March 14, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Georgia Tech’s Pro Day was different things for different people Friday, when 11 former Yellow Jackets kept chasing their dreams of playing more football.
On one hand, Shaq Mason took advantage of a chance to show his wares and convince NFL scouts that he can play a different position, center, than the guard spot where he was All-America for Tech. He’s a lock to be drafted next month.
On the other, Zach Laskey hopes to enter “The League” through a side door perhaps opened by Mason.
The former Tech B-back (fullback) is hoping that the presence of representatives from all 32 NFL teams who came chiefly to see and speak with Mason and wide receiver Darren Waller will work to land his name on some NFL lists.
“It was a ticket for me to get my name out there a little more,” said Laskey, who rushed for 851 yards and nine touchdowns last fall despite missing three-plus games because of injury.
Safety Isaiah Johnson, running back Synjyn Days, linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, punter Sean Poole and wide receiver DeAndre Smelter were present from last fall’s team, although Smelter did nothing physical. He’s rehabbing from knee surgery.
NFL scouts watched, and in some cases took video of, the former Jackets in a variety of activities in the Brock Football Facility, including the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, 225-pound bench press and short shuttles. Backs and receivers also ran pass routes, and caught balls.
Smelter and Waller were the only Jackets invited to last month’s NFL Scouting Combine, in Indianapolis, and on Friday Waller participated only in route running.
He caught a modest 51 passes while at Tech, including 26 as a senior last fall, yet scouts realize that the Jackets do not throw often. They’re more interested in something Waller has that NFL coaches can’t teach: size.
At 6-feet-5 and 245 pounds or so, some NFL teams have spoken with him about possibly playing tight end at the next level.
That would be fine by Darren, who focused Friday on route running because he was content with the way he drilled at the Combine.
After spending time working on his “weakness” at Fisher Sports in Arizona, his goal was to show improvement.
“I’ve heard [about playing] wide receiver, tight end, a Y receiver flexed out. I’m open to anything,” he said. “I came in from high school, [where] I played safety. That’s not a thing with me; I just love playing ball. Any way I can help a team out.
“I was focused a whole lot on route running, just the little nuances: how fast I could come out of breaks, how fast I could snap my eyes around . . . I was working more on the track going into the Combine. I figured today I would focus on something they say I need the most improvement in.”
Tech head coach Paul Johnson was there for something of a bittersweet event.
“[For] a lot of these guys it’s been a lifelong dream to have this opportunity so I’m happy for them,” he said. “It’s exciting and then it hits home that you’ve lost these guys and they’re not playing next year. So it’s a little scary, too.”
Smith, who last played for the Jackets in 2012, went undrafted in ’13, spent time in spring practice with the Green Bay Packers and worked out on two occasions for the Seattle Seahawks – once as a running back and once as a wide receiver.
Other NFL teams inquired. His speed is like Waller’s height – not teachable.
Presently a revenue analyst for the city of Phenix City, Ala., he said he’ll probably keep chasing the football dream, “for about one more year.”
He’s not counting on it. He’s working for a living, and not working out so much to be a football player. Still, he has those wheels. He ran the 40 in the low 4.5s (scouts’ timers differ slightly).
“I know I could run low 4.4s,” he said. “But I’m a full-time father now, and I work.”
Days, who blossomed late last season when Laskey was injured, wanted to show that just because he didn’t catch the ball much for the Jackets that doesn’t mean he can’t catch.
“I’m pretty satisfied with the times I’ve been told. I’m looking forward to getting calls from teams to come in for workouts,” he said. “One of the critiques was teams were not sure if I could catch the ball. I feel like I did a good job out there.”
Mason’s looking for a job with an open mind.
At 6-1+ and 300-plus pounds, he doesn’t seem bothered that NFL types are quizzing him about playing center even though he was a guard throughout college. Size-wise, his profile translates to the middle of the line.
“I loved every moment of it. It’s a blessing to be able to come out here and show your skills; just seizing the moment,” he reported. “Every team has [talked to him about the center spot]. I’m going to say height is the biggest thing. I feel comfortable at both positions.”
Mason needs eight more hours to graduate, but is not enrolled this semester.
Laskey, who will graduate in May with a degree in History, Technology and Science with a certificate in Marketing, has been busy with his last two classes and working out at Explosive Mechanics, a training center in Peachtree City, with the goal of gaining employment in the same industry as Mason.
“I started out running mid 4.7s,” he said of his 40-yard dash. “I think [Friday] some people had me in a low 4.5. My vert[ical jump] went from 32 to 35.
“I see myself as a third-down back. I have pretty good hands. I’m a bigger guy so I could help pick up blitzes, chip the rushers and get out in the flats. I’ve been telling people I’m versatile.”
Laskey and others hope that the scouts showing up primarily to see Mason and Waller will work for them as it worked last year for former Jacket linebacker Brandon Watts.
A slew of scouts showed up at Tech’s Pro Day ’14 chiefly to evaluate pass-rushing specialist Jeremiah Attaochu, and they saw Watts as well.
He was drafted in the seventh round by the Vikings, and now has a well-paying job in pro football in Minnesota after missing last year’s combine because he separated a shoulder in practices for the NFLPA All-Star game a month earlier.
Watts was at Friday’s Pro Day, as were former Tech standouts-turned NFL/CFL players Demaryius Thomas, Cord Howard, Mike Cox and more than a dozen returning Jackets – as spectators. Cox is enrolled at Tech this semester, working with the football team.
“All 32 teams came to see Jeremiah, and we worked together, so it gave me some notoriety,” Watts said. “I was nicked up so I missed my Combine invite.”
Laskey’s looking for a similar result.
“There were a lot of scouts,” he said. “I got to thank them [Mason and Waller] for getting them out there.”