According to most National Football League draft observers, this year’s crop of prospects is deep with quality offensive and defensive linemen.
Among the offensive line candidates who have been showcasing their talents at the National Football Scouting Combine, which began in earnest Thursday and wraps up on Tuesday, the spotlight has been on the offensive tackles. Offensive left tackles in particular.
It’s a deep and talented group, led by Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher, Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson and Florida State’s Menelik Watson. Prior to the start of the combine, Joeckel has been mentioned as a candidate to be the first player taken in this year’s draft.
But there’s been a couple of small school prospects – Arkansas Pine Bluff’s Terron Armstead and Azusa Pacific’s Luke Marquardt – that have grabbed the attention of coaches and scouts the last couple of days.
Armstead, who stands in at 6-foot-5 and 304 pounds, set a combine record for offensive linemen Saturday morning by running a blistering 4.71 40-yard dash. He had an unofficial time of 4.65 on his first run of the day.
His play last fall had already forced scouts and league player personnel executives to take a longer look. His performance this week, particularly on Saturday, so impressed NFL Network’s Mike Mayock that he has Armstead as the quickest ascending player thus far at the combine. Mayock added that Armstead played well in last month's East-West Shrine Game.
And then there’s Marquardt, who also has been projected as a possible NFL offensive guard. A former basketball walk-on in college who did not play football in high school, he certainly has the size (6-8,315) to intrigue teams at the next level.
He’s the biggest offensive tackle prospect at the combine. Marquardt, who’s mother played college basketball at the University of Washington, also has 341⁄2–inch arms and topped out at 31 reps on the bench press. He also has respectable speed for a big man.
That’s the good news. What concerns coaches and scouts is his relative lack of football experience. Of his 34 total games during a college career that lasted just over two seasons, four were as a tight end.
“I don’t view [his lack of experience] as a challenge. [But] it’s definitely something I’m going to have to overcome,” Marquardt said during a meeting with the league’s media late last week. “Coaches and teams have recognized my talent and natural ability. I feel like this is only the beginning. I’m just going to keep striving forward.”
How he came to play football is an interesting story in itself.
“I came there [Azusa Pacific] originally for basketball as a walk-on and the head coach wasn’t there for the day. I came down and just by chance we were talking by the [football] coaches locker. I deiced to go meet him just by chance and he talked with me,” Marquardt recalled.
“He was like ‘You have great size, great athleticism and we’d love to have you come out for tight end.’ So I went out on the field, did a couple of [pass] routes, threw with the quarterbacks and they offered me a little but of [scholarship] money. I eventually got a full ride.”
His attributes a lot of success on the football field to the time he spent playing basketball.
“It’s been huge. I’ve always been told [that] I have great feet. And I think that does come from basketball. I played that growing up,” Marquardt said. “I was a late bloomer in high school. I was 6-1 as a freshman and I grew to be 6-8 by my senior year. [But] I was a lot skinner back then.”
One thing that has helped his stock with NFL teams is that his offensive line coach the past two seasons at Azusa Pacific was former Los Angeles Rams Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jackie Slater.
“It’s been incredible. He’s improved my game in every aspect. He’s been great,” Marquardt said.
Prior to playing football at the collegiate level, his only other experience in the game came as a youngster. But he gave it up when he went to high school.
“I felt like I had more of a body type for basketball. I was a lot skinner and felt that basketball was a better choice,” Marquardt explained, adding that he is looking his lack of football experience as a positive rather than a negative.
“I feel like the passion for football has just now started. It’s the beginning. It’s only going to rise.”
NFL teams like what they see. He has talked to representatives from 25 of the league’s 32 franchises. And he has had private chats with officials from New England and Indianapolis.
“It’s been exciting. I met with the Patriots the other day and [New England coach Bill] Belichick is just sitting right there casually,” Marquardt remembered. “It’s like, ‘Holy Cow, it’s Belichick.’ But it’s been cool.”
By the way, the last Azusa Pacific football product that created this much NFL buzz? Running back Christian Okoye in 1987.
• Jones was Colts fan — Alabama center Barrett Jones admits that he grew up in Tennessee as a fan of the Indianapolis Colts.
And his favorite centers? How about the recently retired tandem of Jeff Saturday and Matt Birk.
Not a bad way to catch the attention, if he hadn’t already,of the NFL team that plays their games at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Jones has attracted attention from NFL scouts for his ability to play all three offensive line positions. After beginning his collegiate career at offensive tackle, he made the switch to center prior to last season. League teams have also projected him as a possible offensive guard candidate.
“I’ve heard different things [where he will end up playing]. Most of the [teams] have [him] probably [playing] center. But I’ll play wherever,” he said last week. “I felt the most comfortable where I [have] played the least.
“If you asked me last year, I would have been most comfortable at left tackle. Right now, I’m definitely most comfortable at center. I really like [playing] center because I enjoy the mental part of it. It’s the most mentally challenging offensive line position. Just to be honest, I’m kind of a control freak. I like that aspect, to be in control, and kind of point out to people their assignments.”
Jones won’t be going through much on field work during the combine. He incurred a lis franc injury to his left foot last season and recently underwent surgery. Jones is still wearing a walking boot.
“I’m still not back for a few months,” he pointed out, adding that it usually takes about four months to recover from the medical procedure. Jones had surgery six weeks ago.
“You’ve got to realize you can’t control [the timetable for his recovery]. I can’t control that I was hurt. I just have to focus on the things I can control. That’s [to] interview well and doing all the little things right.”
He’s counting on his career at Alabama to show scouts enough of his talents and his versatility.
“I hope I have a lot of game film, maybe not at center, but at different positions. I feel like I’m intelligent. I know how to study the game well [and I] make very few mental errors. That’s what separates me apart,” Jones said.
“When you play a lot of positions, it allows you to learn the offense from different perspectives. You stop memorizing the offense and start understanding it. That’s the biggest reason playing center mentally wasn’t that big a challenge. I understood the offense and what we were trying to accomplish.”