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Former Spartan left tackle projected as a first-round pick

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Indianapolis — Jack Conklin still shakes his head when he thinks about one of the more improbable stories at this year’s NFL Combine — his.

Conklin, an All-American left tackle last season at Michigan State, left a year early to enter the draft, where most project he’ll go in the top half of the first round.

But that’s not what is so improbable. It’s the fact that virtually nobody knew who he was after his senior season at Plainwell High, yet he still managed to become one of the best at his position.

He talked about that journey during his time at Michigan State, going from a no-star recruit that came to East Lansing as a walk-on, getting a scholarship in his second semester. Conklin redshirted his first season but started 13 games in 2013 as Michigan State won the Big Ten and Rose Bowl. He was second-team all-Big Ten as a sophomore in 2014, and became an All-American last season, helping the Spartans reach the College Football Playoff.

Not bad for a kid who was prepared to head to Fork Union Military Academy before Mark Dantonio asked him to come to Michigan State.

“It’s crazy,” Conklin said. “Just to see how far I’ve come. It’s hard to think about going from, like I said, four years ago having no idea if I was even gonna be on a Division I team going into the fall, to now having that chance to be a first-round draft pick. It’s kind of hard to take in.”

Where he ends up in the draft is still up in the air, but Conklin has been spending the past couple of months training for the Combine, gaining strength, dropping a couple of pounds and getting quicker. At 6-foot-6, Conklin said he weighed 320 pounds when he started training but has “lost about 10, 11 pounds.”

It is all in an effort to solidify his spot in the first round and convince teams there are no lingering effects from the knee injury that forced him to miss two games last season.

“I think after watching me run on Friday and seeing me moving out there, they’ll see there’s nothing wrong with my knee anymore,” Conklin said. “It’s healthy and I feel great and I’m going to put up some good times.”

Conklin, who started all but one of the 39 career games he played, saw most of his work at left tackle. He started three games at right tackle in 2013, and said there are plenty of teams talking to him about that position.

One of those teams is the Lions, whom Conklin said he had a formal interview scheduled with Wednesday night. But he is going to be happy playing any spot, knowing he could move back to the left side.

“Maybe that’s how teams see it or it’s just how they see me fitting in their scheme,” Conklin said. “Maybe they see the right side is more of a run-blocking side and I do see myself as definitely a prototypical run-blocker guy.”

He’s not the only one.

“Conklin is as consistent and reliable as any left tackle out there in terms of the way he performed on the field,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said this week. “He was outstanding.

“He’s got that defensive line mentality. He’ll finish blocks. He’ll move you off the line as a defender. He’s not just a pass blocker. He’ll assist the running game. Because of that, he could be a heck of a right tackle.”

Conklin hits the field Friday, but before that, he said he had interviews scheduled with “just about every team.”

He’s in demand. And that’s quite a way from where he was a few years ago.

“It’s that chip on the shoulder mentality, that thing that drives me every day, to see how far I’ve come and how close I was to not having this chance,” Conklin said.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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