Ex-Badgers DBs hoping to catch the NFL's eye
MAR 13, 2013 5:00a ET
MADISON, Wis. — Two days before Marcus Cromartie, Devin Smith and Shelton Johnson participated in Wisconsin's pro day, they reunited in Madison for dinner. The three former Badgers defensive backs had spent the past two months training for a moment they believed should have happened sooner.
They swapped stories about their five years together in the program. They discussed the future. They also understood their professional livelihood would be at stake very soon.
"We talked to each other," Cromartie said. "We felt like this was a chance to showcase our skills and show people that the Big Ten, Wisconsin, we can play. And we deserved a chance."
All three had been bypassed for a coveted spot in the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February. The NFL invited 35 cornerbacks and 25 safeties to participate. And despite the trio's successes at Wisconsin, they weren't on the list.
Last Wednesday during Wisconsin's pro day, the three finally had their opportunity to shine in front of roughly 30 NFL scouts. Each player came away feeling as though he had helped his draft status.
Cromartie blazed to a 4.35 40-yard dash time, the fastest among the eight players who participated at UW's pro day. He said he had heard before the event that his draft stock hovered anywhere from the fourth round to being an undrafted free agent.
"The only thing I can do is shock people," Cromartie said. "I came out there to hopefully shock people and say this guy is better and can move better than we previously thought. Hopefully now they can go back to the film and re-evaluate me, and hopefully I can move up."
Johnson said he ran a 4.40 40-yard dash, while Smith registered at 4.50.
"I think my field work went really well," Smith said. I could have improved my 40 time a little more, but overall I think it was a great day setting myself up."
Smith had been in Bradenton, Fla., training with IMG Academy since January — the same place where Badgers running back Montee Ball had been training. Cromartie spent his time in Orlando, Fla., training at coach Tom Shaw's camp.
Last season, Cromartie, Smith and Johnson helped anchor a Wisconsin defense that allowed just 19.1 points per game, which ranked 17th in the country. Cromartie registered 62 tackles with one interception, which went for a touchdown in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska. Smith had 57 tackles and a team-best four interceptions, while Johnson tallied 56 tackles.
Despite a solid senior season at safety, Johnson had to watch as other Big Ten safeties earned a spot at the NFL scouting combine: Iowa's Micah Hyde and Nebraska's Daimion Stafford.
"I knew I was on the edge, on the fence about getting in or not," Johnson said. "But I didn't really let that bother me. Honestly I felt like it gave me a little extra time to get prepared for this date."
Johnson, a 6-foot, 196-pounder, said his willingness to play any position in the NFL made him an attractive option for teams.
"You come in hoping to make your name in special teams," Johnson said. "That's kind of how it is. But I feel like I have a plethora of abilities. I feel like I can do anything anybody asks me to as long as they give me the time to do it. I feel like I'm versatile. I think I can fit in anywhere, honestly."
Smith and Cromartie, meanwhile, were also ignored in favor of other Big Ten players at cornerback: Michigan State's Johnny Adams, Illinois' Terry Hawthorne and Purdue's Josh Johnson.
Smith, for his part, focused on the positives about having at least one opportunity to work out for NFL scouts at a pro day.
"It is less nerve wracking than it would be at the combine," Smith said. "Just for the fact I'm in my own backyard and I'm able to come out here and be on my own field and do everything I've been working on for two months straight."
Now, all three players will go their separate ways again, hoping their game footage and pro day numbers will be enough to warrant a spot on an NFL roster.
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