Every spring, the NFL Scouting Combine gives aspiring professional football players a chance to showcase their talents in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams. Extensive – and sometimes bizarre – interviews try and assess the mindset of the young athletes, and the players partake in events such as the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump and 60-yard shuttle.
That is, unless you are a punter.
Thirteen special teams players – six punters, six kickers, and a deep snapper – participated in the 2016 Combine, representing just 2% of the invited players. Two of those punters, Lachlan Edwards and Nick O’Toole, participated in the 2016 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January.
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Edwards, a native of Victoria, Australia, played his college ball at Sam Houston State University, earning All-Southland Conference recognition in 2014 and 2015. O’Toole combined for almost 9,000 punting yards in his three-year career at West Virginia.
Both Edwards and O’Toole arrived a day prior to the event’s official start, giving them a chance to adjust to time zones, relax and get to know the other players they would be going through Combine with. Sleep would be hard to come by the entire week as they had events late into the evening and rose early for various events from drug tests to workouts.
“They’re really long days,” Edwards said of the experience. “You’ll go until midnight, and then you’re up at 4 a.m. the next morning getting drug tested, or…at 6 to go to medical screenings. It’s pretty intense, but it was a great experience.”
Unlike the running backs, tight ends, quarterbacks and other position players, punters are there for one thing, and one thing only: punting. All of the Combine participants take part in the interview and medical process, but when it comes to on-field activities, the punters have a very narrow focus.
Each punter gets 15 chances to impress the scouts. These are broken down into five sets of three punts each: two sets of three straight down the field, one set of three to the left, one set of three to the right, and one set of three trying to pin the punt inside the 20-yard line. Their attempts are split between receiving the ball from a deep snapper or from a JUGS Football Machine. While each punter would be able to accomplish those kicks in a short amount of time on their own, the whole process took up half of the day as they waited for their fellow players to rotate through the events.
For O’Toole, the experience was unusual.
“You’re in an empty stadium with a bunch of coaches, so it’s pretty intimidating at the beginning. You just have to go through it and do your thing.”
Although not required, Edwards, O’Toole, and the other special teams players were given the option to run the 40-yard dash and participate in the bench press if they desired, but very often the risk outweighs the reward.
“I only did the punt. I didn’t want to do the 40 [yard dash] or the bench press or anything,” Edwards said. “While I can do them… there’s no point going out there and doing just what they’re expecting to see. In the end it doesn’t matter if you can bench press 25 times if you can’t punt a ball.”
A promotion by Adidas almost was enough to convince O’Toole to lace up his racing shoes, however.
“It was kind of hard to make the decision with the 40-yard dash because if you were the fastest in your group – and we were with linemen and tight ends, so our odds were pretty good – Adidas was going to award you ten grand.”
After some deliberation, O’Toole decided against running the event.
“The risk is higher than the reward, so I’d rather be healthy and not pull a hamstring or something crazy going into camps and all that.”
The interview process went smoothly for both O’Toole and Edwards, with neither of the players getting any of the outrageous questions that have made headlines as of late. Unlike the other attendees at the Combine who interview with each team individually, the punters met with six to eight special teams coaches at a time, rotating through the groups for questioning.
Despite all the stresses and challenges, both players were grateful for the experience.
“It was a bit nerve wracking…I’ve never really been in a setting like that, where all eyes are on you 24 hours a day, but it was really valuable for my recruiting,” Edwards stated. “I’m happy I got the opportunity.”
What would O’Toole and Edwards take away from their time at the Combine?
“The biggest takeaway is that consistency beats all.” Edwards said. “It doesn’t matter if you can boom 60 yards…if the next two punts are 32 yards.”
With all that said, both realize that the NFL Combine experience was just another step on the path to their dreams of playing in the NFL.
“‘You’re only as good as your next kick’ is what I have always been told, so that’s what I’m focusing on,” O’Toole said. “Pro days, private workouts and all of that are coming up. You’ve just got to take everything in this process with a grain of salt, because in the end we all know you can’t judge a punter or kicker off of one day.”
— Caroline Darney NFLPA Communications
#NationalTeam practice is kicking off. @wvufootball punter Nick O’Toole (@nickodoul) and @georgiafootball long snapper Nathan Theus (@ntheus49) start us off on #NFLPABowl Day 3. A video posted by NFLPA Collegiate Bowl (@nflpabowl) on