Video: Emily Brustoski
Representatives from nine NFL franchises descended upon Oxford, Ohio Tuesday to evaluate seven former RedHawks looking to continue their football careers ahead of April's NFL Draft. For promising players such as Heath Harding and Ryan Smith, it was perhaps one final chance to show why they deserve a chance to play at the next level.
Senior cornerback Harding was the headliner of the day, as the Dayton native is currently projected to be selected in the fifth or sixth round, according to NFL.com. The corner put up strong numbers in front of scouts from the Bengals, Browns, Patriots and others, running a 4.44 40-yard dash after bench pressing 225 lbs. 17 times. However, Harding said it is his physical play that sets him apart from other prospects.
"I think a lot of DB's are used to the Deion Sanders method where you're just a cover corner, but I don't believe in that. I believe for a corner, you need to be balanced, being able to run support, cover, and all the above," Harding said. "If you're on my side of the field, I'm coming for you."
Following a 2016 season in which Harding recorded 67 tackles along with four interceptions and six and a half pass break-ups, his senior campaign was hampered by injuries, an issue Harding says continues to plague him. Just last week, Harding tweaked his hamstring in preparation for Tuesday's pro day, a familiar form of adversity coming at an inopportune time.
"I just felt like I had that injury bug. I wasn't the player that I am," Harding said referencing the struggles his injury caused during his senior season. "I really want to go out here to put my best numbers out to show my quad's good and now I have a hamstring [issue]."
Joining Harding at Tuesday's workout was a healthy senior tight end Ryan Smith. Smith, who checks in at 6'3'' and 265 lbs., produced modest numbers, running a 4.84 40-yard dash after leaping 28 inches on the vertical jump, but similar to Harding, Smith's value is hard to quantify through drills, the tight end said.
"[If] you watch my film and you look at me in a workout like this with no pads on, you see two different guys," Smith said. "I feel like I bring that extra juice, that extra energy with pads on."
Taking particular interest in the Illinois native were representatives of the Lions -- the Detroit scouts took Smith along with fellow tight end Liam Sallquist through extensive drills long after other position groups had finished working out.
Leading up to Tuesday, Smith and Harding had spent significant time outside of Oxford with professional training programs to improve testing numbers. Following his graduation in December, Harding moved to Florida to train with 40 other NFL hopefuls. Starting in December, Smith began travelling to Cincinnati every other day to train with Ignition Athletic Performance Group.
Following weeks of preparation, Smith said he was eager to show why he belongs on an NFL roster, despite what doubters may say.
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"I'm a guy that's been overlooked. I had one Division One offer coming out of high school," Smith said. "I feel like guys from the MAC really have that extra chip on their shoulder. They're hungry for greatness."
If Harding, Smith and other 'Hawks were to shine on the NFL stage, they would hardly be the first from the Mid-American Conference. Ben Roethlisberger, Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown, Kareem Hunt and many others have shown over the past few years how successful former MAC players can be.
Though many players from the RedHawks' conference come out of college unheralded, the scouts from the next level still exercise due diligence -- NFL experts travelling from as far as Denver or Oakland made the trek to Ohio Tuesday to see what Miami football has to offer.
"We visit any size school," New York Giants scout Steve Devine said. "Wherever you're at, [scouts ask], 'have you developed and do you potentially have the skills to play in the NFL?'"
Outside of Smith and Harding, other RedHawk seniors including safety Tony Reid, defensive end Ikeem Allen, offensive lineman Jordan Diamond and wide receiver Jared Murphy looked to draw the attention of scouts such as Devine.
Specifically impressive was Murphy, whose quickness in the pro agility and crisp route-running raised the eyebrows of NFL personnel along with other observers including former teammates, coaches and relatives. Murphy, listed at 5'10'' and 182 lbs., amassed 2,083 yards receiving during his career as a RedHawk along with 15 total touchdowns.
Diamond, a transfer from Auburn, led all RedHawk prospects Tuesday in bench-press -- the 6'5'' 310 lb. lineman muscled 33 repetitions of 225 lbs. Reid on the other hand sat out on bench press, but did partake in speed drills along with defensive back drills, accompanying Harding.
From this point on, RedHawk prospects will continue to try to build off Tuesday's workouts to gain invites to private workouts with various NFL teams. For Harding, a next step in the pre-draft process will be attending local workouts, including one being hosted by the Bengals in mid-April.
"Hopefully I've turned some heads here," Harding said.
The 2018 NFL Draft begins Thursday April 26 and runs through Saturday April 28. NFL teams will have a chance to sign players as undrafted free agents following the draft as well.