The newest Panther football players are just getting used to life in Oakland at spring practices. The draft-eligible former players, however, had a chance Wednesday morning to impress NFL scouts and potentially find their new homes.
Representatives for all 32 NFL teams gathered in the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex to witness 11 draft-eligible Panthers demonstrate their skills. The players participated in various tests, and while not every athlete took part in each one, they all had the chance to stand out.
James Conner — a former Pitt star running back and current Pittsburgh Steelers running back — joined the crowd of onlookers along with Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier.
The Panthers sent 11 players to this year’s pro timing day including: quarterback Max Browne, tight end Matt Flanagan, wide receivers Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah, offensive linemen Brandon Hodges, Jaryd Jones-Smith, Alex Officer and Brian O’Neill, defensive backs Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead and punter Ryan Winslow.
The day began with height and weight measurements for the standout players. After these evaluations, the athletes practiced bench pressing before the opening test, in which they were to bench 225 pounds as many times as they could. Junior defensive back Jordan Whitehead topped the list with 24 reps, and redshirt senior tight end Matt Flanagan was close behind with 23 reps.
“You never know what’s gonna happen,” Whitehead said. “I kind of just keep working every day, and the results will pay off.”
Whitehead ran into problems early during the 2017 season when he was suspended for three games — and this isn’t something that’s gotten past NFL scouts.
“They definitely did bring [the suspension] up and I tell them what happened. I handled it like I was supposed to, like a man,” Whitehead said. “They understand, I learned from it and I won’t make that mistake again.”
From the weight room, the players, scouts, teammates and media moved to the indoor facility. Players took part in the vertical jump, broad jump, 40-yard dash, pro-shuttle drill, three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle.
Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi took the day to reflect on his time with the players that have declared to the draft.
“You get old when you watch these guys come in as freshmen, and you have a part in recruiting them,” Narduzzi said. “It’s really their last time wearing Pitt gear, that’s why we dress them nice. It’s kind of their going away present … It’s sad, but you’re happy for them in the future.”
Pitt junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson decided to enter the draft a year early, foregoing his senior season. He said he made the decision for the opportunity to play at a higher caliber.
“I feel like this is the best opportunity for me. I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was 5 years old,” Henderson said. “It’s here on the table — run that risk of getting hurt next year, have a season-ending injury, not get drafted at all and my dreams are crushed.”
Redshirt junior offensive lineman Brian O’Neill announced his plans to enter the draft in December. At the time, he said it was the best decision for him to achieve his goals, and even months into intensive training, he still doesn’t see football as a job.
“If it feels this way for the rest of my life, I don’t think that I’ll ever work as long as I’m playing,” O’Neill said. “This is fun. This is cool. I get to play football. It’s less of a job than college — I don’t have to go to night class for three and a half hours tonight.”
For redshirt senior punter Ryan Winslow, the NFL situation is a bit different. Generally, teams have very limited space for the type of specialist player he is. He said this is why he has to understand each team’s specific punter circumstance.
“You kind of have to match up the situation,” Winslow said. “Basically, you just want to go to an organization where you have the best chance to compete and earn a job.”