Yawin Smallwood, the former UConn linebacker and NFL hopeful, is well aware of the knocks on his game.
"Yeah, a lot of people say I don't come downhill or have violent hands, but I really don't feel like that's the case," Smallwood said.
Well, here's the good news. Smallwood is at the NFL Scouting Combine, where 300 or so of the nation's top hopefuls are going to run, jump and drill the way NFL coaches and personnel want to see or their hopes could be dashed come draft time in April. He's joined there by Shamar Stephen, a former nose tackle at UConn.
Linebackers and defensive linemen will do most of their auditioning on Monday, but there will be some work on Sunday, including the bench press.
The entire combine, which began Saturday, is being carried live by the NFL Network.
Smallwood declared for the draft a year early, in December, after his junior season. Knock or no knock, after three seasons of college football, he's been invited to the combine, where the opportunity to get drafted rises with the players' rise at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"Over the last couple of years we've changed our defense and we had to get the schemes," said the 6-foot-4, 236-pound Smallwood, who led the Huskies in tackles with 118 and was named an American Athletic Conference first-team pick as well as an ECAC FBS All-Star. "The way the scheme was this year we had to fall back a lot. ... I feel like that's what it is, but at the end of the day I'm going to keep working on what I feel I need to work on, and I'm going to take into consideration what everybody else is telling me and try to get better."
There are knocks on the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Stephen as well. A dominant force for the Huskies up front the past three seasons and a second team AAC pick this past season, the rap on Stephen, from an NFL.com analysis, is: "Lethargic get-off. Average eyes, instincts and recognition (doesn't sense screen). Needs to go to school on blocking schemes and learn to fight pressure. Could stand to play with more violence in his hands."
He's aware, too — but he's focused on something else.
"This is a great opportunity for me and I'm glad to be here," Stephen said. "I'm just going to try to perform, do my best. Show people what kind of player I am."
Not even mechanical problems on his flight could knock Stephen off focus. He had been working out in Florida. The plane had some problems Friday in Charlotte.
"I came here to perform," said Stephen, whose size alone probably has NFL people salivating. "It didn't really affect me. There are a lot of things you're going to have to overcome. Adversity, you're going to have to overcome. It's not going to bother me now."
Stephen is projected as a fifth- or sixth-rounder, but he can certainly improve his stock, like all the hopefuls with a good combine, where the vertical jump and 40-yard dash, both showing a player's athleticism, will be watched closely.
"I think I'm in pretty good shape," Stephen said. "I feel comfortable with where I am right now. I've been working hard. I love to compete. I know I'll be competing with the best. I feel like I'm ready."
Stephen wasn't named team MVP last season for nothing. He was a force in the middle, finishing third on the team in tackles with 60, leading in tackles for loss (10) and second on the squad in sacks with three.
He was a quiet kid with a loud game.
Smallwood knows what the real deal is, especially at the next level: Speed kills.
"I'm definitely prepared, you know, at the end of the day it's just football," Smallwood said. "I've been playing football my whole life. I'm just going to come out here and give it my all. Definitely, the 40-yard dash, I have to do well in that. Football is about speed. Speed kills, so I want to show these coaches that I am fast, that I am an instinctive linebacker so, I want to do well in that and the other drills."
Smallwood said he expects to run in the 4.6- to 4.7-second range in the 40.
It's no small feat that NFL folks have eyed an underclassman.
Smallwood was special the minute he stepped on the field for UConn.
He is projected as a second- or third-round pick. He said he will compete at the combine pressure-free.
"Oh, there's no pressure at all on my part," Smallwood said. "I've been working, waiting my whole life for this moment. I never took any days off. I've been waiting for this moment my whole life. I'm going to go out and show people what I have to offer."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun