Wednesday, May 07, 2014

UConn's Smallwood "a longer, rangier Takeo Spikes"

Former UConn stars Yawin Smallwood and Shamar Stephen expected
to be taken on either Firday or Saturday in NFL draft.
These next few days are going to be anxious ones for the former UConn players who have put themselves in position to get their names called in the NFL Draft.

Last year five UConn players were drafted and a total of eight made it into NFL camps. That number is expected to be significantly smaller this time around but linebacker Yawin Smallwood and defensive lineman Shamar Stephen are expected to be drafted while defensive end Jesse Joseph has met with a few NFL teams since UConn's pro day.

I've found it beneficial to reach out to those people who have played a significant role in the NFL Draft process. So yesterday I spent a few minutes with Tony Villani, a well-respected trainer who counts Jamal Lewis, Hines Ward, Takeo Spikes and Osi Umenyiora among some of his clients during his 12 years in charge of XPE Sports.

Villani began working with Smallwood in January and to say he was impressed with UConn's leading tackler in the 2012 and 2013 would be an understatement.

"The linebacker I love a lot and worked with for 12 years was Takeo Spikes" Villani said. "He is like a longer, rangier Takeo Spikes. His strength, his movement, his attitude all of that reminds me of Takeo, he is more of a stretched out version of a Takeo Spikes."

Spikes was a first-round pick by Cincinnati in the 1998 NFL Draft. He has recorded more than 1,400 career tackles and earned All-Pro honors twice so that's pretty high praise.

So what impresses Villani the most about Smallwood?

"His physical size and his ability for that size," Villani said. "He’s a 6-2, 245/250 pound guy with length, normally those guys are regulated to play inside or outside and not play both but he is athletic enough to play both. Normally you have those short squatty inside linebackers or you have rangy outside linebackers. He kind of fits the mold of them both size wise and ability wise so that was what I was impressed with the most."

Villani also loves Smallwood's blue-collar, no-frills approach to the game.

"You can get guys who you can call knuckleheads and he definitely has zero percent knucklehead in him," Villani said. "He is very down to earth, has a work-hard attitude. I got zero complaints about him."

One issue Villani did have with Smallwood was a troublesome hamstring. He did what he could to prepare Smallwood to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine but Smallwood had to ease up when his hamstring tightened up running the 40 at the combine. He was clocked at 5.01 but his 10-yard split was one of the best among the linebackers. Villani predicted that Smallwood would have run in the  "4.7 (second) laser range, 4.6 hand range which for somebody who is almost 250 pounds is very acceptable.

"His 10 yard among all the linebackers was probably the fifth or sixth fastest out of 35 (linebackers) so I know he got out real well. Because of his size, he wouldn’t have been one of the fifth or sixth fastest but he probably would have been in the top third, top 12.

"He had a hamstring injury that we really couldn’t get cleared up in time for the combine so we really had to focus on his positional drills and had to change the plan to make him look good on his positional workouts after the combine rather than trying to do the 40 real fast at the combine."

Villani is not sure if the lack of a top time in the 40 will impact Smallwood's draft position. He said he is hoping that Smallwood is a second-day pick which would make him either a second or third round pick. Many of the mock drafts being circulated have him going much lower than that but these mock drafts have proven to be as reliable as a Connecticut weather report in December or January.

Villani, who has 14 or 15 clients expected to be taken in this year's draft. admits he is not sure which round Smallwood will end up being taken in or the role that 5.01 40 will play come draft time.

"I think it (the slow 40 time) does in the media’s eyes because they need a lot of stuff to report about, they come out with mock drafts in mid January and do six more," Villani said. "It is weird because they say that the 40 doesn’t matter and it always ends up mattering, then when the draft happens you will find out."

The draft begins Thursday night with the first round. The second and third rounds will be held on Friday with rounds 4-7 conducted on Saturday.

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