Ex-Conant star primed for NFL chance

Andre Holmes was filling out his goal sheet following his second season at Division II Hillsdale College (Mich.) when he came across a question he didn’t know how to answer.

The question read, “Football after college?”

Holmes had never considered playing professionally. He nearly gave up the sport because he didn’t see a future in it as a sophomore at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Even when he began to show some promise as a 6-foot-4 wide receiver as a high school senior, no Division I schools bothered to give him a look.

Holmes left the question blank and asked Hillsdale College offensive coordinator Barry Fagan for his opinion on his potential.

“He said, ‘If you keep working, why can’t you play at the next level?’” Holmes said.

With that, a light went on for Holmes. He began asking himself that same question. Why can’t I play at the next level?

Three years later, Holmes is about to realize that goal.

Following junior and senior seasons where he combined for 181 catches, 2,444 yards and 17 touchdowns, crushing all of Hillsdale’s records, and holding his own at the NFL draft combine, Holmes has given himself a shot to be selected in the NFL draft or at the very least be a team’s free agent priority.

“I don’t really have a clue right now,” Holmes said of the draft. “It depends on how the cards play out. It could be anywhere from the fourth [round] to undrafted. My agent feels like I’ll get drafted, and he’s very confident with that. I know I’m going to get a call asking me to wear the jersey of some team. I’m going to come into training camp and work hard.”

Holmes knows that path well. It’s his work ethic that propelled him to where he is now.

The son of former DePaul basketball star Kevin Holmes, Andre was blessed with some natural athletic ability and size. Even in high school, Conant coach Bill Modelski saw Holmes’ potential. That’s why Modelski convinced him otherwise when Holmes contemplated quitting football for soccer.

“We were like, ‘No,’” Modelski said. “I’m like, ‘Listen, we have a plan for you, stick with it. Thank God he did. By his senior year, he blossomed into a very good receiver, and you could tell he wasn’t done growing. He was going to keep developing.

“Some people missed the boat on him. There wasn’t a lot recruiting interest in him. I made contact with several Division I-AA schools, and many never even called me back. Hillsdale College was interested, and the rest is history.”

Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein can understand why Division I schools weren’t willing to give Holmes the time of day. Even at the Division II level, Holmes was a risk.

“There wasn’t a large volume of tape on him to say he was a good player,” said Otterbein, whose program also recently produced Oakland Raiders starting offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. “Even with his size, potential and upside, obviously a lot of people passed on him because it wasn’t backed up with high school tape. What we did is take a chance on that potential to come through. Five years later, we look smart, but we were taking a chance.”

Holmes arrived at Hillsdale as a 6-4, 180-pound freshman, and Otterbein’s first move was to redshirt him. Holmes was going to need time if he had any chance to succeed.

Holmes understood that as well. It didn’t take long before he was in the team’s weight room, trying to add muscle to his lean frame.

With each year, Holmes took steps forward. He put on a few extra pounds. He gained strength. He added speed. When the team got together for its yearly weight-lifting competition, Holmes always beat his personal bests from the season before, and even has a collection of t-shirts to show for it.

“Every year we have a series of seven tests, and if you get five or more personal bests, you get a t-shirt,” said Holmes, who is now 210 pounds. “Every time, I got a t-shirt. I kept progressing every year. It’s basically you have that self-drive to get better every day. That’s what I looked forward to. The motivation was I wanted to be a better player the next year.”

On the field, he learned to utilize his added tools along with what he already had in height and athleticism. Once he put them all together, Holmes became an opposing defense’s nightmare.

As a senior, he had 30 more receptions and 468 more yards than other wide receiver in his conference. In the first round of the playoffs, he had 16 catches for 208 yards.

The numbers caught NFL scouts’ attention, earning himself an invitation to the NFL draft combine. There, he continued to impress. He ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, had a 35-inch vertical, bench-pressed 225 pounds 11 times and had a broad jump of 130 inches. His broad jump was one of the best at the combine, and his other results were competitive with the other wide receivers.

Holmes’ performance led to a visit with the Dallas Cowboys, a private workout with the New England Patriots and a regional workout with his hometown Chicago Bears. The Baltimore Ravens have also expressed interest in him.

Holmes ultimately doesn’t care who drafts him, but he admitted playing for the Bears would be special.

“There’s a lot of teams who have contacted me for my contact information,” Holmes said. “The Bears are one of them. I’ve talked to Jerry Angelo. I feel it’s a definite possibility.”

Otterbein hopes Holmes is drafted, but more importantly he believed Holmes will have to prove himself at an NFL camp to stick around.

“He’ll either be a late-round guy or someone will get a steal as a free agent,” Otterbein said. “I think he’s good enough to play in the NFL. I’ll put it that way. I really do.

“I hope he gets that one-day glamour of being drafted. The life-changing part isn’t being drafted, but when he gets to go to a camp and gets the chance to prove he belongs. Whether he’s a sixth-round pick or a free agent, it doesn’t matter how he gets there.”

Holmes felt at ease about his future and the draft.

“I’m not really nervous right now,” Holmes said. “I’m not sure how I’ll feel during the draft. I feel like I’ve done all I can do. I’m more excited about it and can’t wait for the draft to come.”