Dawg day afternoon
Top Georgia prospect looks to impress pro scouts
Posted: Friday March 19, 2004 3:59PM; Updated: Friday March 19, 2004 7:37PM
ATHENS, Ga. -- Talk about pressure. It was close to 70 degrees Thursday noontime when Michael Johnson stepped onto the University of Georgia track. Hovering above the finish line, stopwatch in hands, huddle upward of 50 NFL scouts and coaches, including bosses Butch Davis of the Cleveland Browns and Mike Sherman of the Green Bay Packers.
If this were Michael Johnson ("He's the fast one, I'm the slower one"), the double gold medalist from the Atlanta Olympics, it'd be no sweat. But scouts are staring down the red rubber track at a big, physical possession receiver in the mold of Keyshawn Johnson. What they call a long strider, not a burner.
Right now, Johnson is convinced no moment in his life has ever been more critical. Imagine the angst of sitting down for the SATs, only turn up the screws. Johnson has prepped for his NFL audition, training five days a week since early January with Jon Crosby, performance director at Atlanta-based Velocity Sports Performance.
Johnson didn't get an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month, so the heat is on to shine at Georgia's Pro Day. Former first-rounders Champ Bailey, Marcus Stroud and George Foster mix with the crowd that's turned out to cheer on the 15 Bulldogs. Also taking it in are juniors who project as early picks next year -- quarterback David Greene and defensive end David Pollack.
A fast time in the 40 might get Johnson's name called in the NFL draft. The problem is he's nursing a left hamstring tweaked 10 days ago -- and the talent-hounds aren't here for excuses. They've come to see him lift and to measure his jumping skills, but more importantly to run him over 40 yards and through a series of agility drills.
The good news is Johnson (6-2 ½, 227) managed to clock identical 4.59s in the 40. It's an improvement, yet not quite what his speed coach hoped for. "He's a big dude, somebody will pick him up," says Crosby, who trains Shannon Sharpe and handful of NFL veterans in the off-season.
But will they draft him? On this day, the mood is somewhat encouraging. A Jacksonville Jaguars scout chats up Johnson between drills. And after the 40s, the Browns' Davis engages him in a five-minute conversation. Davis recruited him while at the University of Miami, only to lose out to Georgia.
Later, Crosby jokes about of the blistery winters and snow he could be facing in Cleveland, but Johnson is cool with it. "I'll go anywhere," he says. "I just want to play in the league."
The numbers from this day and others on campuses across the country -- and what do personnel guys follow more than numbers? -- figure to go a long way in determining who qualifies for a shot at the NFL. They may eliminate some and send others draft status soaring.
When Georgia tight end Ben Watson, 6-3, 255 pounds, blazed the 40 in 4.43, a scout yelled out, "What kind of shoes is he wearing?" After a so-so injury plagued senior season, Watson's numbers here and last month at the combine -- benching 225 pounds 34 times -- could turn him into a late first-round pick, the second at his position behind Miami's Kellen Winslow.
You can contrast him with teammate and productive wideout/punt returner Damien Gary who'll be lucky to get drafted. A scout could be heard asking, "You sure that's Gary?" after he clocked a pedestrian 4.7 on his first of two runs.
This 40 as the ultimate measurement tool is a tad silly, anyway. Word is the idea traces to the late Paul Brown wanting fast guys for punt coverage and figuring the typical punt traveled 40 yards. But even as scouts go from campus to campus, some schools like Georgia and Miami run the 40 on a track and others on slower turf surfaces. And prepping seriously with a speed coach, it's possible to knock off as much as two-tenths before performing for the pro scouts -- taking a 4.7 into the more impressive 4.5 range.
"I guess what all this does is determine some specific measurement that may equate to athletic ability," offered Dan Rooney, a college scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "But it's hard to get excited if a guy doesn't play well on film."
But like acceptance to a top college, you better perform well on the standardized test to be considered for the NFL. And, in most cases, that translates to months of prepping for Pro Day.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.