Spartans show off skills in 'combine-like' pro day

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

With the NCAA Tournament in full swing in Indianapolis, there’s plenty going on at Lucas Oil Stadium.

With two basketball courts, countless teams and a handful of fans coming in and out of the home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, it almost seems like things in the sports world are starting to get closer to what might resemble “normal.”

Cornerback Shakur Brown could be Michigan State's highest-drafted player.

Of course, there was one other big event Indianapolis typically hosts each year that didn’t make the cut, getting canceled because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — the NFL’s scouting combine. For dozens of college players looking to showcase themselves before this spring’s NFL Draft, it was a critical opportunity missed.

It wasn’t the only opportunity, however, and that has put plenty of emphasis on pro day, when schools invite scouts in to take a look at all of their prospects. That happened at Michigan State on Wednesday for 10 former Spartans — three who played this past season and seven more who completed their eligibility in 2019 but never got a shot at a pro day when the pandemic canceled last year’s scheduled showing.

“We wanted to make it their day and really bring those guys back and try to make it as combine-like as possible without having to be at the Combine,” said Scott Aligo, Michigan State’s director of player personnel. “Everything that we've structured today was to make it feel like they were in Indianapolis. So, it was very important and we took a lot of pride in really showing off Michigan State, and being able to show them what our players can do.”

Michigan State has had at least one player selected in every year since the modern draft began after the merger of the NFL and AFL. There are no surefire picks this season, but at least three Spartans have at least a decent shot of hearing their name called at some point in the three-day draft that will be held April 29-May 1.

Cornerback Shakur Brown, defensive tackle Naquan Jones and linebacker Antjuan Simmons all fall in that category, and all three felt they showed out well on Wednesday.

“It’s a feeling of excitement,” Brown said. “Today was a blessing.”

The junior might have the best shot of getting taken after recording five interceptions last fall while breaking up four passes and totaling 25 tackles, leading him to forgo his final season at Michigan State. ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects Brown, who got an official invite to the combine, to go in the fourth or fifth round.

“I felt like I was physically, mentally and emotionally ready,” Brown said of his decision to leave early for the NFL.

Jones, the 6-foot-4 tackle who was listed at 340 pounds in his final season at Michigan State, didn’t have the same decision as Brown, though he could have returned for one more season. However, after collecting 24 tackles, including five for loss last fall, Jones knew it was time to take his shot.

It was also time to truly focus on his weight in an effort to get even quicker than he’s been. On Wednesday, he weighed in at 313 pounds, something many of the NFL teams he’s been talking to have been emphasizing.

“I was able to show a lot more explosion,” said Jones, who Kiper projects as a late-round pick. “I was able to show off my quickness. Obviously, dropping 20 pounds I felt a lot quicker, I felt a lot better just moving and I felt better in my body.”

For Michigan State’s most productive defensive player last season, pro day was huge.

Simmons led Michigan State with 75 tackles, including nine for loss, one sack, two fumble recoveries and two pass breakups. He also opted against returning for an extra season. But at 6-0 and 225 pounds, he’s a bit on the smaller side for an NFL linebacker. He didn’t get invited to the combine and admitted he’s using that as motivation as he prepares for the draft.

He’s projected as a late-round pick at best, and more likely a free agent.

Of course, Simmons spent Wednesday showing what made him so valuable for the Spartans.

“Definitely getting a hard-working guy with a positive attitude that will show up and do everything,” Simmons said, describing himself. “He’ll do whatever he can to better the team, whatever it takes to get the job done and they’ll get a heck of a football player. Give it 110% in practice, I'm giving 110% on game days. That’s just the type of guy I am. I want to be the best. I want to win, and that's the attitude I'm trying to bring.”

Seven other players who missed out on a pro day last year also worked out, including quarterback Brian Lewerke, who signed with New England after going undrafted but did not make the roster.

He was hoping to open a few eyes on Wednesday.

“I had my shot with a team and didn't get all the opportunities that I wanted with that team,” Lewerke said, “but I'm trying to hopefully make an impression on someone today and they can bring me in.”

Also working out were offensive lineman Tyler Higby (he was signed by Minnesota last year but was waived in training camp), cornerback Josh Butler, safety David Dowell, tight end Matt Seybert, linebacker Tyriq Thompson and long snapper Ryan Armour.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau