INDIANAPOLIS – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Friday kicked off the athletic testing we all know and love about the annual “Underwear Olympics,” better known as the NFL Scouting Combine, with offensive linemen and running backs completing all of their drills and quarterbacks and pass-catchers taking to the podium. Here are the 10 takeaways you need to know:
1. Arguably the draft’s top wideout decides not to run.
Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams had an outstanding 2016 campaign, leading the ACC with 98 receptions for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has the look of being a star NFL wideout with his combination of size, power and coordination to make athletic plays on the ball look routine. He is physical to the ball to outrebound defensive backs and is Mr. Reliable on back-shoulder throws with his length, focus and body control, snatching the ball with ease.
Those are the positives. The glaring concern with his game? Speed, which puts a lot of pressure on his 40-yard dash. However, Williams won’t be running in Indianapolis, opting to instead wait for his pro day. When asked why, he responded that it was a “long season” and he didn’t have enough time to prepare.
Williams added that “you only run the 40 once, ever, in your life,” alluding to his desire to make sure that one time is his best. Scouts are hoping to see him come in under 4.55 and at least avoid the 4.6s, but Williams doesn’t worry about the results hurting his NFL chances.
“Jerry Rice didn’t run a fast time,” Williams said. “Antonio Brown didn’t run a fast time; he’s the highest-paid receiver in the league right now. It’s all about just playing football if you look at it at the end of the day.”
NFL teams don’t expect Williams to run a 4.4; they understand his game is built around other areas and not necessarily speed. However, teams would like to see him compete on the track at Lucas Oil Stadium. If he runs a poor time, Williams has the pro day to make up for it — but now, it all comes down to March 16 at Clemson.
Also of note: Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis won’t work out at the Combine because of his ankle injury and will not be healthy for the pro day, either. However, he did say he plans to hold a workout prior to the draft.
2. Njoku ready to jump out of Lucas Oil Stadium.
A national champion high jumper in high school, Miami tight end David Njoku is ready to show off his leaping skills in Indianapolis.
“You’re going to find out what my vertical is tomorrow,” Njoku said when asked about his jumping ability. “Maybe you guys will be kind of impressed with that. High jump is a lot of power to run and get your body over seven feet. It’s very exciting.”
Njoku was 220 pounds when he won his national title in high school, and now at 246 pounds (and only 6.3 percent body fat), he is looking to set another record.
“Mostly, I’m looking forward to the broad (jump) because I think I’m going to break a record tomorrow. We’ll see.”
It will be tough to break the record (12 feet, 3 inches), set by Dallas Cowboys defensive back Byron Jones at the 2015 Combine. But with his combination of lower-body power and explosion, Njoku has the athletic skills to hit the 11-foot mark and maybe pass Jamie Collins (11-7 at 250 pounds) for second on the all-time list.
3. West Virginia wideout wants the island.
The school’s all-time leader in yards per reception (22.6), West Virginia wide receiver Shelton Gibson calls speed his best attribute. The 40-yard dash on Saturday will help tell teams just how fast he is, but Gibson has special expectations.
“I want to win the island,” Gibson said. “Anything is possible.”
Gibson very astutely pointed out that he is “WR 17” on his Combine gear and Chris Johnson, who holds the 40-yard dash record of 4.24 seconds, wore “RB 17” in 2008. A 4.2 40-yard dash would certainly turn heads among NFL teams, but more importantly, Gibson knows he needs to prove he is more than just a speed threat down the field.
“By the beginning of next year, I want to be a complete receiver,” Gibson said. “I want to be able to run every single route the best I can. Hopefully be with a great coach who can help teach me.”
4. Mack Hollins flying down the field … and under the radar.
The North Carolina offense will have several representatives on draft weekend, including quarterback Mitch Trubisky, wide receiver Ryan Switzer and the running back duo of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. But the offensive threat from Chapel Hill who doesn’t receive nearly enough attention is wide receiver Mack Hollins.
Hollins, who measured at 6-4 and 221 pounds with 33 1/4-inch arms and 9 3/4-inch hands, is a long-striding athlete who was a consistent vertical threat for the Tar Heels, averaging 20.6 yards per reception for his career. He played in only seven games as a senior before a broken right clavicle that required surgery sidelined him the rest of the season. However, Hollins said the injury is fully healed and although his doctor wanted him to skip the bench press, he will be a full participant in all the speed and agility drills. A big-time vertical threat, Hollins has been working to show he can run the full route tree.
“That is the one knock; people think I can’t run routes,” Hollins said. “I think I can get better. I can run the whole tree. For our offense, I was used as more of a vertical threat, but I can do the intermediate stuff.”
While his offensive game translates well to the pro game, so does Hollins’ impact on special teams, where he was a four-year team captain on that side of the ball.
“I was a scout-team guy and to make the bus, I knew I needed to stand out on special teams,” Hollins said.
Hollins finished his career with 24 tackles on special teams and played on all four coverages: kickoffs, kickoff returns, gunner on punts and blocker as a punt returner.
5. North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky answers questions about his experience.
Arguably the top quarterback in this draft class, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky has NFL starting traits and will be considered for a top-10 pick.
Trubisky checks boxes with his size, arm strength, mobility and accuracy. Basically, the glaring negative is sample size with only 13 career starts. But Trubisky is confident in how much he’s played.
“I think I definitely have enough experience,” Trubisky said. “I only have 13 starts, but I played in 30 games. I’ve come off the bench and I’ve seen significant time. I was prepared really well at North Caorlina.
“I’m a student of the game and I’ve seen a lot of defenses, and I think that’s going to help me. I feel like I’m in a really good spot right now to take my game to the next level and I feel really confident.”
Like the other top quarterback prospects at the Combine, Trubisky will throw on Saturday at Lucas Oil Field and have the chance to prove why he should be the first quarterback drafted. That is his goal.
“I would like to be the first quarterback to go,” Trubisky said. “If you’re a natural competitor, you want to be first. So that is what we’re striving to do here.”
6. McCaffrey steals the spotlight from Fournette, Cook.
For most, the conversation about running backs in the first round starts and ends with LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, but it was Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey who shined brightest Friday. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the 202-pound Stanford star proved faster in the 40-yard dash than the considerably bigger Fournette (240) and Cook (210), clocking in at 4.48 seconds, but it was the quickness he showed in the three-cone drill that really left scouts in awe. McCaffrey was clocked at 6.57 seconds — a blistering time for a running back — and one that accurately demonstrates his rare change of direction. McCaffrey also showed surprising explosiveness, recording a 37.5-inch vertical jump (second among all running backs) and a 10-1-inch broad jump. Perhaps best of all, McCaffrey was terrific during position drills, including as a pass-catcher.
Given his size, Fournette’s 4.51 second time in the 40-yard dash is very impressive, but he showed a disappointing lack of explosiveness during the vertical jump, with his 28.5-inch effort just half an inch better than the worst recorded by any running back tested this year — and 3.5 inches less than San Diego State guard Nico Siragusa, who checks in at 6-4, 319 pounds.
7. Speed kills — at least the perception that these underrated backs don’t belong.
Though the performances of the “big three” running backs deserve top-billing, flashy efforts from lower-rated prospects like North Carolina’s T.J. Logan (4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash), Utah’s Joe Williams (4.41) and North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen (4.42) deserve mentioning. The 2017 draft is loaded with running backs of every size and shape and this trio is a perfect demonstration.
The 5-foot-9, 196-pound Logan split time with fellow Combine invite Elijah Hood (who did not participate in Friday’s athletic testing) and perhaps needed to impress in drills as much as any running back in this class to steal back some of the attention spent on others (like Hood, receiver Ryan Switzer and top-rated quarterback Mitch Trubisky). The same is true with the 5-11, 210 pound Williams and 5-6 1/2 Cohen, who are not just opposites in size but in career carries (with 516 and 966 combined rushing and receiving “touches,” respectively), as well.
8. Utah’s Garett Bolles rolls … perhaps into the first round?
The big winner among offensive linemen in the bench-press drills Thursday was Utah’s Isaac Asiata, but Friday it was his former teammate Garett Bolles, who wowed with his sheer athleticism, clocking in at 4.95 seconds in the 40-yard dash (including a 1.76 second 10-yard split), a 7.29 second three-cone and a 4.55 second time in the short shuttle, each among the top three among the approximately 45 offensive linemen tested. The 6-5, 297-pound Bolles currently ranks third on NFLDraftScout.com’s board and is viewed as a potential first-round pick, something that Friday’s efforts will no doubt help.
9. Tight end class appears to be getting stronger by the day.
This year’s tight end crop is considered by scouts to be as talented and deep as any in the past 20 years and that was reinforced Friday just in the bench-press results. Sure, projected first-round prospects O.J. Howard (Alabama) and David Njoku (Miami) fared well, with 22 and 21 repetitions of 225 pounds, respectively. Njoku’s strength was particularly impressive given his long arms (35 1/4 inches) and the fact that he’s known more for his speed and explosive leaping ability than power. Few would have anticipated that Oregon’s Pharaoh Brown would prove bigger, longer and stronger than nearly all of the tight ends invited to Indianapolis this year, recording a lineman-like 24 repetitions of 225 pounds despite his 35 5/8-inch arms on a 6-6, 255-pound frame. Brown comes with legitimate medical and off-field questions but he, quite literally, made a strong first impression on scouts Friday.
10. Playmaking receivers/returners come up short.
North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer and Washington’s John Ross are two of the more dynamic playmakers in the 2017 draft, but Friday’s tale of the tape was not especially kind. The Tar Heels’ electric slot receiver and returner checked in with the shortest arms of any pass-catcher in Indianapolis (28 inches). Meanwhile, Ross has some of the smallest hands (8 3/4 inches) of any of the players measured thus far. Fortunately, both have terrific tape to keep these measurements in their proper context and should impress during the timed drills Saturday. Ross, a known speedster who scored 17 touchdowns last year for the Huskies, told the media Friday that he expects to clock in “under 4.3” in the 40-yard dash
Boston at L.A. Lakers
When: 10:30 PM ET, Friday, March 3, 2017
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES – (Special Preview for Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The Boston Celtics will try to build off perhaps their best win of the season when they begin a challenging five-game road trip at the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. After losing three of four, and looking very sluggish in a 16-point home loss to Atlanta on Monday, the Celtics made a dramatic turnaround with a 103-99 win over Cleveland two nights later.
“We just played to win,” guard Isaiah Thomas – who scored 31 points – told reporters. “They’re the No. 1 team in the East. One of the best teams in the NBA, and we just wanted to protect home court and get a win. We did that tonight.” Boston enters Friday three games behind the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference and it hopes to stay close while navigating a trip that includes games against the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Clippers and an improving Denver Nuggets squad. Fortunately for the Celtics, they get to start the voyage against the two worst teams in the West – the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Los Angeles has dropped five in a row and Tuesday’s 109-104 loss to Charlotte clinched its fourth consecutive losing season.
TV: 10:30 p.m. ET, CSN New England (Boston), Spectrum SportsNet (Los Angeles)
ABOUT THE CELTICS (39-22): Guard Avery Bradley, who returned from a lengthy absence due to an Achilles issue two games ago, made the most of his 22 minutes Wednesday with 11 points and several big defensive possessions against Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. “It’s a good feeling. That’s what I play this game for, to go up against the best players,” Bradley told reporters. “I know I haven’t been out there in a while, but hopefully I can still be mentioned for first-team all-defense. It’s something I take pride in.” Thomas scored 38 points in a 113-107 win over the Lakers at home last month.
ABOUT THE LAKERS (19-42): Julius Randle was a bright spot in the loss to the Hornets with 23 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocked shots, and coach Luke Walton is urging the talented forward to bring that effort more often. “That’s the longest period of time he’s played that hard all season long,” Walton told the media. Randle, who missed the loss to Boston in February, has tied a career high with four straight double-digit rebounding efforts.
1. Celtics C Al Horford had 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Cleveland but scored in single digits for the fifth straight time, his longest such stretch since the 2008-09 season.
2. Lakers PG D’Angelo Russell is averaging 22.8 points over his last four games.
3. Boston G Gerald Green (heel) has missed four games in a row and is day-to-day.
SPRINGFIELD, Mass – (Staff Report from Official News Release) – The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced the field of teams for the first-ever Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic, a college basketball tournament held in conjunction with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Sport Changes Life, Rory McIlroy’s Foundation, the Rory Foundation, and The SSE Arena, Belfast. The two-day tournament held on December 1 and 2, will feature Holy Cross vs. Manhattan College and La Salle University vs. Towson University, followed by consolation and championship play on the second day.
As previously announced, the Basketball Hall of Fame has partnered with Sport Changes Life, a registered UK charity and US nonprofit organization that works in disadvantaged communities to help young people find a path to a brighter future with the help of international student-athletes. The Basketball Hall of Fame, in combination with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, aims to support this cause by extending their reach across the Atlantic. Rory McIlroy and his Foundation will also join the cause. In addition, Aer Lingus will be the official airline carrier of the tournament.
“Teaming up with Sport Changes Life provides an excellent opportunity for these collegiate athletes to compete abroad while learning about another culture and making a positive impact in the lives of local youth,” said John L. Doleva, President and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame”
“This is an historic event for everyone involved and Sport Changes Life are delighted to be in partnership with the Basketball Hall of Fame and our friends at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to bring this level of basketball to the island of Ireland. Our journey began in Sport Changes Life with our founding partners Ulster University and Chaka Travel. Through this prestigious event we are certain that we will inspire generations of young people in our quest to help change lives through sport.” said Sport Changes Life CEO Gareth Maguire
In addition to the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic, a series of ongoing community relations events and initiatives will be held in the Belfast vicinity. Formal announcements surrounding specific events and ticket information will come at a later date.
“The MAAC values the relationships it has developed with the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Sports Changes Life Foundation. Both groups have missions that the MAAC membership strongly supports and has driven the league’s involvement with their activities here in America and in Northern Ireland. It was natural progression to bring the two groups together and develop a basketball tournament that would highlight the positive academic and athletic activities of the partners, and I want to thank Manhattan College for agreeing to be the first MAAC team to play in the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic.” – Rich, Ensor, MAAC Commissioner
“The Hall of Fame Belfast Classic will feature a strong field and the games will provide our program with a tremendous challenge next season. We are excited to participate in this event, and to provide our student-athletes with the educational experience of traveling abroad.” – Bill Carmody, Holy Cross
NY Rangers 2, Boston 1
When: 7:00 PM ET, Thursday, March 2, 2017
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
BOSTON – (Wire Service Report by The Sports Xchange) – Henrik Lundqvist celebrated his 35th birthday in grand style Thursday night. The veteran goaltender turned aside 32 shots and came within 7:04 of a shutout in carrying the New York Rangers to a 2-1 victory over the surging Boston Bruins.
The Rangers, who ended a two-game losing streak, had only 21 shots on Tuukka Rask, but third-period goals by Pavel Buchnevich and Oscar Lindberg staked Lundqvist to the lead. Several of his saves, especially in the first two periods, were spectacular.
The third loss in as many games against New York this season dropped the Bruins to 7-2 under Bruce Cassidy and handed the interim coach his first loss in five home games.
The win lifted the Rangers to 22-8-0 on the road with the 22 wins tops in the NHL.
Buchnevich, who had two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist for the Hartford Wolfpack of the American Hockey League on Wednesday night, scored 5:10 into the third period. Lindberg scored 4:25 later.
The Bruins ended Lundqvist’s bid for his 62nd career shutout when during a delayed penalty, Brad Marchand jammed home a rebound after a strong effort from David Pastrnak.
The goal was the 12th in the last 14 games for Marchand.
The two goals gave the Rangers 86 third-period goals this season, the most by any NHL team in any period this season.
Lundqvist defeated the Bruins for the 25th time in his career.
NOTES: LW Michael Grabner, the Rangers’ leading goal scorer with 26, was out because of a hip injury suffered in practice Wednesday. … RW Pavel Buchnevich was recalled from Hartford by the Rangers, who were also without Ds Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, and RW Jesper Fast. … D Brendan Smith, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings, made his Rangers debut and played a strong game. … RW Drew Stafford, acquired by the Bruins from the Winnipeg Jets at the deadline, arrived but did not play, meeting the media in the press box after the second period. … The Rangers host the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night in a possible first-round playoff preview while the Bruins host the New Jersey Devils the same night.
CINCINNATI – (Wire Service and Staff report from Official News Release) – Marquette shot 61.1 percent from the floor and set an opponent scoring record at the Cintas Center with its 95-84 victory over Xavier on Thursday night. Andrew Rowsey led the MU offense with 20 points and four assists and Jajuan Johnson added 19 points, four assists and four steals. The Golden Eagles also made 17-of-20 free throws. The win puts Marquette at 18-11 overall and 9-8 in BIG EAST play. Xavier dropped to 18-12 and 8-9. The Musketeers were led by J.P. Macura, who had 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
The final day of the regular season is Saturday with all 10 teams in action. The middle of the standings – third place through sixth place — still has numerous seeding possibilities for for next week’s BIG EAST Tournament. What is locked in: Villanova is No. 1, Butler No. 2, Xavier No. 7, St. John’s No. 8, Georgetown No. 9, and DePaul No. 10.
The only team in the “middle” that controls its own destiny is Creighton. The Bluejays will clinch the No. 3 seed with a win at Marquette. That game will be telecast on FS2 at 2:30 p.m. ET. The Golden Eagles, along with Providence and Seton Hall, are all jockeying for tournament position. Marquette can get the third seed with a win and a Providence loss.
Providence plays St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on FS2 at noon. The Friars can be as high as third with a win and a Creighton defeat.
The FOX broadcast network has a doubleheader with regular-season champion Villanova at Georgetown at noon followed by Seton Hall at Butler at 2:30 p.m. If the Pirates win at Butler, they could be the fourth or fifth seed. If they lose, they will be sixth.