Small-school NFL hopefuls keep dream alive at 2nd annual pro day
It’s no longer NFL-or-bust for players from the lower levels of college football’s feeder system. The debuting Alliance of American Football and returning XFL have created job opportunities for under-the-radar players that didn’t exist in previous years.
Perhaps some of these future professionals can look back and say they were discovered on a dreary March 2019 day at an indoor multisport complex in Cheswick.
Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena was the setting Monday where 51 players from 21 Division I FCS, D-II and D-III programs participated in an NFL Combine-like workout that formally was billed as the second annual Cal (Pa.) Pro Day.
Players were put through the paces by longtime Pittsburgh Steelers scout Mark Gorscak and members of his staff. Representatives from the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and four Canadian Football League teams were on hand.
Information from the workout will be provided to all 32 NFL teams in advance of the April draft. The hope is some of the players from this pro day will wind up in an NFL training camp, much like former East Stroudsburg wide receiver Tim Wilson did with the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Those who don’t make it into camps or last beyond a rookie minicamp tryout always have the new professional leagues as fallback options.
“They are looking for more of these guys,” Gorscak said about the upstart leagues. “The CFL is looking for these guys. What we are trying to do is provide opportunity for them to get a job and for these scouts and coaches in these leagues to keep a job.”
Vince Magri, the director of Canadian scouting for the Toronto Argonauts, attended after not making the trek to watch 40 players compete in the 2018 inaugural class.
“It’s a great opportunity to see a good number of players in one facility,” Magri said. “It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Duquesne, Robert Morris and St. Francis (Pa.) had players work out, but the bulk of the group came from the D-II PSAC, which had 13 schools represented.
“I do think this will help me get my foot in the door,” said Cal (Pa.) defensive back Brendan Edwards, an Imani Christian graduate. “Once my foot is in the door, you best believe it’s not leaving.”
Five D-III schools had players receive invitations, including Allegheny running back Tyler Balla (Greensburg Central Catholic) and Mount Union defensive back Louis Berry (Shadyside Academy).
Berry was the only player from a non-Pennsylvania college to get invited.
“It’s hard to get this kind of exposure from a D-III school,” Berry said, “so it’s a good opportunity.”
Berry posted one of the top times in the 40, running it in 4.53 seconds. He also had a 36-inch vertical jump.
“I wasn’t 100 percent healthy coming out here,” said Berry, who cited a hamstring injury. “I was just happy to get through the workout.”
Another former WPIAL player competing was offensive lineman Rocco Esposito (Sto-Rox), who transferred to IUP after a stay at Wake Forest.
Esposito was one of several players at the combine who already signed with an agent.
“He has spoken to a few teams on behalf of me, but just for today he wanted to keep it out of my head,” Esposito said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about who is there. Just go out, do the best you can and make the most of this opportunity.’ ”
Edwards was one of three Cal (Pa.) players to compete. He wasn’t satisfied with his 4.67 40 but thinks he fared better in the three-cone and shuttle drills.
“I really wanted to come and show the scouts how fast I get in and out of my breaks and how fast I am coming downhill and making plays,” Edwards said.
Some of the individual standouts of the drills were Mercyhurst cornerback Dante Redwood, who ran a 4.44 40. Duquesne wide receiver Nehari Crawford was next at 4.5 seconds. Clarion defensive lineman Alec Heldreth did 33 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press.
With Steelers scouts presiding over the event, it gives the organization first-hand analysis in the event if a player is needed on the 90-man offseason or rookie minicamp rosters.
“You already have a hit list set up,” Gorscak said. “You may have an injury to someone you did sign. You can make a phone call. These guys are here in a heartbeat.”
Such was the case last year with Jesse Zubik, a wide receiver from D-III Washington & Jefferson and Avonworth. He was a late addition to the rookie minicamp tryout.
“He got the experience of a lifetime. He got to try out for the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Gorscak said. “He spent two and a half days with us because of an injury. His numbers were worthy enough that we said ‘Let’s bring him in.’ ”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .