By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When West Virginia University held its Pro Day on Thursday of this past week before the peering eyes of coaches, executives and scouts from 29 NFL teams along with unblinking eyes of NFL Network and ESPN cameras, it was no surprise that quarterback Geno Smith and wide receiver Tavon Austin performed flawlessly.
But, in truth, the day really wasn’t about them, for they had showed off their goods at the NFL Combine.
Instead, this was a do-or-die day for the other Mountaineers who carry the same dreams as do Smith and Austin, but needed a chance to prove themselves worthy.
“I always said this is more for them than for me,” Smith said. “Everyone is going to watch the tape and do their homework. But there are guys like Ryan Nehlen, who didn’t play as much but he tests with the best of them. J.D. Woods is another guy who runs great routes and has great hands.
“To have the scouts get a feel for those other guys is extremely gratifying for me because I appreciate what they did for me when I was on the team with them.”
Perhaps the best two examples of who benefitted most from Pro Day were Nehlen, a gifted athlete whose chances were limited at WVU, and offensive lineman Jeff Braun, a versatile, dedicated player whose athletic skills may have been underrated.
This is how the day went for the two of them and their reaction to it.
“Everything went good. I was happy with my time. I was happy with the way I caught the ball and my jumping ability,” Nehlen said after impressing all the scouts who were in attendance.
How could he not be?
Nehlen was the top performer among the athletes who went through the timed and measured drills.
His 4.53 time in the 40 was tied with defensive back Cecil Level for the day’s fastest, a hundredth of a second faster than cornerback Pat Miller. He was faster than both of them in the cone drills and the 20 and 60 shuttles.
When it came to jumping, he nearly jumped off the charts. His vertical jump was 39 inches, the next best being 34.5 inches; his broad jump 11-1, four inches farther than the next best.
Other than Tavon Austin, who let his Combine 4.35 stand, there wasn’t an athlete out there who could match Nehlen, which was something everyone kept hearing from the coaching staff all the time he was playing a backup role to some really fine WVU receivers who went or will go on to the NFL.
That he pulled it off on this day, the only day the NFL got to see him up close and personal, may have changed his life.
“It’s huge,” he admitted. “This is so important for guys who don’t have as much time on the field.”
There isn’t a lot of Ryan Nehlen film to see.
He caught only 12 passes in his career, gaining just 101 yards and scoring a couple of touchdowns.
It didn’t scratch the potential that his athleticism hints at, but he understands that was yesterday and what he did on Pro Day was aimed at tomorrow.
“After college it’s a new start,” he said.
He took the start seriously. Like most kids, his younger days were spent trying to figure out what game he wanted to play. He was out of a football family, of course, his grandfather being Don Nehlen, the Hall of Fame coach from WVU who was a quarterback as a player at Bowling Green.
His uncle is a pretty fair former player, too, being one-time WVU quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants.
Nehlen was a four-year starter and All-State receiver for coach John Kelley at University High in Morgantown and may have been, considering his vertical leap, an even better basketball player.
Football, though, was where he would wind up, and he was one of those individuals who made the most out of his college life both athletically and academically. He was a Dean’s List student in exercise physiology with a near 4.0 grade-point average.
This, of course, gives him something to fall back on if the football thing doesn’t work out, but Nehlen isn’t thinking along those lines.
He has the NFL in his sights and, as a realist, believes there is a spot for him.
“In the NFL there is always a spot for a guy who can consistently catch the football,” he said.
He compared himself to Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson out of Kansas State, who caught 46 passes for the Packers last year.
“He’s a receiver who won’t blow by the defenders, but he’ll curl up and catch the ball,” Nehlen said.
This venture that he has embarked on now has him excited.
“I love living life and not knowing what will happen next,” Nehlen said.
That was how the 305-pound Braun felt after going through the grueling day of drills and interviews.
“Woke up feeling a lot better about my situation. But satisfaction kills many people, back 2 work!!” he tweeted on Friday morning.
And why not?
His tests were far better than anyone expected, included a day-high 29 reps on the bench press, four more than the next highest. He also ran a 5.26 40, which isn’t Nehlenesque but which is satisfactory, and his agility drills also were acceptable.
Certainly, he made the most out of a pressure situation.
“You really want to perform well,” he said. “For a guy like me, it’s my opportunity. I didn’t get to go to the Combine, so you circled this date. Every day of training, you focused on this. This was my Combine. To perform the way I did, I was quite happy.”
Braun is throwing a lot into his NFL dreams. Like Ryan Nehlen, he is a solid student with a degree who has a bright future ahead of him if being an NFL player doesn’t work out … but he refused to look at it that way.
“I don’t think it changes things. I really know what I want to do in life and the goals I want to achieve. This obviously is the top goal. I want to be able to play in the NFL,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t realistic about it.
“I also know the statistics of what the chances are and that it’s not a long career,” he said. “I’m getting older every day, and they don’t like guys that are old. Your football clock is ticking all the time.”
But, in the end, he wants to be involved in football on some level.
“Once football is done as a player, I want to get back in the game. That’s how much I love it,” he said.
And what does Braun offer?
He is brainy, a player who showed marked improvement over the years, and he is versatile, able to play anywhere on the offensive line, and that was something he tried to get across at the Pro Day tryouts.
“That’s what I wanted to show. That’s the biggest selling point I have,” he said. “My agent has broken it down, and I have film on all four positions. I tell scouts I can play whatever position you want me to play. It doesn’t matter. It’s not going to faze me.
“That’s why in drills today, some snaps I went in a right-hand stance, sometimes in a left-hand stance. I wanted to show my versatility.”
Can he make it?
As with Nehlen, it’s a long shot.
“I’ve heard late rounds to free agency from my agent and from other sources,” he said. “The biggest knock on me was my athleticism. They didn’t think I could move very well, so I had to show them, and I think I did.
“I ‘leaned up’ and I went out to prove ‘Look, I’m an athlete, too.’ The goal is to get into camp,” he continued. “You can be a third-, fourth-, fifth-round draft pick and get cut. I just want to get to camp. Once you get there, it’s a different game.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.