CHAMPAIGN - Clayton Fejedelem deserved an NFL Combine invitation. But the NFL didn’t give him one.
The snub initially bothered the Illinois safety. But now he just sees it as another challenge to overcome, more doubters to prove wrong.
“At the end of the day, as long as I make that roster, I’m not hanging my head low if I didn’t get a Combine invite,” Fejedelem said. “It’s just another thing that happened to me.”
Out of high school, Fejedelem (pronounced FEJ-uh-lem) didn’t receive an invitation to play for a Division I team. So he chose a different route, playing with older brother Ryan for NAIA power St. Xavier in Chicago.
After starring at that level for two years and helping lead the Cougars to the 2011 NAIA national title, Fejedelem had little interest from higher programs. So he chose a different route, walking on at the University of Illinois -- paying his own way.
After leading the Big Ten in tackles as a senior, Fejedelem -- a Second Team All-Big Ten selection in 2015 -- still has next-level doubters. His pitch to NFL teams?
“I’ve been the underdog my entire life," Fejedelem said, "so just give me the opportunity and I’ll make plays on the field."
Here’s some advice to NFL teams: draft Fejedelem. Somebody. Draft Fejedelem. You’ll only regret if you become the latest to doubt him.
Why Fejedelem continues to be under-appreciated is inexplicable. He only produces on the field.
In two seasons at the NAIA level, he had 155 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions and 17 pass break-ups.
In two seasons in the Big Ten, he totaled 191 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups. Last season, he was one of the Big Ten's most physical and best tacklers.
“You can go back to film. I mean, my resume’s film,” Fejedelem said. “The eye in the sky doesn’t lie. You hear that from coaches all the time. This is all great. This gets scouts and coaches, they see your numbers and go, ‘This guy’s going to be a player.’ But at the end of the day, what did you do in game-time situations?”
Fejedelem proved Thursday at the Illinois Pro Day that he has measurable physical talent as well -- some God-given and some man-made. He's not just a good athlete for a white dude. He's a top-notch athlete among his peers.
In front of scouts from all 32 NFL teams, Fejedelem flashed pure speed with a 4.53-second 40-yard, which would have ranked tied for fourth among safeties at the Combine. His 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press would've ranked third among defensive backs at the combine, and his 40.5-inch vertical jump would have ranked tied for seventh among all Combine performers.
Fejedelem looks carved from stone -- or “yoked up,” as the kids say. Fejedelem measured in at 6-foot, 205 pounds with barely an ounce of body fat -- proof of his effort in the weight room.
One Illini parent observing Pro Day joked, “If football doesn’t work out for Fej, he could be an underwear model.” But even that parent admitted that he can’t envision Fejedelem failing.
He’s built himself from a too-small, too-skinny, not-athletic-enough NAIA player into one of the Big Ten’s best tacklers. His history shows NFL teams won’t have to worry about Fejedelem’s focus and drive.
“I definitely have confidence in myself just because I have great work ethic,” Fejedelem said. “I’m not boasting about myself. I wouldn’t be in my position if I didn’t have that. I’m very talented. I believe I’m talented. People overlook me sometimes on talent. But with my talent and work ethic together, I believe I can be an NFL player. Not just someone on the team but a player.”
Now, don’t confuse this for a message to draft Fejdelem in the first three rounds -- though he could end up more valuable than some of the top-100 picks.
Fejedelem is not a perfect prospect, far from it. He’s only 6-foot. And even at 205 pounds, he plays more like a linebacker than a safety. He was iffy at times in pass coverage last season. In a passing league, safeties with coverage concerns don’t start and thus are not selected in the top rounds.
But Fejedelem isn’t a sieve to the pass. Former Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- who told me after just a few spring practices into Fejedelem's career that the walk-on would eventually start for him due to his talent and drive -- just didn’t ask Fejedelem to do what most NFL safeties do. Banks usually stacked Fejedelem in the box against the run in a cover-4 scheme, limited Fejedelem's reps in man and cover-3 coverage. Fejedelem said he must prove his “range.”
“In our cover-four scheme you saw me playing down in the box a lot just because that’s what our defense asked me do,” Fejedelem said. “That’s what I had to do to help benefit the team. You didn’t see me manned up a lot out in slots. You saw me more on tight ends. I’m very comfortable my man technique so I want to be able to show them at camps that I can cover man and that when I drop to the middle I have range.”
Fejedelem’s meal ticket, though, is on special teams (you know, that 20 percent portion of the game that we usually reserve for bathroom breaks?).Fejedelem has the potential to be a stud there due to his 1) speed, 2) strength, 3) ferocity and 4) fearlessness.
“Just getting on a 53-man roster, you have to be a great (special teams) guy,” Fejedelem said. “Find yourself in a position to play safety and get on the field and make a lot of rosters and get on first. But you got to prove yourself as a special teams player.”
‘Keep grinding every day’
Maybe Fejedelem is a sixth- or seventh-rounder. But isn’t that a worthwhile investment for a 5-plus-year special teams ace -- especially when that seems like his floor?
Fejedelem also needs to provide depth at safety, but he showed enough at Illinois to be a Second Team All-Big Ten selection at the position. He probably should’ve been considered more for First Team, but, you know, getting overlooked is kind of Fejedelem’s thing. So Fejedelem doesn’t seem like a longshot to be a capable backup NFL safety, possibly with the ceiling as a starter.
Fejedelem has done everything to answer all his questions. After Thursday’s Pro Day, there’s little else he can do. Some teams will ask for private workouts. But it’s now basically a waiting game until the NFL Draft in Chicago on April 28-30.
“Right now, it’s stay in shape, train for football and wait for the phone to ring,” said Fejedelem, who worked out at IMG Academy this winter but is now back in Illinois for the rest of the spring. “Keep grinding every day.”
Fejedelem so far has proved wrong all his doubters.
So a plea to a smart NFL team: call Fejedelem when you're on the clock on Saturday, April 30 (rounds 4-7 of the draft) -- before somebody else does. If you overlook him, you'll just end up the latest to regret it.
“I didn’t transfer here just to play Big Ten ball,” Fejedelem said. “I transferred here to play and give myself an opportunity to chase my dream, which is to play on Sundays. It’s been an absolute grind. It’s been hard. There’s been financial struggles when you’re a walk-on trying to get through college and pay through your meals, but it’s paying dividends. Now, it’s coming into picture. It’s feasible. But this is just the start. You have to continue to work. If I want to have success, I’m going to just have to keep stepping it up every day.”