Last Thursday, four Yale football players took to the turf in the Connecticut Sportsplex in North Branford, performing in front of three NFL scouts at Yale’s annual Pro Day, featuring prospects from across the state.
Wide receivers Chris Smith ’15 and Grant Wallace ’15, linebacker Will Vaughan ’15 and defensive back Charles Cook ’15 participated alongside nine other players from Central Connecticut State, Southern Connecticut State, Sacred Heart and Wesleyan. Players did activities, such as the 40-yard dash, the vertical leap and the long jump, in addition to position-specific drills. The scouts present were from the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.
According to Yale assistant coach Steven Vashel, the players aim to attract enough attention to get an invitation to a team’s training camp.
“Unless you’re drafted in the mid-rounds, you’re almost better off being a[n undrafted] free agent,” Vashel said. “These guys will finish up school, keep training, try to get a workout after the draft, then hope to make a camp. There, they’ll fight for their lives.”
In contrast to drafted players, who can only negotiate with the team that picked them, undrafted free agents are at liberty to sign with any team that offers them a contract. Though such a contract often carries a lower amount of guaranteed money and offers less job security, it ideally lets the player choose a team that offers him the best chance to make the 53-man roster.
Perhaps the day’s biggest standout was Cook. The second-team All-Ivy defensive back from Dallas ran the 40-yard dash in an unofficial time of 4.59 seconds, leapt 38 inches in the vertical leap and hit 10’9” in the long jump, according to Vashel.
For context, his vertical leap would have tied for eighth-best, and his long jump would have tied for seventh-best of all defensive backs at the NFL Combine this year, which was held in February in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Several spectators and players interviewed, including Wallace, highlighted Cook’s performance as outstanding.
“For Chris and Charles, it went really well,” Wallace said. “They got on the radar for some teams, so hopefully they’ll go to a rookie mini camp. Charles had one of the highest verts [vertical jumps] and Chris had one of the fastest 40 times.”
According to his mother, Ellen Cook, Charles Cook has been preparing throughout the entire semester for the Pro Day. She explained that her son, who played in the outfield for the Elis baseball team for two seasons, took the year off of baseball to prepare for potential opportunities in professional football.
His impressive performance did not go unnoticed.
“You’d think Charles would be invited to a free agent camp,” Vashel said.
Smith, on the other hand, took a less direct route to the Pro Day. He tore his posterior cruciate ligament in 2013 against Dartmouth and spent five weeks on the sidelines. He returned briefly for the Harvard game on Nov. 23, but re-injured his knee on the opening kickoff and took a year off from football to recover. But since this past fall, he said, he has been performing at 100 percent.
His full capacity was good enough for a 4.46-second 40-yard dash. Though unofficial, the time turned heads. For comparison, Jadeveon Clowney, last year’s number one pick in the NFL Draft out of the University of South Carolina, also ran an unofficial 4.47 at the 2014 NFL Combine.
The receiver explained that he mostly prepared by working on footwork and improving his speed.
“The teams that I have talked to see me fitting in as a slot receiver and a deep threat,” Smith said. “I’ll definitely try to contribute on special teams and hopefully being a kick returner will set me apart from other receivers the teams might be looking at.”
Fellow wideout Wallace also clocked a solid 40 time, finishing with an unofficial 4.61, according to Vashel.
The Ivy League’s leading receiver in yards per game decided to participate in the Pro Day in late February. According to Wallace, he spent the majority of his spring break at home in Missouri working out and preparing for the day.
“I think it went alright,” Wallace said. “I didn’t have too many expectations going in, I just wanted to have a good time and show the scouts what I could do. I thought I did that. I didn’t have any bad mess ups, I just showed who I was as an athlete.”
Wallace also performed well in position drills. Toward the end of the day, he had a neat one-handed catch on a back shoulder fade, eliciting murmurs from the crowd of agents, players and parents who were watching the exercise.
The final Yale participant, Vaughan, might have to do some extra work to attract attention, as his day ended early on Thursday. The linebacker pulled his hamstring while running the 40-yard dash and was forced to sit out the rest of the day.
Overall, many of the spectators affiliated with Yale expressed satisfaction with the four players’ performances.
“I think we represented Yale very well,” Wallace said.
According to Vashel, the three scouts present all have ties to Connecticut. The Patriots, who are based out of Foxboro, Massachusetts, frequently attend local Pro Days. The Colts scout worked with one of the coaches from a participating school, and the Broncos scout used to work in the area.
One notable face was absent: that of running back Tyler Varga ’15, the Ivy League’s leading rusher last season. He was also one of two league players invited to the NFL Combine, but due to a bone spur in his ankle, was unable to fully participate.
Yale had been unable to secure an indoor facility by the time Varga decided to work out at a Pro Day, Vashel explained. Therefore, Varga will participate in a private Pro Day with his agent on March 31.