t breathing how I should’ve been. The biggest thing for me was just getting the strength back because after surgery, the layoff kind of hurt my strength.”

In addition to the quantitative measures, the players went through positional drills and interviews with scouts as a part of the evaluation process. Now the true waiting game begins with the draft on May 8-10 in New York City and undrafted players being able to sign shortly afterward.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.