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March 20, 2017

Surviving the Combine

Sukh Chungh remembers the stuff he has always been comfortable with, like lining up across from a defensive lineman and then battling mano-a-mano in football’s version of hand-to-hand combat.

He also remembers those particularly awkward moments, including having to strip down to his underwear to get weighed and having the eyes from all those movers and shakers in the Canadian Football League upon him.

Those who have experienced a pro football combine will insist there is nothing quite like it, from the pressure of performing in drills, the testing and the one-on-one battles to the nervousness that comes from the individual meetings with teams.

It’s often a last in-the-flesh look at a prospect by CFL brass and therefore a final chance to make a good impression and seal the chance to have your name called out on draft day.

But the opposite can also be true. And that’s why so many who have been through a combine before – this week the league will hold both a Western and National Combine – speak of simply surviving the process.

Bluebombers.com spoke recently with three Bombers who have been through – and survived – recent national combines. Taylor Loffler and Michael Couture participated in last year’s event, impressing enough to be selected by the Bombers with two of their top three picks (Trent Corney was the other).

And Chungh was the club’s second-overall selection in 2015 and he immediately stepped into the starting lineup that summer.

Here are their thoughts on the ins and outs of the combine…

 Michael Couture

A big-picture take on the whole combine experience:

Chungh: “It’s definitely a strange process. You’re getting evaluated on everything… the testing, your football IQ… everything. Leading up to the CFL combine, I had a chance to do two combines down south, one in Chicago and then another in Arizona. But I had no interviews in those. The CFL combines with the one-on-one drills, the testing and the interviews makes it a different process, for sure.”

Loffler: “By the time you get there you’ve been working out like crazy since the end of your season. So physically you’re prepared. The combine is all a mental game. You’re walking out in your tights, you’re getting weighed, they do things like measuring your vertical with all the teams there watching you.

“Physically you should be prepared. But, again, you have to be mentally sharp. That’s the biggest thing. You might not do one thing as well as you thought, but you have to let it go because you can’t let that one thing mess up everything.”

Couture: “It was an amazing experience for me. I worked so hard from the end of my season to that weekend and to be able to show off what I could do to the nine teams in the league was a very exciting process for me.

“You can get a feel for how many people are watching you, no more than when you head out to do your height and weight wearing only compression shorts. Every CFL staff member is out there with their clipboards… that was the moment where I’m going ‘Holy smokes! This is surreal.’”


 

The interview period (each team is allowed to interview prospects for 15 minutes, max. Some players meet with all nine teams, others have none).

Loffler: “That’s one of the biggest things. Going into the actual event you know what you’re going to do in the testing. But the interviews? There are different questions that can be asked and you have to be ready for anything when you go in there.

“I got a few questions on my injuries. But more of it was on questions like whether I was willing to move away and about football. I never really got any weird questions, but I heard other guys got some weird questions. Guys were asked about their girlfriends and other things that weren’t really related to football.”

Couture: “I had eight interviews last year. Saskatchewan was the only team that didn’t interview me. It was definitely interesting. The process got easier for me with every single interview I did. I had B.C. for my first interview and I was a nervous wreck for that. I forget who I had for my last one, but it was a breeze. It was just about being honest with them, more than anything.

“I didn’t get any crazy questions, but talking to the other prospects over the three-day weekend I definitely heard some interesting questions that were being asked. Guys were being asked about girlfriends or ‘extra-cirricular activities.’ It’s almost like the questions are asked to make the guys uncomfortable and see how they’d react. I’m just glad I didn’t have any of them.”

Chungh: “It’s hard to prep for the interview because you have no clue what they’re going to ask or what you might be evaluated on. In some interviews there was some ‘chalk talk’ and Xs and Os. In others, you’re just talking to the head coach. It’s a different process and it can be intimidating. I remember going to the CFL combine and doing six interviews in a day… it’s intimidating being across from six different head coaches. In the interviews I think you just have to be yourself through the whole process.”


Trent Corney (43) and Jace Daniels (59) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the pre-season game at TD Place in Ottawa, ON on Monday June 13, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

The testing. Teams do a number of drills and tests, from 40-yard times to bench-press (225 pounds) reps, to vertical leaps to standing broad jump. Every player is asked to be tested in each event/category although some chose to pass because of injury.

Chungh: “There’s a process at the combine where you strip down to your boxers, you go on stage and they’re staring at you and evaluating your body composition. It’s different.

“You’re just a guy wearing a number and you hope that in your testing something – whether it’s your bench press or the one-on-ones – stands out to one of the coaches. All you can do is try your hardest.

“Something like the vertical for an O-lineman? It’s all part of the numbers with the broad jump, the 40, the bench press… it’s just them measuring your athleticism. But as an O-lineman, I don’t think you’re going to be showing off your vertical in a game unless you’re jumping over somebody.”

Couture: “I prepared for every test. Bench press, for an offensive lineman, is probably the most important. No team asked me in their interviews what my 40 time was going to be. But eight of the eight teams I was interviewed by asked me how many reps I was going to get on bench.

“That was one of the more exciting ones for me. I wasn’t going to over-shoot what I was going to bench, but I told all the teams I was going to get around 24 and that’s exactly what I got. There was a lot of motivation for that one because all I heard before the draft was that I was under-sized and that I needed to put on weight. So, for me to go in there and put up the number I did… I was very happy.

“The other stuff like the shuttle and the ‘L drill’… a lot of coaches call it the ‘Underwear Olympics.’ I’m not sure it’s a true tell of what we can do as athletes. But you have to go through it.”

Loffler: “I didn’t mind going through all that stuff. They’re looking to see what kind of athlete you are up close and it’s all part of the process. But I couldn’t wait to get my gear on. I find it interesting. I’ll be going back to Regina for that week and will be going to watch this year’s testing.”


 

The on-field component: the one-on-ones. Defensive backs vs. receivers, O-linemen vs. D-linemen, etc.

Loffler: “In the receiver versus DBs one-on-ones it’s not anything realistic. You have the entire field to work with in one-on-ones compared to an actual game where you have an idea of where they’re (receivers) going to run because of spacing. I think it’s weird they have that at the combine. I did a pro day and a regional combine in the U.S. and you don’t do one-on-ones. I understand it; it’s so the teams can view you. But wearing pads and not being able to really do full contact… that was interesting.”

Chungh: “Yeah, the receivers vs. the DBs one-on-ones… that’s not realistic for the coaches. But it’s good for them to see if you have an athlete on the field.

“The O-line vs. D-line one-on-ones is different… you’re going to have to do those every day when you practice at the collegiate level or at the professional level. I enjoyed that process. That’s a time to stand out and it’s very relative to what you will be doing as a professional athlete as well. In the interview process, I was nervous. But during the testing and then when I got to put the helmet and shoulder pads on, that’s when I felt most comfortable.”

Couture: “I had a little bit of nerves going into the one-on-ones because I played Division II football in my college career (at Simon Fraser) and there was no yard off the ball. I mean, it’s the same game but that’s different.

“But putting the helmet on was awesome. That’s what we do, right?”


Michael Couture

And when the whole process was complete…

Chungh: “When it was done and I was packing my bags all I could think about was going home to continue training to get ready for the season. It was such a big relief to have off my shoulders and have done. I mean, right now I’m training for the season, not for a combine. There’s a big difference.”

Loffler: “I was definitely happy when it was over because I had good numbers and my interviews went well. But it’s crazy how pretty much everything you do, from the interviews to the testing, is all judged.

“It was fun to do it. And I was happy when it was over, too.”

Couture: “It was a relief when it was over. So much time and energy was put into those three days at the combine. The build-up was stressful and I had a great experience doing it, but once it was over I was able to take a couple of days off and then get back into the football start of it.

“And then you start waiting for the draft. That’s a whole other process seeing all the mock drafts and getting phone calls… you have to put your blinders on then and stick to what’s important.”