When the NFL Scouting Combine opens this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, BYU will be represented by five players, headlined by linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
It's the highest number of Cougar players to participate in a Combine since 2002, when six from BYU were invited.
This is also a banner year for the Beehive State at the Combine. There will be 15 players from local schools — five from Utah, four from Utah State and one from Dixie State — that will participate out of the more than 300 top NFL prospects from 124 different programs.
Only 13 schools boast more Combine participants than BYU and Utah.
Meanwhile, four of BYU’s five invitees are defensive players. Only three programs — Alabama, Florida State and Florida — have more defensive players participating in this year’s Combine.
Besides Van Noy, the other Cougars attending are linebacker Uani Unga, defensive back Daniel Sorensen, defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna and wide receiver Cody Hoffman.
Having five players at the Combine is a boon for BYU.
“It’s significant because we’ve got a lot more attention on BYU with the guys going in (the Combine) and players are seeing that,” said BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. “For recruiting purposes, it’s great. It’s good to show that for our recruits that we can produce NFL players and help them get into the NFL through the scheme that we play. It also shows that, as coaches, we can develop players.”
Before defensive lineman Ezekiel Ansah was selected No. 5 overall last April in the NFL draft, the Cougars hadn’t had a single player drafted since 2010. Ansah was BYU’s first first-round pick since 2000.
Current Cougar players will have their eyes on what happens this weekend at the Combine.
“It’s rewarding for us, but I think it’s even more rewarding for the players,” said Poppinga. “Guys in our program are more excited now about the Combine and the NFL. In the past, it’s kind of been a negative, with guys wondering if they’d have a chance (to get to the NFL). But if you play well and you’re good enough player, you're going to get to the NFL Combine and you have a chance to be drafted.”
The Combine puts participants through an intense series of drills, tests and interviews over a four-day period. The drills consist of the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and shuttle run.
Utah will be represented by linebacker Trevor Reilly, tight ends Jake Murphy and Anthony Denham, defensive lineman Tenny Palepoi, and defensive back Keith McGill. Offensive lineman Tyler Larsen, tight end D.J. Tialavea and defensive backs Mo Alexander and Nevin Lawson will represent Utah State, while Dixie State tight end Joe Don Duncan will also be in Indianapolis.
Poppinga said that having 15 players from local schools shows the quality of football played in Utah.
“We play good football in the state of Utah, with Utah State coming up the last few years, and with Utah and us,” said Poppinga, who played collegiately at both Utah State and BYU.
Why were so many defensive players from BYU invited to the Combine?
“We maybe have a little bit more talent than we’ve had in the past overall. I think overall we have better players,” said Poppinga. “That’s why, defensively at least, we’ve been better the last three years because we’ve had a bunch of NFL players on those teams. It comes down to talent, and having schemes that will highlight the talents we have, then developing those players to prepare them for the next level. It always comes back to when you have great players, teams are going to find them.”
Mike Mayock, NFL Network analyst and draft guru, said the upcoming draft, which starts May 8, is filled with talent.
“From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class I’ve seen in probably 10 years,” he said.
Van Noy is expected to be the first local player to be drafted. Many project him to be taken late in the first round or early in the second round.
“Van Noy, I like him,” Mayock said. “He’s a productive guy in all phases of the game. He can drop, he can rush. The question is, what is he? I think he’s probably a 34 outside linebacker. I’ve got a third-round grade on him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he went in the second (round). It wouldn’t surprise me if he went in the fourth.”
What does Poppinga hope to see out of Van Noy at the Combine?
“A lot of scouts know he’s quick and explosive,” he said. “They want to see — and I don’t know why, I don’t think it’s very relevant in my opinion — how fast he runs the 40. For him to rise up on the draft boards, they’re going to want to see him run a low 4.6, high 4.5. If he could do that, that will move him up. That’s really how (former Cougar) Bryan Kehl made some jumps in the Combine and at Pro Day. NFL scouts put a lot into that.”
Van Noy’s football IQ will impress NFL teams, Poppinga said.
“What it really comes down to is the interviews. Hopefully he can show his knowledge to the team. That’s one of his positives. He’s super-smart and he understands schemes really well and how he understands football.”
Mayock is curious to watch Utah State’s Lawson at the Combine.
“Lawson’s a quick-footed kid. He has really good change-of-direction skills,” he said. “He looks to me like a natural nickel. I need to see how fast he is, like most corners. I don’t know what he really runs. But I thought he was a little bit intriguing.”
Utah’s Murphy could go toward the end of the draft, according to Mayock. “I’ve only seen one tape of him and I had a late-round grade on him,” he said.
Of BYU's Hoffman, Mayock said, “He’s kind of a straight-line guy. I don’t see the burst and acceleration. He had heavy production (in college). I wanted to like him, but he’s got to show people that he can separate more. I want to see what he runs this week and how he catches the football. His height and weight fits today’s NFL wide receiver.”