TAMPA — Justin Strnad could not possibly have anticipated the events of the past month since he attended the NFL combine, but looking back, the former East Lake High standout is glad he took advantage of every opportunity he had to perform in front of teams.
Coming off a torn bicep tendon that prematurely ended his senior season at Wake Forest, he wasn’t expected to participate in combine drills, but Strnad chose to do so, mainly so he could quickly end any doubt whether he was healthy.
“Most of the teams just thought I was just going to wait until my pro day,” Strnad said. “But to be honest, even if I wasn’t in tip-top best shape, I was still able to go out there and show that there’s nothing (to be concerned about), that I’m healthy.”
It’s good that he did, because after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world, closed college campuses and limited social interaction, his pro day at Wake Forest scheduled for March 26 was canceled. Scouts from seven NFL teams who planned to see Strnad and meet with him were grounded. A trip he had to meet with the Dolphins in Miami was canceled when all team facilities were shut down.
Strnad, a ball-hawking inside linebacker and defensive team captain who was averaging nearly 10 tackles a game before his injury, considers himself one of the lucky ones. The combine offered NFL teams a chance to evaluate him with their own medical staffs. The face-to-face interviews he was able to conduct there were invaluable in showing his football IQ and determination.
It’s an opportunity that other draft prospects, those who saw their own pro days or regional combines in March get cancelled, are still chasing with less than three weeks left until the draft April 23-25 in Las Vegas.
Former East Bay standouts Marques Ford (outside linebacker/defensive end, Bethune-Cookman) and Christian Angulo (cornerback, Hampton) were invited to the HBCU combine in Miami, but it was canceled. After former Jesuit offensive lineman Jackson Dennis’ pro day at Holy Cross, he then saw the Bucs’ local pro day he was invited to get canceled.
They have all put together their own virtual pro days on film and sent them out to teams. They have tried to promote themselves through social media, but coming from smaller schools — and overcoming not being an NFL combine invite — is difficult. Last season, just 33 players who weren’t invited to the combine were drafted, and that number figures to shrink this year as teams are expected to rely more heavily on what they saw in Indianapolis.
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“With the draft, I feel like you never really know what will happen unless you’re a top-10 guy, so you just want to stay level-headed about everything,” Angulo said.
All three come from non Division I-A schools, but have attributes that could endear them to pro scouts. Dennis has size as a 6-foot-7, 310-pound offensive tackle. Angulo is a 6-foot-2 press coverage cornerback. And Ford is up 30 pounds to 257 while getting faster, running a 4.65-second 40 time.
“It’s really hard to show what you’ve got if you’re not able to go into these teams’ facilities and work out with them,” Dennis said. “They can see all the numbers, but those are just specific drills — just combine specific — but if you’re able to go there, you are able to do their workout and they can see where you kind of fit in. As a smaller school guy, I’d really rely on getting in front of those coaches.”
Ford, a two-time all-conference defensive end at Bethune-Cookman, said he is relying on social media to get his name out more than ever.
“I got a lot of accolades in college, and I never really used social media to get my name out there and to boost myself,” Ford said. “I always let what they see in person or on field show for itself. I really didn’t have a problem without social media. Now, it's changed a lot. It's pretty much all I have.”
“All it takes is one person in the NFL or CFL or XFL to take notice,” said East Bay coach Frank LaRosa, who has helped his former players to get exposure. “We’d be stupid to not use a free platform. I tell them, it’s not unlike when you were in high school. Back then, you were looking for clout, now you’re looking to get paid. This is a business move to be on social media.”
Strnad, who could be selected in the middle rounds of the draft, has traction. He has met with more than 10 NFL teams through video conferencing apps like Skype or Zoom. He is talking to an entire room of coaches and team personnel through his computer screen — position coaches, coordinators, scouts and front office members. The interviews vary by team. Some showed him their base offense and the keys to it, then quizzed him later to see how quickly he could grasp the calls. Other teams broke down his college film and asked him to dissect plays both good and bad.
“It probably would have been better to meet everyone in person, and be able to experience the pre-draft experience that everyone dreams of having,” Strnad said. ”But at the same time, this is happening to everybody.”
And now whether their names are called in the draft or not, prospects must deal with the uncertainty that follows. The draft is typically followed by rookie minicamp, and that’s where some undrafted free agents could get a tryout. But with social distancing mandates in effect, there’s no certainty those — or any of the offseason training activities most valuable for first-year players — will occur as scheduled.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work, because you still have to fill a 55-man roster and 14-man practice squad,” said Tampa-based agent Glen Lansky, owner of Elite Sports Agency. “It’s going to be a crapshoot. They may not even get in there until August.”
And now with gyms shuts down and local stay-at-home orders in place, these Tampa Bay area draft prospects have had to become creative with their workouts to stay in shape.
“This kind of takes me back to the high school days,” Ford said. “You’ve got to find it in yourself to push past your own limits. It kind of wakes you up a little bit, like how bad do you want it to work out by yourself. It’s a little different than training with a whole bunch of people. And for me, that’s what’s pushed me since I was a kid.”
Dennis, who was training at D1 Training in West Tampa, is trying to improvise at home. He said he is using various-sized water jugs to help with weight training and part of his workout has included pushing a truck while it is in neutral.
“It’s really just taking anything around the house that can act as a weight and just trying to find something to do with it,” he said. “We have these bags of water softening crystals and they’ve got little handles on them, so you can do a lot with that. You can do arms, you can hold it as a goblet squat or something like that.”
Strnad had been working out with former Bucs receiver Yo Murphy, who trains a lot of NFL players, but now he and his father are working on building a gym in their garage, and he is taking up riding his bike more to get cardio and a leg workout in.
“A lot of bike rides,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve rode a bike in six years, and then this happened and I’m trying to be the next Lance Armstrong now.”
“You don’t know when you’re going to be able to make your first impression really,” Strnad added. “So you don’t want to go into camp and be out of shape because you’re not going to perform at your highest level and if you get an injury, people don’t understand. If you’re not active and able to help the team and you’re not some star player to begin with, you could potentially not make the team.”
Dealing with uncertainty is the new norm, but Dennis said it’s important to treat everything as if it could get back to normal at any time.
“The main thing is the adaptability,” Dennis said. “It’s nothing you could have foreseen. I don’t think I ever panicked during it, because as soon as something pops up you’re going to have to figure it out anyway. It’s more going with the flow and trying to be as ready as possible.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.