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Former Badgers try to impress NFL scouts during pro day

MADISON, Wis. -- Alex Erickson was a first-team All-Big Ten selection who caught more passes than every receiver in the league but one last season. He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month.

Michael Caputo earned second-team all-conference honors for a second straight season and was the unquestioned leader of Wisconsin's secondary. He, too, did not receive a combine invitation.

Tanner McEvoy recorded six interceptions, second in the Big Ten behind only Thorpe Award winner Desmond King from Iowa. Again, no invite. The same goes for former Badgers cornerback Darius Hillary and fullback Derek Watt.

Several seniors and multi-year starters from the nucleus that helped Wisconsin to a 10-3 season and a victory against USC in the Holiday Bowl arrived at the McClain Center on Wednesday morning with something to prove. They were there for Wisconsin's pro day, to show NFL scouts they deserved an opportunity to continue their football careers at the highest level. For some, it may have been a final shot to wow members of NFL teams in person.

"I guess it is stressful," McEvoy said. "It kind of comes down to this day where you have to really perform. If you fall a few times, then the next thing you know, your times aren't what you thought you could run, it could really hurt you. So I mean, there's definitely stress."

College productivity does not necessarily guarantee every evaluator will see pro potential. Although there were 332 prospects invited to the NFL combine, only three were from Wisconsin -- quarterback Joel Stave, linebacker Joe Schobert and left tackle Tyler Marz. The Badgers' three participants ranked eighth among Big Ten teams, behind Ohio State (14), Michigan State (seven), Penn State (five), Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and Nebraska (four apiece).

The goal Wednesday for many non-invites was to turn enough heads with a strong 40-yard dash or three-cone drill time to warrant serious consideration as a mid- to late-round NFL draft pick or a post-draft free-agency spot. There were 31 NFL staffers on hand representing 26 teams, plus scouts from Winnipeg and Ottawa of the Canadian Football League. Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien attended, as did Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson.

Caputo was perhaps the most notable combine snub for the Badgers; he'd earned defensive MVP honors in the East-West Shrine Game in January, intercepting two passes to help lead his West team to a 29-9 victory. On Wednesday, he tied with Schobert for the best vertical jump among the participants, at 35 1/2 inches.

"I was going to come out and do what I could from the get-go," said Caputo, who appeared in 53 college games and made 40 starts. "I already have an edge. Not getting invited to the combine didn't give me any more of an edge. I just came out here and wanted to do well."

McEvoy played both safety and wide receiver last season and said NFL teams were evaluating him to play either position. He participated in receiver drills during pro day and also played the position at the College Gridiron Showcase.

Erickson may have helped his stock the most. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash time, 4.44 seconds, and registered the fastest pro agility, three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle times among participating Badgers players.

His three-cone drill time of 6.65 seconds would have tied for the fifth-fastest time at the NFL combine with Ohio State's Braxton Miller. His 60-yard shuttle time (10.94 seconds) would have tied for fourth overall, and his 20-yard pro agility shuttle drill time (3.88 seconds) would have ranked second among all players and first among receivers.

Erickson caught 77 passes for 978 yards in 2015 but curiously was not invited to a single all-star showcase after his season ended. He spent his time leading up to the Badgers' pro day at Total Performance Training Center in Michigan.

"This was my one opportunity," Erickson said. "When you go to the combine and then pro day or the all-star games, you have more opportunities. I trained eight weeks for this two hours, three hours of work. There is pressure."

One other Badgers player whose stock appears to have risen is Stave, whose measurables at the combine were impressive compared to other quarterbacks. During pro day, he completed 50 of 55 passes in his routes on air session with receivers, which included three drops and two bad throws that resulted in incompletions.

Stave noted that since the season ended he has gained 15 pounds to build a sturdier base and upper body for the pros.

"Whether I get drafted or not, I'll get a shot with someone," he said. "And really that's all you can hope for. Then it's just a matter of what you do with that."

For other players, demonstrating versatility was a key to pro day. Watt, the younger brother of three-time NFL defensive MVP J.J. Watt, could be valuable as a fullback, an H-back or on special teams. He said he had even worked on his long-snapping skills to provide another avenue for him to see the field.

There certainly was no shortage of motivation Wednesday. But it also came with a healthy dose of perspective.

"At the end of the day, it's just a blessing for us to be able to come out here and perform for all these scouts," Hillary said. "A lot of the same guys that were there [at the combine] were here, so we got our chance to showcase our talents."