Millions of Americans find themselves making the transition from the collegiate world to the professional one every single year.
For college football players transitioning to a possible professional career, it may seem like an easy transition, since they never have to leave the gridiron. But the transiton from one gridiron to another, and the change in everything that surrounds it, is notable and challenging.
Forget being good in the NFL; just sticking around is a challenge in its own right. Whereas most collegiate football players make it through the full four years, whether it's on the bench or on the field, the average NFL career lasts barely longer than three years. For cornerbacks, like Jamell Fleming of Oklahoma, the average NFL career lasts just 2.94 years. The constant threat of getting cut is something unique to the professional game.
"You have to keep your job, and we have to work hard every day to get better," Fleming said. "At OU, you don't have to do all that. If you want to be mediocre, be mediocre; someone will replace you, and you'll still be there. In the NFL, you can't be mediocre because you'll get replaced and then you won't be on a team anymore."
For three or four years, the prospects who make up the 2012 NFL draft class were student-athletes, going by a rigorous schedule that mixed team duties with academic duties. Now, all of these athletes suddenly find that their focus is solely on the NFL.
"It's like a regular job now, and OU isn't really that," Fleming said. "It's school. You had obligations that you had to fulfill. You might have your own place, but you really had to abide by other stuff, whereas in the NFL, you're just going to work like anybody else would and, of course, it's football, it's the same job as anything."
Work ethic is a huge part of what NFL scouts are looking for. They want someone who is prepared to go to work every single day. Tom Ciskowski, assistant director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, said that 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith exemplified the type of work ethic he was looking for.
"We know that he's not going to be a guy that is going to take the money and run, if you will," Ciskowski said. "He knew there was preparation during the week, which a lot of rookies aren't familiar with. I'm sure it took him awhile to figure out exactly what the coaches wanted him to do as far as preparation, but once he figured it out and was comfortable with his routine, he jumped in and did it."
For professional teams preparing to spend millions of dollars through the 2012 NFL draft, that attention to work ethic is understandable. Work ethic is something that frequently gets handed down from generation to generation, from player to player or even from sibling to sibling. Current prospect Matt Kalil said that he learned a great deal about work ethic from Smith, as well as from his brother, Panthers C Ryan Kalil. Fellow prospect Justin Blackmon said that he learned about work ethic from Cowboys WR Dez Bryant.
"Tyron is one of the hardest workers I've ever been around," Kalil said. "Really intelligent guy, works his butt off on the field, and obviously it has showed on the field. He's a great weight-room guy."
Bryant, Kalil and Smith have excelled on the next level as a result of their hard work. Bryant finished with 928 receiving yards in 2011, while Smith started all 16 games in his rookie season and was reportedly a Pro Bowl alternate. Kalil has started every game for the Carolina Panthers over the last three seasons.
Teaching student-athletes to work hard isn't necessarily an arduous task. Most of these student-athletes are used to working their butts off in school. As former California ILB Mychal Kendricks said, student-athletes don't get nearly enough credit for the hard work they put in.
"Our schedules are just rigorous," Kendricks said. "It's just ridiculous how much work we have to put in. Any student-athlete — no matter what school they go to, the countless hours we have to put in, working toward winning and keeping our grades up — I think college student-athletes should get a lot more credit for what we do."
In fact, for many NFL prospects, the lull that follows their final season of college football can be difficult to handle. They crave the routine that accompanied their lives as college football players. Stanford offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren noted that his two star prospects, OT Jonathan Martin and OG David DeCastro, seemed very eager to get back to work when he visited the duo in Arizona.
"They both seem really excited to be getting back into that rigid schedule, and they've got that goal ahead with the Combine and then pro day so they can get in the minicamp," Bloomgren said. "They're just excited about the next stage in their life and they are handling it really well."
Kalil said that while he enjoyed the month off from football that he got as a result of sanctions against USC, which kept the Trojans out of a bowl game, he was eager to return to the playing field. While the oncoming schedule is daunting, with plenty of workouts and interviews to fret about, Kalil said he wanted to get back to work. And he's bringing some of his brother's advice to the office with him.
"This might be the longest year of my life, but it's something I've been looking forward to my whole life and I'm definitely ready for the challenge," Kalil said. "But basically, you got to keep working hard and don't let the grind get to you, so to speak. And you always just got to keep looking forward, always look to the next day and what you can do better working-out-wise, anything to improve any aspect of your game. That's basically what he told me."
The period between the end of the college season and the NFL Scouting Combine is, of course, a very strenuous time for the nation's top prospects. With the upcoming Combine and pro days representing their best chances to demonstrate their talent, the Stanford pair have been working hard. Bloomgren said that the two lift weights for 2½ hours and then work on techniques with NFL coaches.
DeCastro told a similar story, saying that he spent his time in Arizona lifting, working on speed drills, working with coaches and doing Combine drills. With such exhausting physical days ahead of him, there's not much time for anything off the field.
"I'll come back to my room, go to sleep at 10, pretty early for me, put my feet up for about two hours, watch some TV and then crash, wake up at 6:30 and do it all over again," DeCastro said. "It's kind of nice just having to focus on football."
For the highly touted guard, thought to be the best at his position in the entire country, he is avoiding thoughts about when he might get picked. Pro Football Weekly draft expert Nolan Nawrocki has him going in the first 20 picks of the 2012 NFL draft.
"I guess my hype is big, but I'm not a first-round draft pick yet," DeCastro said. "Every day is an opportunity, where you just kind of put your head down and work and grind and focus and not really listen to it. I know it's there — I'm not going to lie to you and say it isn't — but at the same time, I'm not going to let it affect me."
For all of the young men set to enter the 2012 NFL draft, they have to deal with rampant speculation about their strengths and weaknesses, both on the football field and off the field. There is a world of literature on nearly every prospect, where he might end up and how he will do once he is there.
But DeCastro said that he and his fellow NFL-bound teammates, including QB Andrew Luck, kept the conversation trained on other things.
"We didn't really talk about it too much. We do here and there, but for all of us, we just like playing football and just remind ourselves that all this stuff, when it comes down to it, is just playing football, and that's all that really matters," DeCastro said. "It's hard with all the stuff that's going on and all the hype to remind yourself of that, but that's the truth."
Justin Blackmon, the top-ranked wide receiver in the nation, out of Oklahoma State, said that he wouldn't even use the word "pressure" to describe it.
"I wouldn't say it's pressure, just enjoying it, taking it one step at a time, dealing with it as it comes," Blackmon said. "It's all going good, working out, and working out hard twice a day and just trying to get myself in the best position that I can for the Combine."
With a flurry of events, including the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, all leading up to the Combine, which begins on Feb. 22 in Indianapolis, players have plenty to prepare for. The draft itself isn't until April 26, giving players an additional two months to make a positive impression before their day of judgment arrives.
Yet, even the grueling gym workouts represent a nice break for many of the players, particularly with the rigors of academia now in their rearview mirrors.
"I liked school and football separately, and then when you put them together, it was never fun," DeCastro said. "I'd much rather just do football by itself; it's a lot easier."
Kendricks echoed those sentiments. While he said he works out twice a day and also engages in rehab, the night belongs to him. After dinner, he'll have the chance to watch a movie or play on his PS3.
"My schedule at Cal was way harder than this, so this is a breeze," Kendricks said. "I'm loving this. The first day I came to report at (the conditioning center), one of our coordinators was like, 'It's going to be a long day today.' And I was like, 'OK, what are we talking about, leaving around 9:30, 10 o'clock?' And she was like, 'Oh no, you'll be out of here by 5.' I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be a breeze.' "