Senior year, students spend their year scrambling to fill out medical-school applications or hoping to ace case interviews for that consulting job. Most students, however, don’t have to worry about how fast they run or how much they lift. But for four Elis, their future careers depended on these very details.
Prior to the NFL Draft on April 26, prospective athletes work out in front of scouts to show off their skills and attempt to raise their draft value. The largest and most prominent of these events is the NFL Scouting Combine. This year, the much anticipated event took place from February 23 to 26 at the home of the Indianapolis Colts. Here, the athletes ran through a series of physical ability tests such as the bench press and the 40-yard dash.
“Basically, [the Combine results are] another piece of the puzzle,” one professional scout, who preferred to remain anonymous, said during his visit to Yale. “We’ve been here in the fall to evaluate game film. We have an idea of how fast a guy plays. It’s for verification and comparison with other [athletes across the nation].”
However, the Combine is often more of a measuring ground for athletes from smaller Division I-A schools and conferences than for top draft prospects such as Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan who opted to sit out the weekend’s events. Instead, athletes such as Ryan choose to go through their tests at a “pro day” held at their respective universities.
Pro days also help highlight players that may not have gotten an invite to the NFL Combine. This was the case for Yale’s four NFL hopefuls this year. Last Thursday at Yale’s pro day, Jeff Monaco ’08, Langston Johnson ’08, Brandt Hollander ’08 and Nick Solakian ’08 worked out in front of scouts from the New England Patriots, Washington Redskins and the minor league football team, Connecticut Giants.
While the NFL scouting contingent visiting Yale on March 27 was small, a member of the contingent explained that the visiting scouts share the results with other teams in the league. The Philadelphia Eagles came to New Haven the next day as its scout was at the UMass pro day on Thursday.
The Friday before the Yale pro day, Monaco attended Duquesne University’s workout in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Like many of the players, Monaco had not played football since November. Thus, the day felt “weird,” a sentiment that teammate Langston Johnson shared about the Yale pro day. The Duquesne counterpart boasted nearly twice the number of people present at the Yale pro day, including many top athletes.
At Yale, players began arriving to Coxe Cage at around 8:15 on Thursday morning to begin stretching and warming up for the day’s events. Ten prospects from other nearby universities including Southern Connecticut, Sacred Heart, and UConn, and the CT Giants were present.
Once the scouts arrived, the fourteen hopefuls were escorted to the Smilow Field Center where their heights and weights were measured. Next, they bench pressed 225 lbs as many times as possible. Hollander had the top performance in the bench press, putting up 32 reps at 225 lbs. No other participant even reached 30 reps.
Hollander, the captain of the football team for the 2007 season, said he believed his results reflected his level of physical ability.
“My results were representative of where I am,” he said. “I feel like I could do them anytime [the scouts] wanted.”
Next, the athletes returned to Coxe Cage for vertical leap, standing broad jump, and the 40-yard dash. After everyone had gone through each test twice, the scouts moved outdoors to Reese Stadium and set up cones for the pro agility and three-cone drill. Unlike the other exercises, each person was allowed only one repetition, which was unusual as the standard allowance is two to three trials. The last timed activity was the 60-yard shuttle. Hollander and Monaco caught a brief break on the sidelines as only skill position players were required to do this.
After taking 10 minutes to compare their times and information, the scouts dismissed the non-Yale athletes and asked the four Elis to stay for positional drills. The Redskins scout sent the Bulldogs through a series of bag drills to observe their footwork. From there on, the athletes were looked at individually.
At the end of the day, it was difficult to predict where the each senior will fall in the draft. While the Bulldogs will only find out the results April 26, Solakian was adamant about being satisfied with just getting the chance to play in the NFL.
“I’d be completely satisfied if I played just through one season and got that experience,” he said.” It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. At this point I’m just trying to get in there and see where it goes from there. If I end up playing for 10 years that’s awesome but if not it’s not a huge letdown because, it sounds kind of cliché, all I can do is give my best and hope it works out.”
Monaco, who was named to the Sports Network’s 2007’s All-America Team as an honorable mention, was the first Bulldog to arrive at Coxe Cage on the chilly Thursday morning. Of the Yale prospects, the offensive guard was the only one who had gone through the pro day process beforehand.
For the past two months, the lineman had worked out one-on-one with Yale’s strength and conditioning coach, Emil Johnson, thrice a week and practiced his technique on the various combine drills.
“I went from lifting for strength to lifting for testing,” Monaco said. “I did more bench workouts with 225 lbs and more quickness and agility drills.”
Through his workouts, Monaco realized his numbers were comparable to last year’s Combine scores, which motivated him to try out for the NFL.
“I realized that if I wasn’t going to have a chance, I wasn’t going to do it,” he said.
Although Monaco said he felt his results were satisfactory, he said attending the early pro day at Duquesne helped him out in his subsequent workouts in New Haven.
“There was a better quality of guys at Duquesne,” he said. “It allows you to push yourself because you’re competing against other people. It makes you want to get better rather than settle with what you got because you have a standard to look up to. You want to be the best.”
On Thursday, Monaco led each of the day’s activities.
“Since I already went to one pro day, I was competing with myself,” he added. “I already had numbers that I wanted to hit, and I was just trying to beat them.”
When the Redskins scout tested Jeff in his positional drills, he asked the lineman to show off his footwork in pass-blocking drill. In his final exercise, Monaco faced off against Johnson and was instructed to keep Johnson from crossing the white line between the two. A similar drill was done at Duquesne, but this variation called for Monaco to use his hands and make contact.
“It was a little awkward because we didn’t have pads on,” Monaco said about the different instructions,
Overall, Monaco said he was pleased with his performance on Thursday, putting up better numbers than his Duquesne in nearly all the physical tests. However, Monaco said he needs to continue working on his footwork and upper-body strength.
“It’s been a good experience,” he said. “I can say that I tried out for the NFL.”
Bench: 20 repetitions at 225 lbs
40-yard time: 5.18 seconds
Vertical leap: 27 inches
After serving as the Yale’s 130th football captain and playing in the 2008 Hula Bowl, the senior from Indianapolis has garnered several accolades over his collegiate career. Hollander is arguably Yale’s most highly touted NFL prospect. Despite the recognition he has amassed, the path to the NFL hasn’t always been clear for Hollander.
Following the Hula Bowl, rumors spread that the noseguard was not trying out for the NFL. When asked about this, Hollander quickly dismissed the misunderstanding.
“As seniors, we’re standing on the precipices of our futures and I wanted to take my time to consider my future,” he said. “A lot of people put in a lot of hard work in this process and I wanted to take a week or so to think about it. I just realized that I’m really committed to it and playing football was what I wanted to do.”
He said his experience in Honolulu, HI helped influence his decision. As a member of the East all-star team, Hollander played with some of the best seniors in college football in the game.
“Playing football [at Yale] for so long, it was hard to know where I stacked up [against others],” he said. “So I was thankful for the opportunity to play with the best and compete in that environment.”
Since the end of the season, Hollander has been taking time to recover and get healthy.
Although the former captain never worked out in front of scouts prior to the Yale pro day, he has come out to watch the pro days for the past years.
At the pro day, Hollander put up impressive numbers. The scouts even pulled him aside twice to have personal conversations: once after the bench press and after the positional drills.
In his defensive line drills, he displayed quickness off the line and an ability to bend the corner on a pass rush. The scout also tested how quickly he could change directions.
At the end of the day, Hollander believed his results reflected his level of physical ability.
“My results were representative of where I am,” he said. “I feel like I could do them anytime [the scouts] wanted.”
Hollander is the only one of the four Elis not to have signed with an agent thus far. He expressed hesitance in jumping into the agent pool waters.
“I’ve been putting it off,” he explained. “But I’m going to sign with someone in the coming days.”
He added that he thought it was impossible to judge what would happen in the draft and said he could only hope for the best.
Bench: 32 repetitions at 225 lbs
40-yard time: 5.08 seconds
Vertical leap: 29 inches
For Yale tight end Johnson, the idea of playing in the NFL never came up until after his junior year. According to the six-foot-two senior, an Arizona Cardinals scout liked what he saw from Johnson’s game film and thus, the path to the pros was opened. Since then, he has been working towards achieving that goal.
Training at Competitive Edge Sports, a professional gym in Duluth, Georgia, Johnson said he observed how the professional athletes worked out and learned what he had to focus on. Sitting close to the field at a San Francisco 49ers game over winter break, he realized that he wanted to go pro.
“The NFL didn’t seem like this crazy epic thing that I couldn’t achieve,” he said. “I felt like I could play.”
Despite being mentally prepared for the Combine and draft process, Johnson has struggled with hip flexor injuries since last season. He has also dealt with a shoulder injury, which he says affected his ability to bench press. The tight end has only been a 100 per cent healthy for the past three weeks. The short time frame to work out at maximum intensity may have affected Johnson’s performance at the pro day.
“I was working on my starts all the time, so I might have tired myself out the week before,” Johnson explained. “Coming in [to the pro day], I didn’t feel that great about it.”
The pro day ended up being a frustrating experience for the senior, as he pressed 225 lbs on the bench only 16 times, when he expected to be in the 20s. For him, the sole bright spot was the positional drills where he did not drop a single pass.
For his individual workout, Johnson was thrown several balls by the Redskins scout and was asked to run routes. Yale quarterback Rich Scudellari ’09 came out and threw to both Johnson and Solakian so the scout could watch them work together.
The most interesting aspect of the day came when the Redskins scout instructed Johnson to run from the fullback position. The Redskins utilize an offensive strategy where the tight end plays various positions on the field. Johnson showed some hesitancy in the drills as he said he was not sure of what the scout was asking for in the drills.
“He was telling me to run the option route and we run option routes a different way at Yale,” Johnson said. “I haven’t done any fullback stuff in two years.”
Currently, a free agent situation seems most likely for the senior Bulldog. Johnson said he was frustrated by the process of going professional because of the agent’s control over it.
Bench: 16 repetitions at 225 lbs
40-yard time: 4.90 seconds
Vertical leap: 26 inches
After coming back for his fifth year and graduating in the fall, former safety Solakian has been away from Yale and working independently. Although he lacks the resources of the Eli training staff, Solakian does not believe he has lost a step.
“[Working out without strength coaches] helped because I was away from all my classes which take up so much time and energy,” the senior said. “Being at home I could basically just focus on all-around training. I ate a lot better and had a much better diet than [when I was] living at school.”
Back at home in California, the Bulldog trained at a facility where one of the trainers formerly worked for the Patriots and helped out several professional baseball players.
For Solakian, playing in the NFL has been a childhood dream. The dream did not become a possibility until his junior year when he earned All-Ivy honors.
Returning to Yale after a hiatus of several months, Solakian got the chance to show off the results of his hard work. In all the events leading up to the 40-yard dash, he set personal records. However, on his second attempt at the 40, he strained his hamstring.
“My first 40, I ran it pretty well but my start was kind of off,” Solakian said. “The second one was going really well but I hurt my hamstring and had to pull up. The whole rest of the day I was battling to keep it warm and going at 90-95 per cent speed so I wouldn’t pull it.”
During his positional drills, the safety was asked to catch balls along with Johnson. In addition, the scout wanted to see him drop back into coverage and come up to cover the run. As with Johnson, Scudellari threw long passes to Solakian to simulate interceptions. Solakian looked sharp and made a spectacular grab on an errant pass by the quarterback.
All in all, Solakian had a great performance despite his injury halfway through the pro day and currently looking for other pro days to attend so that he can redo certain drills.
Bench: 13 repetitions at 225 lbs
40-yard time: mid-4.5 seconds
Vertical leap: 35 inches
—Karan Arakotaram contributed reporting.