Last year at this time, Ramon Ochoa was preparing for his final days of football. The California native hoped to fill his role as return man and situational receiver and then hang up his cleats.
"I was graduating in December," Ochoa said. "I was going to go home, and that's it. I got my degree from Iowa. I loved it here. At that time, I was thinking I would play a little bit my senior year and that's it. I would be done."
A funny thing happened on Ochoa's way to the real world. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound wideout ended up leading the Hawkeyes in receiving and finished second to all-American kicker Nate Kaeding on the team's 2003 scoring list with eight touchdowns for 48 points.
Ochoa averaged 12.4 yards per punt return (4th in the Big Ten, 19th nationally) and 22.0 yards per kick return (5th Big Ten, 59th nationally). He played in all 13 games in '03 with eight starts. He caught 34 passes for 477 yards, both team highs.
All of that production came from a guy that figured to be at best the team's third receiver behind starters Mo Brown and Ed Hinkel. He also faced the possibility of being passed by young guns Calvin Davis and Matt Melloy for playing time.
To top it all off, he played the entire season with a stress fracture in his left tibia. The injury was diagnosed last July.
Ochoa's whirlwind of a season has changed his life. He hired an agent and has been preparing to be invited to an NFL training camp later this month via the draft (April 24-25) or free agency.
"Nine months ago, I wasn't expected to be in this situation," Ochoa said. "I had a good year, but I wasn't expecting all of this. I wasn't expecting to be working out here in April."
Ochoa returned from the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl ahead of his teammates to have the surgery done on his tibia that he had put off. He has a two-inch incision scar just below his left knee where the doctors operated. They inserted a metal rod.
"I was out a good four weeks," he said. "After four weeks, I started but it wasn't full speed. There was one week where I was totally down and the other three were spent getting back to walking and getting my motion down."
Rehabilitation came with other drawbacks.
"It was difficult because I saw all of these other guys working out," Ochoa said. "I was trying to work out, but at the same time, I had to rehab before I worked out. I was kind of doing a little bit of both. It's still frustrating because you know you're not full strength. All of these other guys are working hard. You're trying to compete with them, but you couldn't."
Ochoa said that he has returned to nearly the condition he was before his operation. His 4.6-second, 40-yard dash time probably fell short of overly impressing the pro scouts, but what they saw is what they'll get.
"I'm not a blazing guy," Ochoa said. "I look at myself as having field speed or whatever you want to call it, game speed. My game is running precise routes. If we line up people, you're not going to pick me out of the bunch to win. Unless I'm back home, running against my friends. But it's not here, and probably not at the next level."
Ochoa's agent has told him to relax and see what happens. Ochoa knows that it's out of his hands.
"My mindset is to get into a camp and show them what I have," he said. "I don't expect to get drafted. We've had success with walk-ons at Iowa. I'm going to put myself in their shoes because I see a free agent like a walk-on. I'm just going to go there and earn that spot. All I can ask for is a chance. If they cut me, then it wasn't meant for me to play at that level. If they keep me, it was meant to be. If you can't control it, why worry?"
"They have high hopes," Ochoa said. "Everyone back home is like, "Oh, you're going to the NFL." I just tell them that I'm working out for it. Of course, they want it. And I want it. They might even want it more, but they don't know the inside scoop. They don't know the realistic part of it. There are so many players out there."
Ochoa said that he would consider other professional football leagues if things don't work out in the NFL.
"If I have to play overseas or in Canada, I'd do it," he said. "I don't think that I'd play Arena 2. The other places, you're going to be financially OK. With Arena2, you still have to work (in the offseason). If I'm going to do something, I'm going to dedicate myself to it. I would probably make more money working than Arena 2."
Ochoa seems pretty comfortable with idea of going back to LA and putting his Spanish Education degree to work. He wants to be a teacher.
"If I don't make it (in pro football), I'm going to have to go home and get my (teaching) credentials at home," Ochoa said. "That's going to be a good year of schooling. If one of the leagues would call wanting to give me a shot during that time, I'd have to look at it and see if it was financially smart."
Wherever he ends up in the future, the reality of college life ending has been hitting Ochoa pretty hard.
"It's a tough time watching all the guys you went through this with spread out," he said. "Mo already moved out. Nathan Chandler left last week. It makes you think. I hope we can all play in the NFL, but realistically, that probably won't happen.
"I'm realistic. I'm not the prototypical receiver. I just want a shot. I'll play play special teams. If they need me to carry the water, I'll carry the water. I'll do whatever they want me to do."