“The Panel” is back for another year, as a team of NFL veterans — Dorsey Levens, Takeo Spikes, Ovie Mughelli, Tim Couch — mentor the 2013 rookie class, before embarking on their pro journeys. FoxSportsSouth.com’s Jay Clemons sat down with Levens (11 NFL seasons with the Packers, Eagles, Giants), who, as a collegiate back, achingly missed out on national championships for Notre Dame (1988) and Georgia Tech (1990) by one year.
Clemons: You were in the 1994 NFL Combine, when the ‘Underwear Olympics’ started to generate national appeal. Did the ’94 Combine resemble today’s TV-friendly show, in any way?
Levens: It’s definitely different. Back in 1994, you went in, did your work. There was no showbiz aspect to it. Today, there’s cameras everywhere, social media … the reality is, not as many people were able to watch it (on TV). But now, I think people are intrigued by exactly what goes on — what the drills are, how fast their favorite player runs (the 40-yard dash), how strong he is, how high he jumps. And that makes all the difference (on TV).
Clemons: Do you remember the specific results from your Combine?
Levens: I ran something a like a 4.5. I ran a 4.4 at my Pro Day (Georgia Tech). I also remember being really sore after the workouts. All that pulling and tugging (from teams during physicals), checking on anything you might have injured in college; but it was different, very tiring.
Clemons: How long does it take a prospect to get over the insecurities of being analyzed in minimal clothing?
Levens: It didn’t take long, really. You’re a football player and used to being in a locker room. With up to 100 guys. And for that situation, you have underwear on, so it’s like you’re comfortable because you’re not naked. Facing, turning sideways, moving back and forth, so (NFL personnel) can get a good look at you. It’s kind of weird.
Clemons: Do rookie running backs have an advantage over quarterbacks, linemen and linebackers, in terms of having fewer responsibilities before getting on the field?
Levens: I think that’s a myth. It’s not just see ball, get ball and hit the hole. You have to know your linemen’s blocking assignments, you have to know your fullback’s assignment. If it’s a pass play, you have to know who you’re blocking, that assignment. (If the defense) drops one guy, but brings someone else on the other side, that changes everything — you’re supposed to pick up that block. You have to know all the details and intricacies of football. It’s not as simple … as here’s the ball, now run to daylight. Before you get in there and run, you have to know what you’re doing.
Clemons: Have you had a lot of time to study the current crop of rookie rushers?
Levens: I’ve seen a lot of (North Carolina’s) Gio Bernard, since he was part of the ACC Network (package of games). He’s a very exciting player. As a running back, I recognize talent when I see it, and he’s small, but he has 90 percent of what you’re looking for. He’s strong, explosive, has great vision, elusive, great balance … it’s hard to bring someone down that has a low center of gravity and great balance. It’s an uphill battle (to tackle him). He kind of reminds me of a poor-man’s Barry Sanders. He fits that Barry Sanders mold — he’s just that explosive. And what he does in the kicking game, (Bernard) has it all. He has all the physical tools.
Clemons: Do you think Barry Sanders, at age 21, would have been the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, given the modern-day obsession with straight-line speed?
Levens: He didn’t have Chris Johnson speed, where he can break from the pack (in an instant). It’s the lateral stuff with Barry — it’s the stopping and starting, the quickness, the cutting. I don’t know how many ACLs he’s torn, with opposing players trying to tackle him. I still think he’d be a top-three pick. The Combine is big, but most GMs still evaluate what’s on tape. At the Combine, they want to see if you’re as good as advertised, regarding weight, strength, vertical, all the running. But the bulk of what they look for comes on film. We see it many times — they call ’em workout warriors — guys who look great in shorts, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to football.
Clemons: How would a pro scout find a potentially great pass-catcher at running back, if the player wasn’t part of a pass-friendly offense in college?
Levens: That’s one of the things the Combine can do. There’s passing drills, one-on-one passing drills, things that can showcase your ability. But even that’s not real. I can line you up for a drill, and you’ll catch 10 out of 10 balls. But when you have a 250-pound linebacker chasing you at full speed … that changes everything. (laughs) The game changes everything. Practice … is practice. There’s no pressure in practice. I think you find out what true players look like during a game. Everybody can look good in practice, or shorts, but it’s a whole different story in games.
Clemons: How long did it take you to adapt to the West Coast Offense?
Levens: After Year 3, it becomes second nature. But in the first year, I still knew everything that had to be done. I needed more time to study, more film study … but this is the NFL: Either you’re prepared, or they’ll find somebody else who is. The harsh reality is, there are three or four guys lined up behind you (figuratively) to take your spot every year. And with the draft, there’s somebody to come take your spot every single year. The average (career) span of an NFL player is three years — I played 11. (Early on), I figured out how to stay (in the league).