The 40-yard dash is one of the most anticipated annual events at the Combine. Coaches, front office execs, scouts and fans alike all want to see speed, and this is the place for players to showcase it. While many question the merits of the 40 for certain positions, there is one place on the field where running that distance does make some sense: running back.
On Friday, the backs in the 2016 draft class got their chance at the 40. Last year, the fastest time in the group belonged to Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford, who clocked in at 4.42 seconds. That time was part of the reason the Bears selected him in the fourth round last April, and he showed his blazing speed during a productive rookie season in Chicago.
Georgia running back Keith Marshall ran a 4.31 second 40-yard dash.
Georgia running back Keith Marshall had the fastest time in the group this year, finishing in an astounding 4.31 seconds. San Jose State's Tyler Ervin was second with a time of 4.41 seconds.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who led the Crimson Tide to the national championship last season, also turned in an impressive performance. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner ran the 40 in 4.54 seconds, pretty good for someone who weighed in at 247 pounds. Henry also leaped 130 inches on the broad jump and 37 inches on the vertical jump, both of which ranked among the best for players at the position.
Henry said earlier in the week that even though there is lots of film on him from his time in college, he was eager to try out at the Combine to show NFL teams what he can do.
"I feel like I can do better at everything, but the questions are my quickness, catching the ball, my protection," the running back said. "I definitely want to get better at that and showcase that I can do things like that, but I know I need to work on that."
Henry's college teammate, Kenyan Drake, had the third fastest 40 time among running backs at 4.45 seconds.
Answering the character questions
Among the many intriguing prospects in Indianapolis this week is Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence. One of the most impressive players last month at the Senior Bowl, Spence has the type of pass-rush skills many NFL teams salivate over. He's quick off the edge and can take down quarterbacks, evidenced by his 13.5 sacks last season for the Colonels.
However, teams must look at more than just the talent of the player; studying the person is also key. Spence started his college career at Ohio State, where he was an All-Big Ten player. But following two failed drug tests and a suspension, he left the school and opted to transfer instead of entering the draft last season.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Spence said he has been open to NFL teams about his history. Instead of hiding from what he did, he has been out in the open, letting people know that he's a changed man.
"It's huge for me, especially with my drug tests and I'm still being drug tested to this day. It shows that I've grown from the situation and I've become a better person," Spence said.
"With anybody with a substance-abuse problem that they've had, I feel like they're pretty leery about it. But if you can put it behind you, you can convince the team it's behind you."
Spence said he is still being drug-tested regularly, in a constant battle to prove teams he can be an asset on the field while not being a risk off of it.
Leaning on others for help
Draft prospects will do anything in their power to perform as well as they possibly can at the Combine. One trick of the trade is talking to people who have done it before. From college coaches to former teammates, many draft prospects take pieces of advice with them to Indianapolis.
"I talked to former players who have been through the process," said Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun. "Not always ones that made it to the NFL but just have some idea what's going on and the pressure that builds up in this time in my life. People that can remind me it's just a game."
UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark took a different approach. The coach of the Bruins—Jim Mora—went to many Combines as an NFL head coach for Atlanta and Seattle. Mora was able to pass on to Clark some keys for a strong performance in front of professional evaluators.
"I have the utmost respect for Jim Mora and the whole staff, knowing their NFL experience would help me get (here)," Clark said. "That's a big part of the reason why I ended up at UCLA."