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Former Huskers Preparing for the NFL Draft in a World of Unknowns

April 07, 2020

Khalil Davis put more than just scouts on notice when the clock started and his record-setting 40-yard dash began.

“Y’all boys be moving,” one defensive lineman said to Darrion Daniels as they both watched Davis cross the finish line. Daniels just looked back at him and asked if that should surprise anyone. They were D1, Power Five starters at a major institution, after all. But the Davis twins, Khalil and Carlos, Daniels and cornerback Lamar Jackson were fighting a perception of them at the NFL Combine a month ago. “Y’all only won four games!” the shocked defensive lineman said back to Daniels.

“It was a perception we weren’t that athletic because of our record,” Daniels told me recently. “It was actually crazy, a lot of scouts had asked me—and I talked to the twins about it and they got the same thing—a question like, ‘And you guys have your whole d-line here? And you guys have a pretty nice cornerback, right?’ And then they started naming other guys on the team and were like, ‘How did you guys do so bad this year?’ It’s a hard question to answer.”

It is. You have to put in the time to know what went wrong with the 2019-20 Huskers. But unless you’re a scout, you might not have that time. As Nebraska’s draft-eligible players have started training with other prospects from all over the country, they’ve had to defend themselves a little bit.

“Even when I was training, just day-to-day debates or arguments, people just naturally discredit us because of team success,” Jackson said. It burns the corner up they didn’t have the team success they wanted; when he talks about the Blackshirts, Jackson says he wishes he could have more weight behind his words.

“They just see the record. They don’t see the talent or know what’s really going on. People who wasn’t paying attention, of course they’re going to discredit us, but the guys who really (watched)—regional scouts, fans, players, everybody around Nebraska—they could have told you everybody who was at the Combine deserved to be at the Combine.

“You gotta just do your thing. Do the task at hand to the best of your ability. Just attack it.”

That feels applicable in more ways than one right now.

The 2020 NFL Draft has moved virtual. It’ll look a lot like your Uncle Chris’ fantasy football draft. General managers will be hunkered down in their home office or basement, teleconferencing with the rest of their war room personnel hunkered down in their own homes, and making calls to the NFL commissioner in his own home. The plan is no longer to converge on Las Vegas. First-round draft selections won’t get to put on their new team’s hat, shake Roger Goodell’s hand and hold up a No. 1 jersey.

So many are missing out on memories and once-in-a-lifetime experiences because of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not happy this is happening,” Daniels says. “But I don’t look at anything and try to pity myself. I look at is an obstacle, but more so as an opportunity because during this time, it makes it harder for the scouts.”

How so?

“It makes them have to do their job a little bit better. They have to do their research, they have to look at more film, they have to get on the phone and talk to us,” Daniels said. “I feel like my potential and my ceiling in the NFL is a lot further than what I did in college, so if they turn on the film they can see what I’m capable of. When they get me on the phone and they get to know me personally, they’ll feel like, ‘Oh yeah, we can trust this guy.’”

The glass-half-full approach. What Daniels is selling makes a lot of sense, though. He says the hype has been killed for the draft. Think about the process: national and local media are largely focused on the bigger picture impacts of the coronavirus on the sporting world. No one is talking about the Day 3 prospect moving his way into Day 2 because of private workouts or pro days.

Nebraska was one of the only schools across the country to have a pro day. No one is taking private workouts.

Jackson had a webchat with the New Orleans Saints recently to go over install. Scouts, coaches and the GM were on the call. Daniels got a text from the d-line coach on Zac Taylor’s Cincinnati Bengals staff one weekend with five plays, and he was told he’d be getting a call sometime that upcoming week where he’d have to break those plays down.

The Justin Herberts and Chase Youngs of the draft won’t feel the effects of lost workouts too greatly, but someone like Mohamed Barry, who didn’t get a Combine invite and now only has his Pro Day numbers to show scouts, he’s impacted.

“There’s a lot of guys working for this moment in sports … and it’s gone out the window,” Barry said after his Pro Day workout.

Several former Huskers are working out together in Lincoln, including Barry and Jackson. Someone opened up a private workout space for them while still staying within the guidelines set by local health officials. Those guys appreciate that.

Jackson in particular needs a weight room. “I can’t just turn my room into a gym,” he says. “I can’t just turn my living room into a gym. There’s certain stuff I need.” Just keeping it real. So for a while there, his schedule was a little broken.

“It’s getting to the point where I feel like I don’t know when I need to be in shape or when I’m going to play football again,” he said. “It’s hard to say, ‘Let me go do this every day, let me do this, this, and this.’ It kind of messes up your thought process just because the road is at a standstill. Everything’s on pause, in a way.

“There’s just a whole lot of unknowns.”

Which means there’s only one mindset he and the rest of his teammates can have.

“Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” Jackson says. “That’s what I’ve been telling myself lately.”

This will no doubt go down as one of the strangest drafts in the history of the league. Would these players, guys essentially interviewing to find the right place to begin their professional careers, rather have some sense of normalcy? Sure.

But for this group of former Huskers, nothing has been normal about the last four/five years of their football-playing careers anyway.

“At the end of the day you gotta accept everything for what it is because this is our reality,” Jackson said.

The draft is still on. Someone is still going to call.

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