Stars and sleepers alike raise the temperature at WSU, Idaho Pro Days

Rob Rang

PULLMAN – The winningest team in the long and storied history of the Washington State Cougars drew representatives of 28 different NFL teams to its Pro Day on Wednesday, with its “big three” all but locking up their position as draft picks and a sleeper proving that there should be at least a fourth member of the Alamo Bowl champions to hear his name called on draft day.

The big draw, of course, was projected first round offensive tackle Andre Dillard, who, after starring at the prestigious Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine over the past few months understandably sat out the measured drills to focus on his positional workout.

With the draft just a few weeks away, the positional workout should be just a matter of checking boxes, especially for a player as athletic as Dillard.

But that was not the case for the First Team All-Pac-12 left tackle, who labored a bit through the 15 to 20-minute audition conducted by Buffalo Bills’ assistant offensive line coach Terry Heffernan, sweating profusely and stopping, at times, to re-hydrate. That said, even sweating, Dillard shined, showing off the elite foot quickness that translates not only to pass protection but in blocking on the move.

It simply could have been a case of nerves for Dillard, who, after catching his breath, explained later in an interview with Omar Ruiz on the NFL Network that he is still getting used to all of the attention.

That is certainly understandable, especially given how obvious the top brass from the Carolina Panthers made it that he was the reason for their trip to the Palouse.

At least one of the three Carolina talent evaluators on hand were near Dillard throughout the 3+ hour Pro Day, with general manager Marty Hurney and senior college scouting director Jeff Morrow notably leaving WSU’s practice bubble immediately after Dillard’s positional workout ended – while players at every other position were still just warming up.

Dillard reportedly will be traveling to Carolina. According to Ruiz, the big tackle also has visits and/or private workouts planned with Baltimore, Houston, Minnesota, Washington and the New York Giants, among others.

While the Panthers were most represented at Washington State’s workout, the Bills also had multiple representatives on hand, with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll joining the aforementioned Heffernan in taking in the entire workout.

Paying attention as if he were a scout, himself, was breakout graduate transfer and star quarterback Gardner Minshew, whose trademark enthusiasm was even more obvious than Dillard’s nerves.

Like Dillard, Minshew opted not to do any of the timed drills Wednesday after competing at the Senior Bowl and Combine. He didn’t have time, shouting encouragement to virtually every teammate before and after every drill and even halting his own throwing session to command his receivers to get some water, reminding them that they had just four more routes each to run.

Minshew lacks ideal size and arm strength but his throwing motion is every bit as compact as his 6-1, 225 pound frame and he throws the ball with good accuracy on the short to intermediate passes that dominate today’s NFL. Several of his deeper throws – including some very accurate tosses – were dropped by his receivers.

After every drop, Minshew audibly blamed himself rather than call out his receivers.

Minshew’s rah-rah approach might not have turned critics into believers but it perfectly suits the backup role he is likely to fill in the NFL. Backup quarterbacks must possess the competitiveness to be ready at a moment’s notice, as well as the trust of his teammates. It is important to remember that Minshew joined WSU amid extraordinarily difficult circumstances following the passing of Tyler Hilinski. His enthusiasm galvanized a team and community in just a few months and he won over teammates at the Senior Bowl in just days, being voted a captain by his peers in both cases.

Of course, having a pass-catching protégé at running back likes James Williams helps in that regard.

Despite competing at the Combine, Williams participated in the vertical jump (35”), broad jump (9’9”) and bench press (15 reps) before a solid positional workout of his own, under the guidance of a member of the New Orleans Saints’ staff. He appeared to tweak his hamstring late in the workout but it did not appear serious.

While Dillard, Minshew and Williams were clearly the Cougars’ “big three” as Combine-invites, the player who likely boosted his stock the most Wednesday was defensive lineman-turned linebacker Logan Tago, a 6-3 (and 3/8”), 242 pounder who showed impressive fluidity operating in reverse, as well as intriguing raw explosiveness in the vertical jump (30.5”) and bench press (19 repetitions). Tago is not fast but neither was Frankie Luvu, a similarly-sized teammate who recorded 22 tackles, including three for loss last year for the New York Jets after initially signing as a undrafted free agent.

Tago’s upside is likely to make him a more valued commodity to NFL teams than more consistent (but less gifted) Peyton Pelluer, who notably led the Cougars Wednesday with 24 repetitions during the bench press.

Frankly, none of the athletes tested in Pullman Wednesday were as impressive as Kaden Elliss, a former tight end and linebacker who rewarded the representatives of 12 NFL teams who made the short drive following WSU’s workout to see what the Combine (and all-star game) snub and his teammates might do at their subsequent Pro Day workout on the University of Idaho campus.

After measuring in at 6-2 (1/4”) and 238 pounds, Elliss was clocked as fast as 4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash and showed off the core flexibility, smooth hips and light feet to change directions smoothly. He didn’t take many snaps as a tight end prospect Wednesday – though he did work out there for the Patriots at the Utah Pro Day last week – he showed reliable hands when the ball was thrown to him, snatching hot passes thrown in short quarters to him during linebacker drills and leaping into the air to pluck the ball at its highest point when he asked to really turn and run.

It was the explosive power he demonstrated during disengage drills that perhaps will get the most attention. Elliss has six visits lined up already (starting with the Cardinals on Friday) and I suspect this list will grow with videos like this one starting to circulate.

While I attended this workout specifically to see Elliss – who lived up to his reputation and then some – I was also impressed by the Vandals’ ultra-competitive and power-packed slot receiver David Ungerer, who is eligible for the Canadian Football League - and will do well there – assuming he doesn’t surprise in an NFL camp first.