It's the proverbial proving ground for NFL prospects. Show up and show out for the collective masses to see. Get measured, inspected and tested in a variety of physical and mental challenges. And it all happens within a week's time at the NFL Scouting Combine, an influential stop for those hoping to enter the ranks of professional football.
For several 49ers, the combine experience is forever etched in memories and can never be forgotten. Strong performances equate to higher draft selections, while disappointing efforts can leave you sliding down draft boards faster than a trip on Splash Mountain.
At the end of the day, combine performances won't make or break you. It's just a piece of the draft puzzle being put together in 32 meeting rooms across the league's landscape. The magnitude of such circumstances however, will certainly test your mettle.
We caught up with a handful of current 49ers who've recently been under the combine microscope to hear their stories and also to preview this year's edition, which begins Thursday. So let's grab the stop watches, lace up the track shoes and enjoy our first portion of "Combine Snapshots."
Nowadays it's hard to fluster All-World linebacker Patrick Willis. The guy is the best in the business, on top of the game. But go back five years to when he just was a 22-year-old kid out of Ole Miss trying to prove himself at the NFL Scouting Combine – Willis' mind raced as the most important four-and-a-half seconds of his life approached.
"I gotta run fast, I gotta run fast," is all he thought before stepping up to the 40-yard dash.
He worked himself into a frenzy, and when it came time to showcase his speed, Willis couldn't calm down. On his first attempt he false started. Not the end of the world, but it certainly didn't ease any tension.
Take two: 4.48. Pretty good, but not what he expected. After all his attempts were averaged out, Willis' official time was 4.51. "Very disappointing," the perfectionist cringed.
"You have to calm down and just run it," Willis said. "I didn't do that. My technique was terrible – arms flying all over the place, head bobbing up and down.
"Man," he laughed, "that was bad."
Willis went to the combine unsure of where his draft stock stood, and that 40 time did nothing to answer his questions. While most of the world thought Willis was going to be a high pick, Willis wasn't so sure. He heard at least one expert say Jon Beason, Lawrence Timmons and Paul Posluszny would all be drafted ahead of him, and Willis thought his 4.51 only reaffirmed that position.
But when the 6-foot-1, 240 pounder stopped thinking and started participating in the football-specific drills, all of the apprehension disappeared. In its place were his usual swagger and confidence, not to mention a ridiculous skill set.
When Willis looks back at the combine now, he realizes most of his concerns were unwarranted. Months of training at Athletes Performance in Tempe, Ariz., had him as prepared as possible. Plus, he never really believed the doubters anyway, just used them for motivation.
Willis always knew he'd be the first linebacker selected in 2007, and with the 11th pick, the 49ers made that happen.
Kyle WilliamsA sneaker head like Kyle Williams needs no more instruction than, "Here, take what you'd like." That was the option presented to the 49ers sixth-round selection out of Arizona State as he visited prominent shoe companies offering freebies to players they hoped to sign to endorsement deals. Sneaker suites are what they are called. Players like Williams made sure to visit every suite for a feel-good session in between the pressure-packed situations they encountered. Call it retail therapy minus a payment.
"You get hooked up – that's one of the best parts about it," said the emerging wideout, who gained valuable experience on the 49ers special teams as a rookie.
Williams, a lifetime left coaster, was out of his element in Indianapolis some 1,600-plus miles away from the sweltering training grounds of Tempe, Ariz. The Sun Devil was used to playing, practicing and training in the desert, having done so for a combined count of eight years including high school and college ball. But in the unknown element of frosty conditions, Williams torched his way on to the hearts and minds of NFL teams – a 4.40, 40-yard dash will certainly do just that.
"I had to run fast and I ran pretty well," recalled Williams, who averaged 20.5 and 5.3 yards on kickoff and punt returns respectively.
The speedy wideout made sure he was prepared by training rigorously at Athlete's Performance just outside ASU's practice fields. Looking back on it now, there's more to it than performing well in the field tests.
"Long days," Williams said shaking his head, practically re-living the experience all over in his mind. "You have to be mentally ready for anything."
This time around, Williams will enjoy being away from the microscope. He'll also have his eye out for former teammate Lawrence Guy, a junior defensive lineman known for his strength. As for his advice for the rest of the combine participants, Williams knows you can make an impression in the interviews just the same as running a 4.40.
"Bring it in the interview process," Williams warned. "Be who you are. Take your time and have fun with it."
Football players don't carry résumés. They let the film speak for itself. But Parys Haralson felt like he had the opportunity to write his from scratch when he showed up for the NFL Scouting Combine six years ago. The only problem was, he didn't know what job he was interviewing for.
The college defensive end had been told he might have to switch to outside linebacker at the next level. He was fine with that. But other teams said they could see him packing on some pounds and sticking with the position he had played since high school.
Haralson didn't want to leave anything to chance, so he participated in both defensive end and linebacker drills in Indy. He spent four years at Tennessee proving he could get to the quarterback, but wanted to show he could open his hips and drop back into coverage too.
The Southerner who loves his neck of the woods spent months leading up to the combine training at Competitive Edge Sports in Atlanta. He worked on the coverage skills along with his strength, speed and stamina. "I just wanted to be as prepared as I could," he said. "This is the one opportunity to prove yourself with all 32 teams watching, and I didn't want to mess that up."
Still, when the combine ended Haralson was underwhelmed with his results. He summed up his performance in a word, "OK," which is never how you want to feel leaving a job interview.
But throughout the draft process Haralson forged several close friendships, one of which would pay off in the long run. Haralson first met Manny Lawson at the 2006 Senior Bowl, and the two would get to hang out again a month later at the combine. That April they became teammates, and a few years later they would go on to become the 49ers' starting outside linebackers, wreaking havoc on NFC West quarterbacks.
Only two Tennessee players were invited to this year's combine, wide receiver Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker, and obviously, Haralson is rooting for them. "You always want to look out for your fellow Vols," he smirked. But at the end of the day, he said, the participants can't worry about who has their back and who's doubting their abilities. "You go to the combine and you make your own résumé. Just do what you do and everything will fall into place."
Kevin JurovichSome call the NFL Scouting Combine a "track meet in underwear." Undrafted 49ers wide receiver Kevin Jurovich calls it "business." That was the mindset of San Jose State's all-time leader in receptions around this time last year.
"You run into a lot of the guys you played against in college which is cool, but it's business," Jurovich said. "I remember the seriousness of it all."
Jurovich trained in Arizona prior to the combine and became close with, unbeknownst to him, a future teammate in Kyle Williams. "We went just to get in the best shape that we physically could," said Jurovich, a 6-foot, 190-pound wide receiver who spent 2010 on the 49ers practice squad.
Although he had strong preparation, Jurovich couldn't fully participate in testing drills having suffered a turf toe injury before the combine. Teams wanted to know more about his long speed, which he later demonstrated by running a 4.43 at his pro day. But not being able to participate in all the drills was difficult for Jurovich, who prides himself on standing out in midst of competition. With the frustration fresh in his mind, Jurovich left Indianapolis impressed with his peers, but vowed to use it as motivation.
"There are a lot of talented players out there," he said. "You have to find your niche at what you're good at and be consistent."
Along those lines, Jurovich said it's important to trust your instincts. "Have fun and do what you know how to do, the way you know how to do it," he said. "You've gotten there for a reason. Everyone can play; it's just a matter of performing well that day."
As to what he's looking forward to seeing this time around, Jurovich will be focused on what the wide receivers do at the combine. "Who are the top guys this year?" he asked to a few teammates standing around his locker. "I want to see what the receivers do this year."