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Hoosiers waiting to see if NFL Draft streak continues

IU has had a player selected in each of the past 6 NFL Drafts. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has created challenges for NFL hopefuls across the country, including those at Indiana.

Indiana v Florida International
Indiana’s Simon Stepaniak looks on during a game at FIU on Sept. 1, 2018.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Without an eye-opening pro day experience last spring, Wes Martin’s draft day may not have unfolded the way that it did.

The former Indiana guard wowed on the bench press, doing 38 reps of 225 pounds in front of representatives from 26 NFL teams at IU’s Pro Day. Martin’s output would’ve ranked second-best among all players at the NFL Scouting Combine — an event he was not invited to attend — and it went a long way toward boosting his stock and making him a fourth-round selection of the Washington Redskins.

Game tape may be the ultimate evaluation tool for decision makers at the next level, especially this year, but personal workouts, like pro days, are the next best thing. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Indiana wasn’t able to host a pro day this month, and while senior guard Simon Stepaniak participated at the Combine in February, his classmates didn’t have the benefit of ongoing interactions with NFL decision makers. That’s a factor IU coach Tom Allen says could create challenges for the rest of his Hoosier draft hopefuls this weekend.

“Those guys are just like everybody else in this country, caught in a tough situation that has definitely affected their future,” Allen said.

Indiana has had a player selected in each of the past six drafts, the program’s longest such streak since it produced NFL Draft picks in 16 consecutive drafts from 1983 to 1998. Stepaniak is IU’s best hope for keeping the current streak alive, but if he’s picked, it likely won’t be until the final few rounds on Day 3.

The 6-foot-4, 321-pound Stepaniak benched 225 pounds 37 times at the Combine, but didn’t participate in any other workouts. Stepaniak continues to recover from an ACL injury suffered during Indiana’s postseason practices in December, but the Combine appearance at least allowed teams to check out his progress and get a feel for his recovery.

“I’m thankful for that opportunity every day,” Stepaniak said. “Getting to this point now where everything is shut down and seeing all my teammates that deserved that opportunity that could’ve well been there and put on for IU, it hurts knowing that a lot of guys are going to have a harder opportunity not being able to showcase their skills and being able to do pro day and show them how valuable they are.”

That includes former Hoosier receiver Nick Westbrook and linebacker Reakwon Jones.

Westbrook, at least, had an opportunity to meet with scouts at the East-West Shrine Game in January, and Jones had a sit-down meeting with the Los Angeles Chargers at this year’s Tropical Bowl, another showcase game for college seniors. But both players were also counting on additional rounds of interviews and workouts as the pre-draft process unfolded.

Even in a normal timeline, both Westbrook and Jones would be longshots to be drafted. Free agency will probably be their only avenue for an NFL audition.

Now they’re simply hoping the few interactions they did have with teams will be enough to make the case they’re worthy of a closer look.

“(They) are going to just have to display tremendous grit, perseverance and passion toward their long-term goals,” Allen said. “I have full confidence that we have guys in this class that are going to get opportunities to go play in the NFL, whether they get drafted or taken as a free agent. As I told them, you just need one team to believe in you, one team to give you a chance. And when they do, you show you belong.”