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Pro days are valuable for underclassmen

WACO, Texas -- One man lays underneath 225 pounds on a bench press, in the midst of proving to NFL scouts he can lift it a whole lot of times.

Around the bench are at least 15 others who won't get a turn, at least not this year. They're there to provide (extremely) vocal moral support.

Maybe their yells of encouragement mean another rep or two from their former teammate. They're going to do everything possible to make sure.

Their presence isn't just for the benefit of the men running 40-yard dashes or bench-pressing 225 pounds as many times as they can -- the results of each task potentially earning them more money on their first NFL contract.

Players with another year or more before they get a chance to show their stuff to NFL scouts at a pro day or the combine can learn a lot from showing up to pro day, whether they offer moral support or not.

"This is a day about dreams becoming touchable," said Baylor coach Art Briles. "They’re not on paper. They’re not in your head. They’re real. You can see them and touch them."

It's not every day NFL head coaches are walking around a college indoor facility, like they were at Baylor and Texas this week, as well as Stanford on Thursday and tens of others through the spring.

Briles knows the element of the intangible becoming tangible makes pro days special, especially for players who didn't get a prized slot at the NFL combine.

"At the combine, they told us millions of kids play high school football, 65,000 play college football, 350 or so of us get invited to the combine and only 256 get drafted," said Texas linebacker Emmanuel Acho. "That’s a harsh reality to come to grips with. If you come to grips with it in college, you’ll work that much harder."

But for all the cloud-floating that can come with a day when dreams are realized, there are plenty of details younger players can pick up on while scouts scrutinize.

"A big main key was, to me, follow directions and listen to what they’re telling you to do. If you can do that, everything else is up to you," Texas running back Fozzy Whittaker said. "You have all control over following directions and just listen to what they’re saying in terms of running a drill or running a route. Staying outside of cones rather than running inside, just the simple things you can control mentally. There’s a lot of things I’ve seen that’ll affect the coaches, because if you have three guys that do the same drill and they all do it right and the fourth guy messes it up, it’s like, what were you doing the whole time the other guys were doing it?"

There's a lot to focus on for everyone involved with pro days, but the undercurrent is the same for everyone -- from first-round picks to probable post-draft free agents.

"All these guys have worked their way into this," Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "It's an earned right to get to do what they’re doing."

They earned the right for NFL coaches to see them, but even underclassmen get that opportunity after pro day is over. Some NFL personnel stick around campus for practice in the afternoon to get a jump on seeing up close the players they'll be seeing at next year's pro day.

"Knowledge is power. If they see you have knowledge of the game, it allows you to play fast. If you have knowledge, you have confidence. That’s what they look for," Bennett said. "Kids call it swagger, or whatever it is, but when you're confident in what you’re doing, you play fast. When pros come in here, that’s what they look for, the guys that know what they’re doing and play like they know what they’re doing."

To prepare for pro day, most prospects leave school for training facilities. Baylor's Robert Griffin III spent the past few months in Arizona. Texas linebacker Keenan Robinson went to California. They're away from teammates for months, and when they return in anticipation of a pro day, it's easy for underclassmen to see what those intense training regimens do. Robinson and Griffin saw it in their own teammates.

"The players hadn’t seen me in a couple months, see the transformation that my body has made, just seeing the work ethic I had to get where I am today, how it really helped improve my stock," Robinson said. "When you go out for training, you can’t just go out there lollygagging and being complacent. You have to go every day with a burden on your back and strive to be the best player, because someone else around the country is doing what you’re doing, and maybe more."

Even with those transformations, training can't begin when the bowl game ends.

"The stuff I was able to do today didn’t come from me training after the season was over," Robinson said. "It came from all the hard work and hard labor I put in from the end of my senior year of high school until now."

Said Acho: "If you wait for the three-month stretch after the bowl game, you won’t perform at a high level. But if you work with that same mentality in every individual period before practice and come out here, it’ll be second nature."

Pro days can be pressure-packed, but ultimately, everyone's faced with the biggest truth of a day that often feels enormous: The biggest work NFL coaches want to see is already done.

"The first thing you can do is play hard, because tape doesn’t lie. One NFL coach was telling me, 'We were watching a play and this kid looked like he turned something down.' I mean, they watch everything," Bennett said. "So, when you’re playing and practicing, you better know, somebody’s watching. And it might not just be your coaches, it might be your future coaches."