YOUNGSTOWN - It's been a long time since six of Youngstown State's best football players had to prove they belong on a football field, but the audition they took part in on Wednesday served as the biggest tryout of their lives.
Scouts from five NFL teams (Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers) came to the Watson and Tressel Training Site on the campus of Youngstown State University to observe six Penguins perform a number of tests, from bench press to 40-yard dashes, at YSU's pro day.
None of the scouts were allowed to be interviewed, which is customary at college pro days, but it was obvious at least one of the players made a name for himself.
Offensive lineman Chris Elkins measured at 6-foot-2 and 298 pounds, but it was pretty clear he stood out from the rest as he showed impressive athleticism in a number of drills. Elkins recorded 25 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, which would rank him among the top 20 of all offensive linemen who performed at the NFL Combine last month. His unofficial time in the 40-yard dash was 4.91, which would have been the second best at the combine. His vertical jump of 29 inches would place him fifth among college football's top-rated offensive lineman.
The two-time all-conference performer and second-team All-American has been lauded by YSU coach Eric Wolford as an overachiever, but Elkins showed he possesses plenty of physical gifts as well.
"I looked at all the numbers from the centers at the combine, and I just wanted to compete as much as I could with those," said Elkins, a three-year starter at center for the Penguins who can also play guard. "I didn't hear all my numbers, but I felt really good with everything."
Others who showed their skills were quarterback Kurt Hess, tight end/fullback Carson Sharbaugh, corner Dale Peterman, offensive lineman Kyle Bryant and punter Nick Liste, a Niles High School graduate. Liste showed he can do more than just kick a ball as he registered the second highest vertical leap, jumping 31 inches. He said it's important to be able to reach such heights in case of a high snap on a punt. He performed several special teams-related drills outside once the testing portion of the combine was over, demonstrating his versatility by kicking off, punting and kicking field goals.
"I try to exhaust every option I can when it comes to a shot like this," Liste said. "The more you can do, the more value you have. Anything I can show them that I can do, I will do. I've worked to the best of my ability to do it."
Hess, a four-year starter at quarterback who holds nearly every relevant YSU passing record, looked fairly sharp throwing the ball. He didn't have any of YSU's starting receivers to throw to, so he made passes to Sharbaugh and Peterman. He misfired on a few deep passers where it appeared he expected the receiver to run a different route, but he showed accuracy and poise despite being appraised by scouts who may soon determine his NFL dreams.
"Going to that all-star game a couple weeks back helped me," said Hess, referring to the College All-Star Bowl he participated in last month. "Just practicing in front of scouts and having NFL people looking at you, I got my nerves out then. Coming here, I knew I've just got to get someone to write my name down."
Hess, who measured at 6-1 1/2 and 231 pounds, ran a 5.09 40-yard dash and hit 27 inches on his vertical leap. Dale Peterman set the benchmark with a jump of 34 inches, but the Ursuline High School product said that was disappointing to him because he was reaching 38 and 39 earlier in the week. He said a swollen ankle may have played a role in the lost inches. Peterman also ran the best 40 with an unofficial mark of 4.69.
Peterman, a two-year starter at corner, didn't seem as if his NFL hopes were a likely possibility, but he said he enjoyed the moment.
"It means everything (to do this)," Peterman said. "It felt good to come out here and perform with my friends in front of scouts. Whether I make it to the NFL or not, it was just a blessing to have the opportunity to play football for as many years as I did. I'm just thankful for my family for helping me get to the position I am."
Bryant, a monstrous left tackle who measured at 6-5, 317 pounds with an 82 3/4 inch wing span, is hoping he has a shot at being picked up as a non-drafted free agent. He bench pressed 225 pounds 17 times and ran a 5.86 40-yard dash. Those numbers won't rank him high among offensive linemen at the NFL Combine, but his size, overall strength and mental toughness could help his cause.
"One of their goals was to see where you're at mentally when you're tired," said Bryant, who, along with Elkins, was put through a rigorous drill session that included moving side to side, back and forth, hitting pads and then repeating the drill. "You have to be able to perform under different circumstances. You have to be great under maximum pressure. That's what I strived for."
That was the goal of all the Penguins. Now they must wait and see if it was good enough. The NFL Draft runs from May 8 to May 10.