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Leistikow: With no pro day, non-Combine players such as Iowa's Kristian Welch scramble for NFL shot

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

One big reason that the 2020 NFL Draft will power on as scheduled: Because, for one week at the end of February, 337 of the nation’s top football prospects, national media and representatives from all 32 NFL teams converged in downtown Indianapolis.

The NFL Scouting Combine was completed March 1, less than two weeks before the COVID-19 global pandemic brought an indefinite end to organized sports in America. Just under the wire, NFL executives and decision-makers were able to make in-person evaluations — with both physical tests and one-on-one interviews — before being quarantined to their home offices in advance of the three-day draft that begins Thursday.

You could argue the NFL benefited from good fortune, as did many prospects who were invited to Indianapolis.

Kristian Welch was in impact middle linebacker for the Hawkeyes in 2019. He wound up with a team-high 87 tackles (including nine for losses) despite missing three-plus games with a stinger injury.

But for so many others, the timing was disastrous. NFL-hopeful players who were not invited to the Combine have historically relied on their college's pro day to get noticed. That’s the big day each one of these guys banks on; the few hours to get an audience of in-person NFL scouts and show what they can do.

But as pro days across the country were canceled, a large swath of prospects felt left behind.

Iowa linebacker Kristian Welch is one of those prospects.

“Not being able to get in front of coaches and scouts so they can see me do position work and other drills hurts their potential outlook on me,” Welch said. “I am in the best shape of my life, and I think that would have truly showed at pro day.”

Imagine building toward a single day with more than a decade of tireless work … and then having it disappear from the calendar. That’s what Welch grappled with when the heard the news while roaming the woods in search of shed deer antlers (a spring activity he enjoys).

“I was extremely upset and just took a while to reflect,” Welch said. “I am not one to feel sorry for myself, so I picked myself up and told myself to stay positive.

“We always talk about in football, ‘control what you can control.’ And that’s what I am trying to do during these trying times.”

Welch certainly wasn’t alone in his disappointment. He thinks unheralded Hawkeye teammates such as Wes Dvorak, Brady Ross and Devonte Young were among those who would have impressed scouts on pro day, much like so many past Iowa players have. (Wide receiver Riley McCarron’s 4.36-second 40-yard dash in 2017 helped launch him onto the practice squad for the New England Patriots during back-to-back Super Bowl runs; Ben Niemann’s 4.6 in the 40 in Iowa’s 2018 pro day helped the linebacker earn a path to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played a prominent role in February's Super Bowl win.)

Welch thinks that he was primed to wow the scouts at pro day. After two-plus months work in Iowa City after the Holiday Bowl, he was clocking personal-best times of 3.89 seconds in the pro-agility drill and 6.58 in the three-cone drill. At the NFL Combine, none of the 18 linebackers who tested were below 6.83 in the three-cone.

“The numbers that I would have been able to put on display at pro day,” Welch said, “would have separated me from a lot of guys at my position.”

Back to controlling what he can control: In his hometown of Iola, Wisconsin (population 1,300), Welch — with the help of his father — created a 98-second video of drills he would’ve performed on pro day. The video, which Welch (currently 6-foot-3, 240 pounds) shared with the Register, was filmed on a 40-degree day and highlights his change-of-direction movement, leg drive and closing speed.

Those who closely followed Iowa’s 2019 season understand how valuable Welch was to the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense. He was a smart, physical middle linebacker who led the Hawkeyes in tackles (87) despite missing 3½ games with a stinger injury. 

His agent, Ryan Hays, has fielded significant interest in Welch. Even though he was not among the five Hawkeyes invited to the Combine (Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa, Michael Ojemudia, Nate Stanley and Geno Stone), it’s possible he could be drafted.

Welch thinks that one personal positive of the distant evaluations created by COVID-19 is Iowa’s reputation under Kirk Ferentz of producing NFL-ready players.

“I think there are enough NFL Hawks out there right now for coaches and scouts to understand what it means," Welch said, "when you get an Iowa guy on their roster."

Welch projects as an inside linebacker in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme and is selling himself as an all-phases player on special teams, a key attribute teams looks for with rosters limited to 53 players overall and 46 on gamedays.

“I think I have the entire skill set that any NFL team would look for in an inside linebacker,” Welch said. “Range, athleticism, physicality, speed.”

Welch should know his next step by Saturday evening, when the last of 255 NFL Draft picks are made and undrafted free agents can be signed. Until then, he — like so many others who didn’t get a pro day or in-person meetings with scouts — wait out the final moments of their unexpected, unusual offseason of uncertainty.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.