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Character questions on center stage at NFL combine

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February 26, 2014 | Leave Comment

INDIANAPOLIS — Colt Lyerla came to the NFL scouting combine with more to prove than just about anyone else.

Not on the field, off of it.

Two months after the former Oregon tight end pleaded guilty to cocaine possession, he was answering questions in Indianapolis about why his life went astray and trying to convince league scouts that his troubled days are over.

“I’d say that I’ve put myself in a position where my back’s against the wall, to a point that if I don’t do everything perfect and the right way, that I won’t be able to play football, let alone be successful in any shape or form,” Lyerla told reporters with a stone-faced expression.

Convincing coaches and team officials that he’s changed may be the most important part of the draft process for Lyerla, and history shows the wrong answers could seriously damage his pro prospects.

Teams routinely claim they remove college players from their draft boards for serious character flaws. It came up again after former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested last summer.

Da’Rick Rogers showed up at last year’s combine with the size and stats scouts covet. But after admitting he was booted off the team at Tennessee because of multiple failed drug tests, Rogers wound up signing with Buffalo as an undrafted rookie, and then was cut and landed on the Colts’ practice squad before finally making an active roster.

Now it’s Lyerla’s turn. While he measured in at 6-foot-4, 242 pounds and turned in an impressive time of 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Lyerla must now show he’s a different guy than the one some have branded as overly emotional and prone to outbursts.

It matters to teams, which have spent lots of time and money delving into player backgrounds, so they know what they’re really getting on draft weekend.

“We tended to separate the stories from the facts. I think that’s important for readers and spectators and fans to recognize — what may be a hot media story may not be an issue to the teams,” longtime NFL executive Bill Polian said. “When we found out what happened with Manti Te’o, it was no longer an issue.”

This year’s biggest question marks include players who were suspended by coaches for Twitter posts, players who publicly castigated fans, drug-related suspensions, arrests, one player who punched a teammate, and one accused of helping to cover-up an alleged rape after the fact.

How players and agents handle the weekend’s questions depends on the strategy — and the nature of the issue.

George Atkinson, a running back who was suspended for Notre Dame’s bowl game, and Lyerla walked into the media room and responded to the more difficult questions with blunt answers.

Lyerla told reporters the key to staying on track was avoiding people who could be bad influences. Atkinson said he was “stupid” for continuing a phone conversation during a team meal even after coach Brian Kelly asked him to end the call.

Linebacker Max Bullough, the former Michigan State star, showed up but repeatedly refused to answer questions about his Rose Bowl suspension, choosing instead to say NFL teams already knew the answer.

Former Vanderbilt receiver Chris Boyd, who was kicked off the team for his alleged role in the cover-up, didn’t show up in the media room.

And after Walter Powell acknowledged teams were asking about his reported October arrest for fourth-degree assault and unlawful theft, charges that were later dropped when a grand jury failed to indict, the Murray State receiver was asked what he had learned from the situation.

“I just learned to overcome adversity, and also just pick women right,” he said.

The issue of drug use is becoming more complicated in light of states like Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana and others considering or already legalizing medical marijuana.

So will it hurt former University of Miami offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson now that he’s acknowledged his college suspensions were related to marijuana use? Perhaps.

“I will say this, there has been a tendency in the public mind to look upon marijuana more leniently. I’m not sure that’s true of clubs,” said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “My experience with people is that the performance of those who use marijuana on a regular basis, as reported on verified official tests, has not been good. In fact, it’s been abysmal. So I haven’t bought into the fact that it’s harmless.”

Lyerla insists that after meeting with his family, serving one night in jail, nine more days on a road crew and pondering a life without football, he’s cleaned up and removed the bad influences from his life.

All he has to do now is prove it.

“As much as I hate to say it, I think some of the mishaps that happened and me getting in trouble probably is the best thing that’s happened to me,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for me is just to be honest and to show remorse, where remorse is due, and just do my best to prove that I’ve changed and I’m changing and I’ve matured since I made those mistakes.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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