Pro Day holds different levels of importance for Penn State football prospects

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Penn State held its Pro Day on Tuesday at Holuba Hall.
  • Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and Troy Apke decided not to run 40-yard dashes.
  • Marcus Allen, DaeSean Hamilton and Christian Campbell did opt to run.

STATE COLLEGE — A few months ago, maybe even a few weeks ago to some, most Penn State fans wouldn’t have considered Troy Apke a shoe-in to be selected in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Penn State safety Marcus Allen runs the 40-yard dash during Penn State Pro Day in State College, Pa., Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Now, it’s practically a given.

He’s the guy now known the football world over, after all, who can “run run.” Those are Deion Sanders’ words, and in the NFL, there is no better authority on speed than the Hall of Fame cornerback. Working as an analyst for NFL Network, Sanders offered them after Apke shocked the pundits by running a blistering 4.34-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis two weeks ago.

The time surprised Sanders. It also took Penn State fans aback. But it did not stun Apke, the former high school track star who said he ran similar times during his pre-combine training.

When Penn State held its annual Pro Day workouts for players who have either declared for the 2018 NFL Draft or have exhausted their eligibility Tuesday at Holuba Hall, Apke didn’t run another 40. He didn’t have to, because a 4.34 speaks volumes. But he went through pass catching and coverage drills in front of a room that included representatives from all but a handful of NFL teams.

“There has been a little more attention from people who see my speed and other abilities (since the Combine),” Apke said. “But I kind of wanted to show them today what I can do in drills and with footwork, and things like that.”

Pro Day has varying meaning: Penn State’s Pro Day meant different things to different prospects, even the ones who wowed scouts and analysts earlier this month in Indy.

Running back Saquon Barkley, the star of the Combine, didn’t work out, letting his 4.4 40, 41-inch vertical jump and 29 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press marinate with NFL teams. Tight end Mike Gesicki caught passes and ran routes, but he didn’t run after his 4.54 40 in Indianapolis.

But safety Marcus Allen, who was asked to participate in some linebacker drills at the Combine, knew he needed to run a safety’s time at Penn State’s Pro Day to convince scouts he could stay in the secondary where he shined his entire career with the Nittany Lions.

He ran a 4.59, according to Penn State’s official time. But, he said some scouts told him they measured his time in the 4.55-4.56 range.

“Those were definitely good numbers for me. There were some scouts expecting me to run a 4.7,” Allen said. “I wanted to show them my speed in the 40, and I checked that off. I wanted to show them my fluid hips, as a big guy, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m some stiff kind of guy.”

Attention on Hamilton, Campbell: Most of the attention from scouts sharpened when two specific Nittany Lions players who didn’t do much in the timed events at the Combine finally lined up to show their athleticism.

Receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who sat out most of the running events at the Combine after playing in two postseason All-Star games, didn’t disappoint with his 40 either, officially ripping off a 4.52 40, although he said scouts told him they registered his time at 4.47.

“It’s a lot faster than I’ve been running in my career,” Hamilton said. “I told them that. They were real excited and happy for me.

“The main thing was the speed. How fast was my straight-line speed? They knew I was going to be a guy who’s quick instead of fast. That was my biggest question mark.”

Cornerback Christian Campbell, the 6-foot-1, long-armed playmaker who intrigued scouts before a hamstring strain took him out of the Combine altogether, said the Pro Day was his chance to show what he could do when healthy.

Even though he dropped two passes in drills, Campbell said Pro Day otherwise went as he hoped. He ran a 4.51 40, but he matched Barkley with a 41-inch vertical jump and his 11-foot-3 broad jump was the best of the day.

Process nears end: Soon, the process will come to an end and professional careers will begin, and for guys like Campbell, that day probably seems too far off in the distance. But, a day like Tuesday signals the beginning of the end of the 40 times and the emphasis on drills and pitching themselves to prospective employers.

“There are nights where you hardly get any sleep because you’re worried about football and NFL scouts,” Campbell said. “Really, it’s just me with different scouts and different times, setting up your own times, meeting with different scouts at night when you’re hardly getting any rest. But I always say, it’s a great opportunity to do that, because people would love to be in our shoes.”