MSU’s Conklin goes from unknown to high draft prospect

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Michigan State offensive lineman Jack Conklin runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine.

Being big wasn’t always a good thing for Jack Conklin.

His parents showed up at his elementary school one day because he was in trouble for accidentally hurting one of his classmates on the playground.

“He had run some kid into the flagpole — head first — and gotten in trouble for it,” Conklin’s father, Darren, said. “We kind of knew right away he didn’t do it on purpose. The kid it happened to was one of his friends, and the boy that it happened to said, ‘Jack didn’t mean it. I know he didn’t mean it.’”

Darren Conklin recalls other parents thinking Jack was timid, always worried about inflicting pain because of his size.

Football gave the “bull in a china shop” — as his father said — a chance to be physical.

The NFL draft is a week away, and Jack Conklin, Michigan State’s left tackle for the past three years, likely will be a first-round pick. And in a league where players become instant celebrities and teams are constantly worried about how off-field problems represent them, he’s an ideal prospect in many ways.

On the field, he’s a mauler who proved capable of blocking Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, both expected to be top-10 picks.

Off the field, he’s soft-spoken and ready to represent whichever team selects him.

“Coming from a small town and my dad being the head football coach, everybody in the school knew me … so I had to act a certain manner,” Conklin said. “And I think it taught me to have that humble but hungry type of character.”

Whether the 6-foot-6, 308-pounder lives up to the hype of being a first-round pick, he’s set to make history. Conklin could become the first Michigan State offensive lineman taken in the first round since Tony Mandarich went second overall in 1989. It also would mark the first time since 1986-91 the Spartans had a first-round pick in three straight years — Darqueze Dennard in 2014 and Trae Waynes in 2015.

Jack Conklin, who played left tackle for the past three years, could become the first Michigan State offensive lineman taken in the first round since 1989.

Conklin apparently didn’t check enough boxes for college teams coming out of Plainwell High, and NFL teams have been curious why.

His hometown is about 15 miles north of Kalamazoo, but he never received an offer from Western Michigan — or any Division I school.

Desperate for an opportunity, Conklin’s dad added a clip of his son water skiing to the film reel, hoping it would highlight his athleticism. At the time, the water skiing — which showed Conklin balancing on one ski — was supposed to be appealing to Ron Zook, the former Illinois coach who’s an avid water skier.

Still, the only offer Conklin had was for $2,000 each semester to play at Wayne State.

So, he decided to enroll at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy for a semester and hope to earn a scholarship to a Division I program.

But after Conklin made that decision, Michigan State coaches said he could walk on and have a chance to earn a scholarship.

“It was frustrating at the time going through it, but I wouldn’t do it any other way,” Conklin said. “I’m happy with how it ended up, and I ended up in the right place and the right situation.”

‘Curse’ of Conklin

Even before the recruitment process, Conklin experienced football-related adversity.

Conklin’s father, an insurance agent, took over as coach of Plainwell’s varsity football team before his son’s sophomore year. Conklin opened the year playing fullback, tight end and defensive end, but by the middle of the season had moved to offensive tackle.

“I caught a lot of grief,” Darren Conklin said. “People said, ‘He’s just moving him up because it’s his kid.’

“It was hard on Jack, too, because that comes from both directions. ... They thought it was favoritism. But that didn’t take long to disappear. He took care of that on the field.”

Josh Katzenstein's Mock Draft 3.0

Still, the perceived favoritism didn’t help the recruitment process. Conklin went to camps at Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Colorado, Western Michigan, Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan — without landing an offer.

“I kind of refer to it as ‘The Curse of Jack Conklin’ because an awful lot of the programs that passed on him, those coaching staffs are gone,” Darren Conklin said.

High ratings

Heading into the draft, most analysts believe Conklin is the No. 3 offensive tackle prospect behind Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil and Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley.

During a conference call Tuesday, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Conklin is worthy of being a top-seven pick.

“I think he can be an outstanding left tackle,” Kiper said.

But, Conklin might not be a left tackle as a rookie. Although teams like him at that position, he said some said they’d put him at right tackle because they already have a veteran on the left side. Other teams have mentioned the possibility of moving to guard.

In a perfect world, Conklin said he’d land in Washington, D.C., and have the chance to block for former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. He’d also like to block for Carolina’s Cam Newton or Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, two mobile quarterbacks.

Tennessee was one of two teams (Buffalo) that flew Conklin to their headquarters. He also had formal interviews with 24 teams at the Combine, and said five offensive line coaches attended his pro day, and three others worked him out in East Lansing.

“I just think that teams will like the fact that I’m a tone-setter on the offensive line and the physicality that comes with my type of play and my football IQ,” he said when asked why a team should take him.

And for the next 10 years, Conklin hopes to have the chance to use his physicality in the NFL.

Twitter: @jkatzenstein

NFL draft

When: Round 1, 8 p.m. April 28; Rounds 2-3, 7 p.m. April 29; Rounds 4-7, noon April 30

Where: Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

TV: ESPN, NFL Network