The football season never quite ends. Like the seasons of the year, it simply changes form.
Wednesday, the NFL's annual convention, better known as the National Scouting Combine, kicked off at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and it will continue through Tuesday. The 331 college athletes invited to participate began flashing their wares to prospective employers Thursday. The players will continue lifting, running, jumping and test taking through the final day, participating in four-day sessions that are staggered according to position.
The event, the most high-profile off-season assessment period for potential picks in the April 24-25 draft, is closed to the public and media, adding to the intrigue.
Only two recent Badgers were invited this year: receiver Lee Evans and linebacker Alex Lewis. Evans is currently projected by many media outlets as a late first or an early second-round selection. Lewis is expected to go somewhere in the middle of the seven-round draft.
Since Jan. 12 Lewis, Evans and fellow seniors Jeff Mack, Jim Sorgi and Ryan Aiello have been working out six days a week with Wisconsin's strength and conditioning coach, John Dettmann. Wisconsin's perspective draftees who were not invited to the combine can still look forward to the school's pro day, March 3, which will mirror many of the drills and exercises put on display in Indianapolis.
The quintet is joined periodically by other college seniors hoping to have a chance to play professionally, including Minnesota linebacker Ben West, an Appleton, Wis., native, and UW-Stevens Point quarterback Scott Krause, a Waunakee, Wis., native.
"We've run a combine camp for a number of years here where they can come here and train with our kids," Dettmann said. "If a kid has worked hard for that four- or five-year period, I think we owe him something more than a handshake and a sent out the door."
The group works out in two to two-and-half-hour sessions, training to improve their speed for the 40-yard dash, leaping ability for the broad jump and vertical jump, quickness for the shuttle runs (10-yard and 60-yard) and 3-cone drill, and strength for the bench press, where prospects are asked to rep 225 pounds as many times as they can consecutively.
"It is event training versus getting really technically ready to play football," Dettmann said.
Four days a week, the athletes plug away at the drills, working in the weight room or running on the practice field at the McClain Center, which adjoins Camp Randall Stadium. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they do exercises for what Dettmann calls "an active rest stretching day."
The combine and the pro days that scores of universities will host throughout the country leading up to the draft are not all about lifting and running, though. Evans, Lewis and the rest of the invitees this weekend will also take tests intended to gauge their psychological makeup and each NFL team can interview up to 60 prospective draftees.
The combine results become just one part of a scout's profile, but it can have a substantial impact on when a player is drafted.
"You'll talk to some teams they'll say it doesn't matter at all, (they say), ‘We just evaluate film,'" Dettmann said. "You'll talk to some teams and they'll say, ‘Hey, if a guy can't run we don't want him.' The bottom line is it matters, otherwise they wouldn't go to the great lengths to hold the event that they hold."
Teams will assess hours of film in honing their draft boards but also complete homework on an athlete's mental makeup prior to winter workouts, interviewing people like Dettmann, who said scouts typically begin to visit Madison during the third week of the season.
"They are talking to me about work ethic and accountability and the type of people they are," Dettmann said. "They are talking to me sometimes about stuff I may not know about—their families or their lifestyles. I generally don't ever comment about that stuff."
The combine is the primary function of the NFL's excursion in Indianapolis, but the time is also used for meetings among league personnel, one of the reasons the event is spread out over almost an entire week.
Back in Madison, Dettmann is focusing on getting Wisconsin's football team ready for spring practice, which begins March 4. With about 100 current Badgers in the midst of a seven-week, four-day-a-week program leading up to spring ball, the McClain Center can be a crowded work space. So the strength and conditioning staff breaks the football players into four groups according to class schedule, including the pro prospect's group.
"My number one priority is getting our football team ready for spring practice so these guys have to work around that schedule," Dettmann said. "I don't sacrifice anything with our football team to train these guys. The flip side of that is that I make a commitment to them that a lot of schools don't make."
Badger seniors in The Insiders' NFLExperts.com pre-combine rankings
Lee Evans – No. 7 wide receiver, projected early second round selection
Alex Lewis – No. 12 outside linebacker, early fourth
Jeff Mack – No. 11 inside linebacker, free agent
Jim Sorgi – No. 23 quarterback, free agent
Ryan Aiello – unranked, free agent