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Indianapolis Colts practice squad quarterback Chandler Harnish calls the NFL Combine one of the most intense, memorable experiences of his football career. And he'd never want to go through it again.
The mental strain easily tops the physical strain. The pressure is on everyone, but especially those players who aren't sure-thing picks.
Harnish has special insight into what's going through the minds of Ball State's Keith Wenning and Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch this week as they head to the Combine on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Like Harnish, both are products of the Mid-American Conference. Lynch is a good friend of Harnish, since they were Northern Illinois teammates. Wenning and Lynch have been training together in Indianapolis the last three weeks.
Harnish can tell them what lies ahead, and what they have to do to make inroads with the NFL scouts.
“Going to the Combine in itself can be a very stressful thing, but when you go as a MAC quarterback, you're fighting uphill,” Harnish said. “You've already played against lesser competition. With all due respect to the people in the MAC, it's not the same as competing in the Big Ten, the SEC or the Big 12.
“You have to prove yourself extra in all you do,” he said. “Throwing, interviews, testing – everything you do you have to stand out and you have to be different. I was just talking with Jordan Lynch and giving him every hint and secret that I learned.”
The goal is to make enough of an impression to leave an NFL coach or general manager willing to consider taking a chance with a mid- to late-round draft pick or free agent signing. There are examples of MAC quarterbacks hitting the big time as starters, such as the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. But most are like Harnish, who was picked last by the Colts and has spent two seasons with the practice squad.
It's a foot in the door, and something that Harnish, the former Norwell High School star, helped establish at the Combine.
Wenning and Lynch enter the Combine with similar resumes to Harnish's when he competed in February 2012. Wenning's size (6-foot-2, 219 pounds) is identical to Harnish two years ago. Lynch is 6-foot, 220.
Wenning threw for 4,148 yards, 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his final college season. Lynch threw for 2,892 with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions and ran for 1,920 yards and 23 touchdowns. As a senior, Harnish threw for 3,216 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions and rushed for 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns.
College numbers, of course, are all but erased in NFL scouts' minds as they test the potential draft picks physical and mental abilities at the Combine.
Quarterbacks report to the Combine on Thursday, go through interviews and medical tests on Thursday and Friday, interviews and strength tests on Saturday and on-field workouts Sunday.
“There's no doubt the mental stress is more,” Harnish said. “It's a night and day difference to the physical stress. At that point, physically, you've been training and dieting and all that kind of stuff and your body's in peak performance mode. The physical part's the easy part."
The mental part includes sitting down and meeting with coaches, coordinators and general managers and taking the Wonderlic test.
Harnish said the sessions with the coaches and coordinators often resemble what fans see on ESPN's popular show with former coach and current analyst Jon Gruden's “Gruden's QB Camp.”
“Exactly what he does is what we get asked from coaches,” Harnish said. “ 'What's your favorite play? What would you do with this shift in coverage? You made a bad throw here, what was your mistake?'
“They test your football acumen and then have you problem-solve to see how you answer questions. You have to be confident and look people in the eyes. They're looking at all kind of non-verbal cues, too.”
Harnish said he has no regrets about his performance at the Combine – he was also a “throwing quarterback” with other positions in drills – but said there were areas he could have performed better.
“Hindsight being 20/20, I probably wasn't as football intelligent as I thought,” he said. “I probably had too much ego in that, thinking I'd played quarterback such a long time. I could have studied harder and been more prepared.
“When you play in college and go to the NFL, the complexity of the game picks up so much,” Harnish continued. “There's more drop-back passing in the NFL and it's about knowing coverages and blitzes and fronts, and that's probably where I failed a little bit. I wasn't asked to know those things in college, so it was a hurdle I had to jump on the mental side.”
In addition to NFL personnel peppering quarterbacks with questions and scenarios, scouting takes place beyond the formal interviews. Evaluations of all sort are underway, overt and covert, during the Combine's time.
“Four days there, you are on what I call Alert Code Red,” Harnish said. Someone is always watching you, whether it's a scout, staff, coach, GM, owner. You always have to be on your A-game. If you live a high-integrity life with high character, it's no issue and both of those guys (Wenning and Lynch) do, so that's not a problem. It becomes a case of, 'How can I set myself apart?' ”
Perhaps the toughest part of the Combine is that NFL teams won't necessarily show their hands about whether they have an interest in drafting a player or potentially signing them as an undrafted free agent.
“Of all the teams I talked to, I would have said the Colts would be the last to pick me,” Harnish said. “You never know who's serious and who's not. I had no idea, absolutely no clue. After taking Andrew (Luck with the No.1 pick), who thought the Colts would draft another quarterback?”