INDIANAPOLIS — Kory Lichtensteiger sat inside a hotel room here four years ago, an offensive line prospect eager to transition from his collegiate career at Bowling Green State to the NFL.
Interviews with NFL executives are one component of the league’s annual scouting combine, what amounts to a four-day job interview for NFL hopefuls. Lichtensteiger responded methodically as a coach from an AFC team rapidly fired questions.
“What’s the best game you had last season?” came first.
Next: “What position do you think you project as in the NFL, guard or center?”
Then: “What do you think your 40 [-yard dash] time will be?
And then the kicker, right in rhythm.
“OK, when’s the last time you smoked crack?” the coach asked.
Lichtensteiger paused. Did he hear that correctly?
“Uh, I’ve never smoked crack,” he countered.
Such questioning — straightforward, outrageous and everything in between — is just one of the methods NFL teams will use to poke and prod college prospects at this year’s combine, which begins Wednesday evening.
Off-the-field interviews and standardized on-field workouts help serve as the framework for teams to evaluate prospects and shape their rankings for the draft in late April. For the players, it’s a taxing process with considerable stakes. The higher they’re drafted, the more money they’ll make on their rookie contract.
“I think I blocked it out because it was not a fun thing for me,” Lichtensteiger, the Washington Redskins left guard, recalled Tuesday. “It was just stressful. You realize how much is riding on it.”
Redskins officials began arriving Tuesday night. Interviews with and medical examinations of prospects commence Wednesday evening, and on-field workouts begin Thursday.
For the third straight combine since coach Mike Shanahan took over, the Redskins are in search of a marquee quarterback that could stabilize the position for years. They coached three college quarterbacks — Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Arizona’s Nick Foles and San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley — at the Senior Bowl last month, and this week they’ll evaluate others, including Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill.
Griffin is the most intriguing. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner hopes to increase his stock and at least challenge Stanford’s Andrew Luck for the title of first player drafted. In the process, he could entice teams such as Washington to trade up to select him.
“When you’re talking about a potential top-10 quarterback, once you get all the measurables, what’s most important to me is does the kid has to have a passion for the game of football?” said Mike Mayock, NFL Network’s draft analyst and a former safety for the New York Giants. “He’s got to have a football IQ, and he’s got to have an unbelievable work ethic. You need to find that out about Robert Griffin.”
Griffin is not expected to throw for scouts and coaches at the combine — an abstention common among touted quarterbacks who prefer to wait until their Pro Days with receivers they’re familiar with - but he will meet with teams.
Tannehill also is not expected to throw. He still is recovering from the broken foot that kept him out of the Senior Bowl, a development that disappointed Redskins coaches.
However, both quarterbacks will make the interview rounds, continuing an evaluation that will last the next two months. First impressions in an interpersonal setting could shape lasting opinions.
“I think the more [conversational] they are about the technical game of football, the pass protections and the coverages - when you’re 22 years old, the more you can look a 50-year old man in the eye and answer his questions and shake his hand and spit something back out to him and… the more you can show that eagerness to learn and the aptitude to learn, the more I think it’s going to help you,” Mayock said.
The on-field drills also are critical for some players. Mayock and other evaluators believe performance in college games should trump whatever prospects accomplish in T-shirts and shorts inside Lucas Oil Stadium this week, but the latter can’t be discounted.
Ryan Kerrigan impressed Shanahan last February with his athleticism in linebacker drills, even though he was a defensive end at Purdue. He extensively trained for them before the combine, and his performance was a major reason why the Redskins selected him 16th overall and converted him to linebacker.
“To showcase my skills during those drills and show my athleticism was huge because I think that was a big question mark going into the combine,” Kerrigan said.
Kerrigan echoed Lichtensteiger’s lament about the rigors of the week, but the test is a manageable one.
“It is stressful, but at the same time it’s a job interview, so you can’t think too much into it,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out there and perform.”