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Taking an alternate route to the NFL draft

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By Jonah Rosenblum

Derek Dennis was one of thousands of Americans who tuned into the NFL Network's coverage of the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine in late February. He was hardly your casual observer, however. He didn’t tune in because he was amazed by the talent that he saw before his eyes. He tuned in because he felt like he belonged in Indianapolis.

"I watched the offensive linemen work, I watched every second of it," the Temple offensive guard said. "Even afterward, I made sure I checked the numbers, trying to figure out where I would be in that range and from that day on from training, it was just trying to beat those numbers. Whoever had the best numbers in any drill, my goal is to exceed that."

For Dennis, not getting invited to the Combine stung on a personal, as well as a professional, level. Dennis had been given the chance to work with some of the best players in college football at the East-West Shrine Game, and when several of his friends from that game were invited to Indianapolis, worked out on national television and performed in front of myriad National Football League officials, and he wasn’t able to do so, he was unable to forgive the slight.

"I absolutely have a chip on my shoulder. A lot of the guys that were at the NFL Combine, I played with at the East-West Shrine Game," Dennis said. "It was just a heartbreaking feeling, knowing that guys that I know that I'm just as good as, maybe even some that I'm better than, had a chance to be there and I didn't. Pro day is just so important to me that it's hard to even describe in words."

For Dennis, as well as hundreds of other football players around the country who didn’t receive a golden ticket to Indianapolis, pro day marked his one opportunity to showcase his skills in front of a large audience of NFL scouts. Whereas Combine invitees have multiple opportunities to show off their skills, and can strategize as to when they want to participate in each drill, those who were not invited have no such flexibility. Dennis' agent, Drew Smith, has been reminding his clients who were not invited to the Combine that the pro day is their big shot.

"If you are a Combine-invite player, you have the luxury of protecting yourself in some events." Smith said. "If you're not ready to do something, you have your pro day to do it, so I'm just telling these guys that your pro day is it. That's your job interview. There's no question about what you are or are not doing. For the most part, you will be doing everything that the teams ask of you unless there's an injury or something like that."

Not that Smith needs to cajole his clients into getting excited for their pro days. The Combine slight was more than enough to motivate Virginia Tech OT Blake DeChristopher, who is also represented by Smith.

“I use it as motivation and that’s about it,” DeChristopher said. “Nothing more than motivation, just motivation to get me to work harder and that’s what I have been doing.”

Dennis echoed those same thoughts.

"Absolutely, that's the whole thing. I want to give scouts the idea to know that I am, even though I wasn't invited to Indianapolis from Temple, that I'm just as good as those guys that were out there and even better than some," he said. "I just want to prove to the world, the scouting world and the NFL, that I'm definitely a player that you should keep an eye on."

That's exactly what Brandon Brooks proved on his pro day. The Miami (Ohio) offensive lineman caught plenty of attention with his workout in Oxford, Ohio, particularly when he knocked over a Pittsburgh Steelers official with a mean drive block.

"Well, not getting invited kind of disappointed me in the beginning but I always had (my) pro day," Brooks said, "and not getting invited made that chip on my shoulder a little bigger, so it made me work that much harder every time I did anything, just to show that I'm as good as those guys that got invited to the Combine."

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Brooks worked out with someone who did get invited to Indianapolis and did quite well at the Combine: Memphis DT Dontari Poe. Brooks cited friendly competition with his lifting partner, Poe, as one reason for his powerful pro-day performance.

“We pushed each other every day, whether it was running, whether it was lifting, so I think the camaraderie we had made each other better,” Brooks said. “If one guy got one more rep than the other yesterday, well, I’m trying to get two more reps than him today. That made us both better in the long run.”

One week after his pro day, Brooks took part in another workout, this one for a bunch of offensive line coaches who were traveling through the state on their way from Wisconsin's pro day to Ohio State's pro day. The timing of Brooks' workout was no coincidence, as he aimed to lure coaches in. According to the former RedHawks star, the ploy worked.

"It was humbling because I didn't know how many offensive line coaches were going to be there, and to be that many, I'm just honored that they all came out to work me out," Brooks said. "Every time I work out or do anything in front of scouts, I just try to do my best at it. I don't worry about messing up because everybody makes mistakes. If I make mistakes, I make the mistake at 100 miles an hour."

His comfort was also due in part to the presence of his teammates, which is one advantage a pro day always will have over the Combine.

"A bunch of my teammates were out there supporting me," Brooks said. "That's one of the reasons why I committed way back in 2007, because in Miami, it's a true brotherhood, and no matter what I was doing, whether it was a bench press in the weight room or doing whatever drill on the field, the guys were cheering me on. That was kind of the atmosphere, and with my coaches out there, it was just like I was playing for Miami again."

With their pro days safely in tow, the question is what these players can do over the next month to improve their standing for the 2012 NFL draft. There was originally some talk of a regional scouting combine at Detroit’s Ford Field for those who weren’t fortunate enough to receive an invite to the NFL Combine, but Brooks said that he had no interest in any such event.

“At this point, I think I’m going to stand by my pro-day numbers,” Brooks said. “I felt like I gave my best effort and it paid off in a positive way.”

So, for Brooks, his plan is simply to wait by the phone, and perform at his best if any teams invite him to work out for them.

“Just whenever I have the opportunity to work out for a team or do something on the field, just maximize it,” Brooks said. “That’s all I can really do at this point."

For DeChristopher, it’s a similar plan, with an added emphasis on letting the scouts know what he is all about, both on and off the field.

“If teams want to interview me, just being myself in front of them, letting them know how much I love this sport and want to continue to play, and that’s about it,” DeChristopher said. “You just kind of sit around, wait, work out and stay in shape. It’s a waiting process after the pro day and you see if any teams want to work you out.”

For Smith, he, too, will be spending a lot of time on the phone over the next few weeks, trying to connect teams with players. He said that the key to representing players who weren’t invited to the NFL Combine is to work overtime to get their names out to NFL scouts.

“It’s about making phone calls,” Smith said, “being out at the pro day, talking to teams at pro days, just covering all your bases, getting as much information as you can out there about the player and let the teams do their own evaluation.”

And for clients like DeChristopher and Dennis, Smith hopes to prove that a snub from Indianapolis doesn’t necessarily equate to a similar snubbing in New York, where the 2012 NFL draft will be held April 26-28. But even if one of his clients isn’t drafted, that doesn’t mean that their journey is over.

“Just because you go to the Combine doesn’t mean instant success and just because you’re undrafted doesn’t mean that you’re going to fail in the NFL,” Smith said. “It’s just about the different exposure and you only have one crack at showing yourself to the decision makers around the NFL.”

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