Wildcats embrace fleeting opportunity

Northwestern's seniors struggled through most of Tuesday's drills, looking a little out of their element in front of pro scouts. But regardless of dwindling NFL hopes and paltry 40 times, the eight ‘Cats present made the most of a unique chance to represent their program one more time.

The whistle blows, and a second later, Quentin Williams is sprawled across the turf.

"Come on guys, keep your feet underneath you!" a Jets scout yells as Williams gets up to give a three-cone drill another shot. Testing lateral quickness, the workout is ideal for a defensive end looking to showcase his speed off the edge.

Another whistle, and a few seconds later, another jot of the pen from the scouts. Williams has run around the wrong side of the final cone, leaving him without an official time again.

"Finish the drill, compete!" another scout mutters. It's been tough to watch; Williams, linebacker David Nwabuisi and cornerback Quinn Evans have all struggled to clock a respectable result, leaving Northwestern's draft stock famished after a round of disappointing 40-yard dashes.

In fairness, the eight players working out had nothing to lose. None were invited to February's NFL Combine, and none are projected picks as April rolls in. The only promising prospect, offensive tackle Brian Mulroe, was absent from Tuesday's Pro Day and will not pursue a professional career.

But even with nothing to lose, there was tenseness circulating through Trienens Hall. Nwabuisi noted his nervousness after notching a 4.71-second 40, while one scout called Williams "tight and stiff" during a three-cone run.

Aside from Quinn Evans' 4.37 40, no Wildcats impressed in the day's beginning portion of speed assessments. No other skill position players cracked a 4.5-second dash, and nobody topped 10 feet in the standing long jump.

Yet when Northwestern took the weight room for the day's second part of workouts, it was tough to ignore a shift in the mood.

"[Coach Fitzgerald] said to just have fun with it," offensive tackle Patrick Ward said.

That fun began in the vertical jump, where Williams, Evans and Nwabuisi were all hyped after recording measurements over 30 inches. That fun rolled on to the bench press, where defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt elicited rowdy cheers from teammates as he muscled his way to 38 reps on a 225-pound set. As he clanked the bar into place, trainers and players erupted. Arnfelt gave a thundering clap and growled, a release of the tension that had plagued Northwestern's Draft hopefuls all afternoon. Those 38 reps topped all participants, giving the Wildcats an energized reminder that they still belonged in front of NFL scouts.

"It's just another opportunity to go out, have fun and enjoy themselves," Pat Fitzgerald said. "Maybe as teammates for the last time."

Arnfelt's tone-setting bench press reminded those in attendance what Pro Day actually meant. Though no Wildcats stand much of a chance of reaching the pros, Tuesday presented one final chance for the school's winningest senior class to cheer each other on.

"Here we go ‘Buis!" Arnfelt belted as Nwabuisi took the bench press. Tallying 20 reps, Nwabuisi took playful punches from his trainer afterward, while Evans and wideout Demetrius Fields cracked smiles.

"We're all blessed to be here, given this opportunity," Nwabuisi said. "We made the most of it."

Perhaps all the Cats needed to do was loosen up their muscles. Northwestern's seniors looked impressive in the day's final segment, position drills.

Fields' route running was sharp as ever, despite fielding passes from quarterbacks from other Illinois schools. Evans touted great recovery speed on a defensive back drill, and Ward, Nwabuisi and Williams all changed directions without a stumble in their exercises.

Will Tuesday's outing bump Arnfelt up in draft boards? Will Nwabuisi still nuzzle his way onto a roster as an undrafted free agent? It's anyone's guess at this point. Right now, scouts leave Evanston with nothing but a clipboard of times and reps.

But as the day came to a close, several Wildcats joined Fitzgerald, joking about the bright neon cleats worn by Ward during his 40-yard dash and sharing stories from the past season.

One last day as teammates? No clipboard can measure that.

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