No actual football will be played next week in Indianapolis, Indiana, but the Scouting Combine has become arguably the most important event for future pros ahead of the NFL Draft each April.
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One of said future pros that will be on hand is former Florida State offensive tackle Andrew Datko, who had been a reliable blind-side pass protector going back to his freshman season before a recurring shoulder injury essentially robbed him of his senior campaign in garnet and gold. The 6-6, 321-pounder began having issues with a surgically-repaired shoulder toward the end of preseason camp but still managed to start the first four games on the schedule, although he was a scratch Oct. 8 at Wake Forest somewhat unexpectedly -- he never suited up for the Seminoles again.
Instead of applying to the NCAA for a medical redshirt and a fifth year of eligibility, in part because he had already completed his degree in business, Datko decided to close the book on his college career and declared for the draft. While he is still dealing with the aftereffects of his medical problem, the Fort Lauderdale native claims to be 100 percent from a range-of-motion perspective and has been working hard to get back into playing shape. Originally considered a second- or third-round talent, his stock has understandably taken a hit since professional franchises are now forced to question his health going forward.
The combine is Datko’s first opportunity to prove to scouts, coaches and executives that he’s ready to take the field again and still worth an investment.
“I’m actually really looking forward to it because I played the first four games and then I was injured,” he said. “Right now, teams aren’t sure where I’m standing at with the shoulder. ‘Can he really do much?’ And I really want to prove myself out there that I’m really 100 percent and just show them that I’m moving good and everything and I’m back to where I was.”
Datko’s pre-combine training regimen includes preparation for some of the things he’ll be tested on in Indy, like the 40-yard dash and how many times he can bench press 225 pounds, but he’s doing more than simply perfecting those specific exercises.
“We’re not working on those drills all the time,” he said. “We’ll be working on other things to help us with that. Like we won’t bench 225 all the time when we bench, but we’ll be building on our endurance to do 225 longer. … And like with the 40, we’re not timing our 40 every day. We’ll be doing drills helping out with the little things to get better, but we won’t be doing testing like every day. We’ll be doing those little things and those drills to help us get better all the time, and then all our drills are specifically related to different things we’ll be tested on.”
The St. Thomas Aquinas High School graduate had been an all-academic performer in the classroom throughout his time in Tallahassee, so he figures to do quite well on the much-ballyhooed Wonderlic test.
“I’m thinking the Wonderlic test score won’t be like the sole number they look at,” said Datko. “Like they’ll see how good I did in school and everything in college, talk to people [about] how smart I was football-wise with the coaches and how smart I was school-wise with the academic people. The Wonderlic will just be another score, but I’m hoping to do pretty good on it.”
NFL Network will broadcast four days worth of running and jumping, so it’s easy to think that the program is all about three-cone drills and vertical leaps, but perhaps more important for a player like Datko are the interviews he’ll have with perspective employers -- he’ll spend a lot more time talking than testing.
“I guess what people don’t realize is the testing part is really half a day out of almost four days,” he said. “All the other stuff is just meeting teams and stuff. The interview process is a big part because, really, when a team first sees you in person, they’re really going to get the first 10 seconds when they look at you. They’re going to get a good look at what kind of person you are, so it’s real important to almost be relaxed in the situation, and they’ve been working on that. We actually worked on it [Tuesday], and they’ve been working on that. Just to show the positive side of you, those things like that. Because they only have 15 minutes to talk to you face to face, so it’s real important to bring a strong message to those teams and show them that you’re their guy.”
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Datko won’t be alone, as five of his former 'Nole teammates (linebacker Nigel Bradham, cornerback Mike Harris, punter Shawn Powell, tight end Beau Reliford and fellow offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders) also got in invitation to attend, and he believes one of them in particular is going to put on a show.
“I really think it’s going to be Nigel,” he said. “I think people outside of FSU don’t really know his ability. He’s been really under the radar, and then when he comes to the combine, I think he’s really going to shock people to see he’s playing linebacker and he’s this athletic. … I know he showed some of that at the Senior Bowl, but they’ll really see it number-wise at the combine how athletic he is.”
Datko arrives at the combine next Wednesday, Feb. 22, gets measured and a medical examination Thursday the 23rd, does psychological testing Friday the 24th and then works out Saturday the 25th.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.