There is a reason Tom Brady’s bare-torso photo from the 2000 NFL combine, and Willie Taggart’s inaugural game as USF coach, still elicit howls and grimaces. First impressions don’t fade.
But their relevance can. That’s what Mitch Wilcox is banking on.
“I’m past it,” the former USF tight end said of his dreadful NFL scouting combine workout.
Eight weeks after that performance, lowlighted by the hard spiral that ricocheted off his face and burst a blood vessel in his left eye, Wilcox has found peace and a degree of redemption as the NFL draft approaches.
Shortly after returning from a 2½-month stint at an elite training facility north of San Diego, Wilcox re-did three combine drills before a scout in a recorded performance at a west Tampa facility.
He performed significantly better in all three. His most noticeable improvement occurred in the 40-yard dash (4.75 seconds compared to 4.88 at the combine), but he also posted better times in the shuttle drill (4.34 compared to 4.43) and three-cone drill (7.31 compared to 7.37).
“I think that’s kind of a much more accurate representation of my athletic ability,” said Wilcox, who exited USF as the school’s career leader in receptions (100), receiving yards (1,326) and touchdown catches (11) by a tight end.
“It was definitely a good feeling to kind of put some better numbers out there for myself.”
Yet he realizes no stopwatch-measured mulligan can erase those images of his laborious 40 or the bean ball he sustained on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf in late February.
“Obviously it was in my own words, a debacle,” Wilcox said. “I don’t think it could have gone any worse for me personally.”
It began with Wilcox over-preparing for the 40, where his time ranked 15th among the 17 tight ends who ran. After engaging in what he called a “competition” warmup and building a good sweat, he repeated the process. By the time he ran, his energy level was sapped.
Then, things regressed from pedestrian to viral.
The eye injury occurred during a “gauntlet drill,” when prospects run vertically as passes sequentially are tossed at them from both directions. Confused when he saw a ball boy without a ball on one side, Wilcox quickly looked to the other side before looking back and taking a hard throw to the face.
“I kinda should’ve stopped to save myself the embarrassment, but the competitor in me wanted to finish (the day),” said Wilcox, who will follow this week’s draft with family and a few close friends at his Tarpon Springs home.
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“It stung really, really bad (psychologically) and I was down in the dumps, but with what I’ve done over my time at USF and just everything I’ve learned, I still have a great opportunity in front of me.”
Today, Wilcox says he has “zero” residual effects from the eye injury, which sidelined him from workouts for only a week. If anything, his vision ― at least in a figurative sense ― is clearer than ever.
He says the combine experience represented a spiritual awakening of sorts. While maintaining a strict training and nutrition regimen amid the pandemic, Wilcox said he has devoted more time to reading, praying and meditation.
Meantime, he has heard from a number of NFL teams, roughly eight to 10 of which have expressed “solid interest.” Whether he’s selected during the seven-round draft, or signs with a team as an undrafted free agent immediately thereafter, remains guesswork.
CBSSports.com ranks Wilcox as the 13th-best tight end prospect in the draft; Athlon Sports ranks him eighth. ESPN’s projections, based on grades from Scouts, Inc. and combine metrics, gives him a 35.8-percent chance of being an NFL backup and 33.6-percent chance of being a “non-factor.”
The Sporting News’ mock draft has him being taken by the Bills in the seventh round.
“I’ll say this: I feel like now that teams have really had the opportunity to digest all of my film, they’ve been circling back, and that’s been kinda good to have,” Wilcox said.
“I think I’m doing my best job to kind of move on from (the combine) the best I can.”