By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There wasn’t a Chris Long or a Branden Albert or a Eugene Monroe in the bunch: a player considered a lock to be a first-round NFL draft choice. Still, several intriguing prospects worked out on UVa’s practice fields Thursday.
Their audience included current and former Virginia players, as well as Mike London and members of his staff. The most important eyes, though, belonged to stopwatch-wielding representatives from more than two dozen NFL teams.
The scouts were in town to evaluate players ahead of next month’s draft.
“This is the biggest job interview for any of us guys that are out there,” said defensive lineman Nate Collins, who as a UVa senior in 2009 made the all-ACC first team.
“That’s how I approached it. It’s one of those things where everyone after college picks a career they want to do, and for us this is the career we want to pursue. This is our job, so these type of things are business interviews. Hopefully all of us will get picked up and do great in the league.”
Of the Cavaliers who were seniors last season, 10 auditioned Thursday for the assembled scouts: Collins, cornerback Chris Cook, offensive lineman Will Barker, linebackers Denzel Burrell and Darren Childs, running backs Rashawn Jackson and Mikell Simpson, quarterback Jameel Sewell, safety Brandon Woods and Vic Hall, who played quarterback, wide receiver, safety and cornerback and returned punts during a distinguished college career.
Cook and Jackson received invitations to — and participated in — the NFL Scouting Combine this winter, and they chose not to repeat some of the drills and tests they went through in Indianapolis.
The others, though, ran the 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 225 pounds as many times as they could, performed agility drills and had their standing broad and vertical jumps measured.
Asked if he felt pressure to perform well, Barker said, “I was more anxious than anything. I’ve been training for a long time, a couple months, and to finally get out here and show what I’ve been working hard on … It was relieving when it was done. I’m glad to have it over with.”
In recent years, offensive linemen Elton Brown, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Brad Butler, Albert and Monroe have been drafted out of UVa.
“It’s nice that Virginia’s on the map as a school that’s put out a lot of good NFL linemen,” said Barker, a four-year starter at tackle. “Hopefully I can continue that trend. I know there’s a couple younger guys that will definitely do it later on, so hopefully I can just keep the line moving.”
The former Wahoos most likely to be selected in the draft — April 22, 23 and 24 — are Cook, Jackson, Collins and Barker. But Hall impressed Thursday, too.
He’s only 5-9, with a lean frame, but Hall bench-pressed 225 pounds 19 times, only three fewer than Barker and Collins. Hall blazed though his second 40 in about 4.4 seconds.
“He did well,” said Brandon Hourigan, Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football.
In Indianapolis, Cook had one of the fastest 40 times — 4.46 seconds — of any cornerback. He had the longest broad jump (11 feet) at his position.
The combine “was tiring,” Cook said. “Late nights, early mornings, but overall it was a good experience to meet a lot of different guys and to be able to have the opportunity to meet with all those coaches and GMs and all the player-personnel [directors].”
As for where he expects to go in the draft, Cook said, “I’ve heard a lot of different stuff: late first round, early second, third, fourth, I don’t know. Who knows? Nobody knows but the people in the front offices of the teams. So I don’t really listen to all those mock drafts and all those so-called experts.”
“I feel like I handled my end of the bargain, and now it’s just time for the people who make decisions to make a decision.”
Collins was measured at 6-2 Thursday and weighed in at 290 pounds. He played nose tackle and end in the 3-4 defense favored by Al Groh, UVa’s coach from 2001 and ’09, and Collins believes his versatility is an asset.
“I feel like I can fit in in a 3-4 or in a 4-3, and I feel like I’ve proved that throughout this past year and down at the East-West game, with a good set of competition against those guys,” Collins said. “Right now, I’m open for anything. Wherever anyone needs me, I’m ready to play and will try to do my best there.”
He ran the 40-yard dash in about 4.9 seconds Thursday, an excellent time for a defensive lineman. More significant, Collins said, was his play for UVa.
“I feel like if anyone watched my tape, my tape speaks for itself,” he said. “I feel that I’m a guy with a great motor. I feel like I can bring a lot to a team on the D-line, in a backup role or wherever they need me.
“All I want is a shot, and once I get that shot, I’m confident in myself and my abilities that I can turn a few heads and keep my name known, wherever I’m at.”
Jackson’s attitude is similar.
“I plan on preparing every day like I’m going to be the last pick, if even a pick,” he said. “I feel like if I just make the team, my hard work will speak for everything else, and God willing I’ll have that opportunity.”
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Jackson as the top fullback in the draft. At UVa, Jackson played tailback for most of his senior season and led the team in rushing.
“I’m whatever you’re going to pay me to be,” Jackson said when asked about his position. “I think I’m a fullback. I met some guys at the Senior Bowl and at the combine who don’t see me as just a fullback, and that’s fine. I’m just trying to win.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for me to go out and be a part of an organization. I wish I could be here for a couple more years, but unfortunately college doesn’t work that way. So it’s time for me to go to the next level and measure myself there.”
Told that he looked lean, the 6-1 Jackson smiled. He’s heard that a lot recently.
“I didn’t drop too much [weight],” he said. “I kind of just leaned up, lost some body fat, toned up in different areas. Everyone thinks I’m anorexic now, but I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m still 240. I’m not that small.’ But it’s cool, man. I’m just happy to be back with the fellas. I haven’t seen these guys in such a long time, and I love being around them, so it’s good to be back.”
Jackson, who’s from Jersey City, N.J., earned his bachelor’s in sociology in May 2009. He competed as a graduate student last season. Jackson is ready for the next phase of his career, though he admits he’s not sure what to expect.
“Now your future isn’t certain,” he said. “In elementary school, I knew I was going to go to St. Peter’s Prep and play football. At St. Peter’s Prep, in high school, I knew I was going to come to [college], and it happened to be Virginia.
“And now, it’s like, this is serious business. This is a process where you don’t know what your future will be. You don’t know if you’ll be drafted. You don’t know if you won’t be drafted. You don’t know if you’ll be on a team. So it’s important that you cherish every moment and prepare like it’s your last, because it might as well be.”