New pro day gives players from local colleges chance to shine
It took an unfortunate injury several years ago for the seed to be planted for what transpired Monday at the inaugural Cal (Pa.) Pro Day.
At Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena in Cheswick, seniors from 15 Pennsylvania colleges — ranging from Division I FCS to D-III — were put through the paces in an invitation-only pro-day format that resembled the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
Players ran the 40-yard dash and leaped to push the pegs on a vertical jump vertec. They bench-pressed 225 pounds and ran the three-cone drill. They had their arms and hands measured as well as their height and weight.
For the chance to compete in front of scouts from the NFL and CFL, the 40 players on hand had former Washington & Jefferson and Cal (Pa.) coach John Luckhardt to thank.
It was during a pro day before his final year at Cal that Luckhardt watched a defensive tackle from Gannon rip his hamstring while running outside on a cold and windy day.
“The kid never got to an NFL camp,” said Luckhardt, who retired in 2012. “He was good enough to get a shot. That's why something like this made some sense.”
It gave Luckhardt the idea to pool his resources and gather players from PSAC schools, plus other interested college teams in the state, into one indoor practice facility. First, permission was needed from the NFL, which signed off as long as one institution was designated the host school. Cal was chosen, likely in deference to Luckhardt.
With the help of longtime Steelers college scout Mark Gorscak and the folks at Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena, Luckhardt's concept was turned into a reality, and he couldn't have been prouder.
“At Cal, everything we did was outside,” Luckhardt recalled. “You'd try to go out and run the 40 in 20-degree weather and into the wind. It was awful tough. It cost some kids that I thought had a better shot to play or at least get into an NFL camp.
“This is also good for the scouts because they get see kids from 15 schools in one place as opposed to going to 15 different places to see them. I think Mark is going to buy me a cheeseburger to thank me for saving gas mileage for going to 15 places.”
Gorscak, perhaps best known nationally as the starter for the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, ran the pro day Monday with some assistance from Steelers coach assistant Steve Meyer and scouting intern Denzel Martin.
“I thought it turned out really well,” Gorscak said. “The kids were very attentive and did everything we asked. It was pretty smooth.”
Three PSAC programs from the eastern side of the state — Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg and Kutztown — sent kids. Three FCS programs also participated, with Duquesne and St. Francis (Pa.) sending two players each and Robert Morris one. Representing D-III were W&J wide receiver Jesse Zubik of Avonworth and Westminster cornerback Todd Jeter of Gateway.
Four quarterbacks were invited, including Christian Strong of Seton Hill. Also competing was Cal defensive back Vondel Bell, cousin of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell.
Robert Morris doesn't have a pro day, so safety Andy Smigiera saw the event as his best chance to get noticed.
“Getting numbers and getting in front of scouts is a step,” Smigiera said. “If you're never running in front of them, they can never grade you or see how well you do. You definitely need to get in front of as many people as possible, and today was a good way to do that.”
Scouts from the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, in addition to the Steelers, were in attendance as was a representative from the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.
“These numbers will be sent to all 32 teams,” Gorscak said. “They'll all the get same information and get a chance to evaluate these kids.”
The 6-foot, 201-pound Smigiera was one of the stars of the workout. He ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds, had a 40-inch vertical jump and completed 19 reps on the bench press.
“We think he can play somewhere,” Luckhardt said.
Luckhardt optimistically would like to see half of the pro day participants get signed as undrafted free agents to 90-man preseason rosters or receive invitations to NFL rookie minicamps. Or perhaps get a chance to play in Canada.
“It's not exactly the same (football), but it does give them a chance to have film and show they can play pro football and at least get invited to an NFL camp someday,” Luckhardt said.
Luckhardt hopes the event can grow, with more Pennsylvania schools sending players to Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena.
“We'd like to make it an annual event,” he said.
“Besides,” said Luckhardt, whose playing and coaching career spanned six decades, “it gives me something to do.”