In 2016, 38 players were selected in the NFL Draft even though they weren't invited to the Scouting Combine. In the last week before the draft, PFW is introducing fans to "late risers," prospects who didn't go to the Combine but impressed at a Pro Day and are getting attention from NFL teams at the right time.
Austin Ekeler never thought a vertical jump would mean so much.
A Division II running back from Western State (Co.), Ekeler went to Boulder for his Pro Day, but the NFL scouts in attendance had already done Colorado State’s Pro Day earlier and we’re on their way to Wyoming the next day.
Ekeler was one of 15 non-CU players waiting for the Colorado players to wrap up. Once they did, the scouts said they only had time for two workouts, and Ekeler was one.
“It was definitely intimidating,” Ekeler said this week. “They cut a bunch of people that they were going to see somewhere else. It’s not what you expect. I always thought it’d be more of a relaxed kind of thing. The feel of the room is tense. Everyone’s quiet. It’s all on you. Everyone’s looking at you. It was intense. But I enjoyed it.”
Ekeler started with his vertical. Standing 5-foot-8 and 5/8, Ekeler jumped 40.5 inches. That would have been the best at the Combine among running backs.
“[The scouts] wanted to see if they wanted to stick around,” Ekeler said. “I jumped 40 [inches] and they said, ‘Oh, OK, maybe we should stay around so we don’t miss this.’”
Ekeler then ran a 4.43 40, which would rank fourth at the Combine at his position. His 10-foot-8-inch broad jump would have ranked third among backs, along with his 6.85-second three-cone drill.
This D-II running back is squarely on the NFL radar.
Ekeler went to a small Colorado high school and despite 2,300 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns as a senior, he received no interest from the FBS Colorado schools. Of the Division II schools that were interested, only Western State wanted Ekeler to play running back.
“I thought I was under recruited,” Ekeler said. “I had a fire in me. It had pissed me off. I wanted to prove to the world that I could play at the highest level.”
He believes that fire will help him make an NFL roster.
“I showed everything I could to show I could play in the next level again,” he said. “I’m planning on getting another chance, like a redo, at a bigger level, a more competitive level. Throughout college, that same fire stayed with me that I had coming out of high school. It’s still with me now, to say 'Hey, I can actually do this.'
“… We’re small-town kids. I had to work even harder even to get a look. I had to have four great years in college. In a D-1 level, if you have one great year, you can get one good look. Shoot, for D-2, that’s not even close. I understand that.”
It was after Ekeler’s freshman year that he realized he had what it took to play at the next level. He wound up starting nine games as a true freshman, rushed for 1,049 yards and was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year.
As a sophomore, Ekeler set Western’s single-season records with 1,676 rushing yards and 2,903 all-purpose yards. He led all of Division II in 2015, averaging 203.9 all-purpose yards a game. Last season, he was the regular-season rushing champ with 1,495 rushing yards.
Leading up to the draft, Ekeler is training with a group that includes Christian McCaffrey, a player at Ekeler’s same position but with much different fanfare. McCaffrey has the famous bloodlines, played at Stanford, was a Heisman finalist and is expected to be a first-round pick.
Ekeler is scouring NFL teams’ depth charts to see where could be a good fit if he has a choice as an undrafted free agent. He said he’ll watch the draft and pay close attention to which backs go where.
Last summer, Ekeler interned at Noble Energy, where he could have received an offer, but his supervisor there — a big football fan — said, “Pursue your dreams and you can come back to work later.”
Ekeler’s college accomplishments include a 344-yard game … against Western New Mexico, and a 316-yard game with five touchdowns … against Colorado Mines. The level of competition Ekeler faced will be considered his weakness, but he’s not fazed.
“Sure, some teams weren’t as great as the others, but I was consistently putting up numbers, I was consistently showing I could catch the ball out of the backfield, read the right block, outrun people,” Ekeler said. “Just consistency in my game. I think that’s the thing I can lean on the most. For four years, I’ve been at the top. … I’ve been playing at a high level. Maybe the competition isn’t high, but I’ve been playing at a high level for four years. Over the span of four years, that’s given me respect.”