INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – The man at the desk begins counting down from five.
“5…4…3…2…1…,” his voice permeates throughout the first floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Indianapolis’ historic Union Station. If he isn’t heard, the blow horn typically does the trick.
15 minutes are up and it’s time for the prospects to move on. Closed doors of all 32 teams open almost simultaneously. Outside is a representative from another personnel department waiting to deliver the player to that team’s meeting room.
This is the setting inside the Combine’s hotel headquarters most every night of the scouting event. Each team is allowed to conduct 60 interviews, timed in 15-minute intervals. The Chiefs ran through a marathon of players last Friday night from 6:00-11:00 PM and took just one 15-minute break.
Inside the converted hotel room is a film projector, grease board and extra chairs. Prospects are put on the spot, asked to answer questions ranging from character concerns to playing in a cover two defense.
“It’s an amazing setting,” Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick said. “You have head coaches, quarterback coaches, offensive coordinators and GMs all in the same room and they kind of put you on the spot.
“How does your offense work? What did you have to do in it? What were your reads and progressions? How did you check your protections? It’s really just a great opportunity for me to show them everything I know about our offense and everything that I was asked to do in our offense.”
After 15 minutes of prodding, players are given a small care package for their time. For the Chiefs, the gift is typically a team-issued t-shirt or hat.
The questioning, of course, extends beyond football conversation. It’s a time for teams to learn more about these players as people.
For that reason, draft hopefuls are relentlessly prepped by agents and there aren’t many uncomfortable questions that come in completely unexpected. However, despite the pre-game coaching, the interview experience can give teams another look at the players – for better, or worse.
For the defensive darling of Auburn’s National Championship Game, DT Nick Fairley expects to deal with questions regarding the perception that he can, at times, be a dirty player.
“I’ve talked with the media a lot about that,” Fairley said. “People out there are entitled to their opinion, but there are a lot of folks that say I play the game the way it should be played. All I do is hit the light switch when I go out there and I don’t turn it off until I leave.”
Fairley had yet to meet with any teams prior to his appearance at the media center inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Other players, such as Florida FS Will Hill, had already run through the gauntlet.
“They want to know about me and my character, period,” Hill said. “Am I a party guy? How am I around my family, wife and kids? Who did I grow up living with? Obviously the whole Twitter situation and things like that.”
Hill’s “Twitter situation” included a stream of not safe for work tweets and a picture to accompany. He also served a suspension at Florida for a violation of team rules.
“The photo was at a pool party when I was hanging out,” Hill explained behind a podium. “Of course, people want to take pictures of me and things like that. Everything got blown out of proportion. People don’t know that I’ve been married for over a year now. All that Twitter stuff was seven or eight months ago before my marriage, not knowing the real Will Hill.”
Once Hill’s tweets became a national headline, it wasn’t long before he terminated the account all together. He says that he has since become a dedicated father and husband, anxious to being workouts.
North Carolina’s Marvin Austin is fighting two battles at the Combine. Once a top prospect, the defensive lineman missed all of last season after receiving improper benefits and must sell teams on both his character and ability to maintain a high level of player after missing an entire season.
“It’s a tough situation, it hurt a lot to have to sit the whole season out,” Austin said. “It’s something that makes you sit back and think about the opportunity that you have in front of you. Take every game and every play as if it’s your last, because it could possibly be your last.
“Just going through that situation has made me and my teammates grow even more and I think we’ll be better professionals going into the next level.”
While players with character concerns can expect those issues to be brought up by NFL teams, the group represents only a portion of the draftable pool of players.
In the case of Texas A&M QB Jerrod Johnson, teams want to know about his mid-season benching and the sharp pullback in production from an impressive 2009 campaign. The school leader in both total offense and passing yards was among the preseason list of Heisman Trophy hopefuls heading into 2010.
“Coach (Mike) Sherman noticed that something was different and he made the switch,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those things that happens.”
Off-season shoulder surgery left Johnson a different player and Sherman went with backup Ryan Tannehill after Johnson had been largely ineffective throughout the first two months of the season.
Johnson made it very clear he understood the situation surrounding his demotion and held no ill will towards Sherman or Aggie Football. He did, however, admit that the 2010 season damaged his 2011 draft stock.
“I think that there is no question it did,” Johnson said. “Whether it was due to injury, or however you choose to look at it, I ended the season as the backup and that didn’t help me by any means.”
Johnson still received an invite to the Combine because there still remains an interest in developing his abilities at the NFL level.
Other quarterbacks, like Kaepernick, are coming off excellent seasons but still fight NFL skepticism. Kaepernick battles the system he quarterbacked in college and must sell teams that his production in Nevada’s pistol offense will transition to a pro-style approach.
“I think I bring a lot of things to the table,” Kaepernick said. “I think I bring leadership, confidence, intelligence as well as my physical abilities with arm strength and mobility. I think there are a lot of different things that I can do that will help an NFL team out.”
Every prospect is tested when they head to Indianapolis, but some of the most important results are turned in off the field.
When that horn blows, another NFL future is put on the line.