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Pro Day: A job interview, and a growth opportunity

bronco mendenhall
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall with a watchful eye over the proceedings at the 2021 Pro Day. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Pro days are, on paper, about giving college seniors a chance to audition for NFL scouts and front-office personnel.

For college coaches, it’s important that their returning players get a glimpse of what their older, now former, teammates are going through in their job interviews.

“The rest of our team was looking through the glass doors that were down in the in the indoor facility, and you can see all just faces lined up, you know, their hands on the sides, their noses against the glass, and they were just, like, every little peephole was lined up,” said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, who shared side-by-side photos of one of the guys expected to hear his name called in the 2021 NFL Draft, Charles Snowden, at a recent team meeting, to show what a few years of hard work can do to get you ready for the next level.

“Our team chuckled, because of how skinny and young he was, and then it was side by side with how he was on Pro Day, and it was just, the players were just captivated by the work he had put in and who he had become,” said Mendenhall, who called last week’s Pro Day on Grounds “one of my best days at UVA.”

“We had different eras come back for Pro Day, you know, because there was a group of our team that didn’t get Pro Day a year ago. And so having some players come back from that team, as well as a few others that trained, in Quin Blanding and Chris Peace, from a previous team. I just sat back and watched that day, these guys that I just, man, I was so happy to see them, and then they were so fit and trained and played well or performed well,” Mendenhall said.

‘A lot of unknowns’

It’s perfectly OK for Mendenhall to feel like the proud papa. Actually, one of the guys participating in the Pro Day, placekicker Brian Delaney, was watching and rooting on his teammates as much as he was doing his own thing.

“I think, honestly, the best part of today is being out here with people I showed up here with four years ago, people that were here when I showed up four years ago, some of my best friends, out here just working towards their goals and their dreams, too,” said Delaney, who, being a kicker, didn’t have to go through the battery of speed, agility and strength drills that the position players are asked to do.

Kind of goes with the territory of being a kicker in football.

“You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get in the game. Never know in practice when we’re going to go to field goal period. Whole life as a kicker, it’s just a lot of unknowns. So it’s just being being ready whenever that opportunity comes,” said Delaney, who hit kickoffs and field goal tries for the NFL folks in attendance.

Kickers rarely hear their names called in the draft, so Delaney knows he’ll have to perform under pressure to even get an invite to a camp, then endure more pressure trying to win a job.

“There’s only 32 jobs, and you’ve got probably that many people coming out of college each year and that many people the year before that, so you’re competing with a bunch a bunch of great capable kickers,” Delaney said. “But you definitely do see, especially this year with COVID, you’ve got some extra people on practice rosters and things like that. You see a bunch of people who’ve been pursuing the goal for a while, so it kind of can be a long process, but I’m just looking forward to hopefully getting an opportunity to show what I can do.”

Opportunity

Opportunity is what brought tailback Shane Simpson to Charlottesville for his grad senior year.

Simpson played his first four seasons at Towson, an FCS program, where he was an All-American in 2018, before having his 2019 season cut short by a torn ACL.

Then Towson, like many programs at the FCS level, decided to push its season back from last fall to this spring.

His eyes on playing in the NFL, Simpson decided to transfer to Virginia, where he would split time in the backfield with Wayne Taulapapa and Ronnie Walker Jr., rushing for 278 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and hauling in 13 catches, including a quick wheel route that he turned into a 71-yard TD in UVA’s 44-41 upset of then-#13 North Carolina.

“Obviously, the scouts, playing at Towson, they’d say I’ve never played power competition or elite competition. So coming to ACC and producing the way I did, that changed people’s minds, and obviously with my injury history, it was clear today that I’m healthy,” Simpson said.

Simpson put up the numbers he wanted to. So did wideout Terrell Jana, who had 36 catches in 2020, down from the impressive 74-catch season he put up in UVA’s run to the Orange Bowl back in 2019.

Both talked about nerves being an issue going into Pro Day.

“I was in bed at 10 o’clock, trying to go to bed. I literally couldn’t,” Simpson said. “I just felt like Christmas, like when I was younger, like you get jittery, and you can’t sleep, and you try to wake up early and stuff like that. And that’s exactly how I was.”

“I don’t know how much sleep I got last night, but it wasn’t a lot,” Jana said. “Man, just super excited for the opportunity. I mean, we’ve you know, some guys here waited a whole year, some guys had a couple months of preparation. I’m just thankful to get the opportunity to come out here to compete to show what I have. And I’m thankful for the team around me that got me prepared for this day.”

That’s one of the many things different about pro days in 2021 compared to, say, 2006, when Marques Hagans, now a UVA assistant coach, was getting ready for his.

“It was a lot different,” Hagans said. “I remember snow the day we had Pro Day. Back then it was in the in The Cage. We ran and we came outside on the field turf. We did our drills, and it was freezing outside. I remember D’Brickashaw (Ferguson) had on, like, a white tank top. We didn’t even have NFL Pro Day gear back then. We just kind of showed up in our own things. So now to see those guys like really have a full presentation of Pro Day, you know, to really have like gear that represents their time here, the name, the stations, all those things set up, and you could do it in the indoor facility, I think that was that was pretty cool.”

Back to the proud papa, Mendenhall, for some last thoughts on Pro Day.

“I was just captivated from thinking about being in their homes to now, where they are either already playing in the NFL or getting ready to, and just how proud I was of them,” Mendenhall said. “One of the player personnel people just said, we know exactly what we’re getting when we take one of your guys, and there won’t be someone tougher and won’t be someone more physical, they’ll always be doing what they’re supposed to do, and you can build teams around them. And I’ve just, you know, it made me feel so good to be contributing to those type of people, not only players, but those type of people that are building a reputation for themselves.

“That’s my real intent, to have this program be able to win and build those kind of people at the same time, to where this becomes a destination where others want to come to build their teams around those types of people. And then I think we’re done. I think college football becomes pretty significant, if that’s kind of what’s being accomplished.”

Story by Chris Graham


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