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Former Wisconsin standouts talk pro day, preparing for the NFL

Ahead of Wednesday’s pro day, a number of now-former Badgers open up about getting ready for the next level.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Six former Wisconsin Badgers made the trek to Indianapolis just over a week ago. Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and cornerback Sojourn Shelton performed at the NFL Scouting Combine to showcase their talents in front of scouts and personnel.

Other former Badgers eligible for the event weren’t as fortunate, but their journeys and dreams to play at the next level all converge on Wednesday. Quarterback Bart Houston, wide receiver Robert Wheelwright and safety Leo Musso, among others, have their shot to impress personnel and scouts at Wisconsin’s pro day in the McClain Center.

Along with Houston, Wheelwright and Musso—all starters who were part of the winningest class in program history—tight end Eric Steffes, long snapper Connor Udelhoven and defensive back Serge Trezy will participate in the day’s event, normally attended by many NFL teams. Joining them in Madison will be the six other Wisconsin players who worked out in Indianapolis (though not all will run every drill), along with UW-Platteville wide receiver Dan Arnold and Lakeland’s Kezlow Smith.

For those like Houston and Wheelwright, their paths to pro day were similar to the experience that Biegel, Clement and Ogunbowale had in participating in a senior all-star game.

Houston spent a couple of days back home in California with his family after Wisconsin’s win over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl before making his way to Bedford, Texas, for the College Gridiron Showcase. Other Big Ten notables who participated in the early-January event included wide receivers Zach Grant (Illinois), Ricky Jones, Jr. (Indiana), Andre Patton (Rutgers), and a familiar foe in Minnesota’s Drew Wolitarsky.

“He was down there, and never in a million years you’d think, when I was a freshmen, didn’t think, oh I can’t wait to throw to this kid from Minnesota at the College Gridiron Showcase in five years,” Houston said with a laugh. “You don’t expect it, but it is good to meet a lot of athletes that are in the same process, especially rivals like Drew. It was a great experience—coaches were good, very helpful.”

In mid-February, he traveled down to Houston for an NFL Regional Combine. Unlike the January all-star event—which, on its website, boasted 12 quarterbacks—Houston was one of four signal callers at the regional event. Though a fast-paced event that was just a day rather than a three-to-four-day extravaganza in Indianapolis, he was able to show his skill set with plenty of reps.

Wheelwright went home to Columbus, Ohio, for some position work after the bowl win, training at D1 Sports Training before participating in NFLPA Collegiate Bowl activities in mid-January.

According to Wheelwright, who caught 34 receptions for 448 yards and one touchdown in 2016, he spoke to the majority of the teams in attendance, who were able to see him perform in one-on-one drills.

“I felt like I did a great job there and showcased my talent, especially for being at Wisconsin and not really being a deep-ball threat,” said Wheelwright. “I really showed I am versatile and can go deep when I was at that bowl, so I’ve received good feedback from that.”

Playing for the American squad, he was able to work with former NFL wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh as one of his position coaches.

“His biggest thing was just to run, to be able to play the game you’ve been playing for so long and simplify everything that you do out here,” said Wheelwright, who started for the American team and tied for the game high in receptions with three.

“Don’t try to overthink things because once you get to think and overthinking, that’s when you tend to make the most mistakes. So if you come out here and have fun and play the game like you know you played it for so long like little-league football, everything else will fall in place and it will come easy for you.”

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Coming back to Wisconsin to train

While some like Watt, Biegel and Ogunbowale trained somewhere south, a contingent of Badgers—Houston, Wheelwright, Shelton, Musso, Steffes, Trezy and Udelhoven—prepared for the combine drills with Wisconsin strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej.

According to Wheelwright and Houston, Kolodziej’s experience as both their training coach for the past two seasons and his time in the NFL was a key selling point.

Houston, who is still taking graduate classes at UW, likened the experiences to an Olympic athlete-type preparation.

“Every athlete is different,” Houston said, “but he really can give that personal touch to each of us individual guys.”

“You’re not just running gassers or just running drills against your other teammates,” Wheelwright said. “It was really a lot of technical stuff. Stuff that’s going to help you improve your times, like your 10 start, your 5-10-5s, just each and every day we pick one of those.

“He’d have it set up for us to just work on one or two things and there’s not a lot of reps. It’s high intensity while we’re doing it, but we might go two-10s or one half-start up the L-drill. It was really broken down each and every day. As we go, we would put more and more things together and it would fall in place.”

A long (snapping) road, less traveled

Udelhoven will participate in the combine drills on Wednesday and there are expected to be some NFL personnel wanting to see him exhibit the long-snapping duties that allowed him to play in 53 career games, one short of tying the school record with Biegel and Shelton this season.

Udelhoven could become yet another Wisconsin walk-on long-snapper like Mike Schneck and Matt Katula to make it in the NFL. Schneck earned a Pro Bowl berth and played 11 years in the league, while Katula played at the next level for seven years.

On National Signing Day, Wisconsin special teams coach Chris Haering complemented Udelhoven, noting in the two years since he’s been in Madison, his first-team specialist “didn’t have one bad snap, and that’s pretty unique.

The St. Paul, Minn., native credits Wisconsin’s pro-style punt setup in helping him prepare for the NFL, as he’s been working to get his head up and body back quickly into a blocking position after the snap while keeping his “punches” good.

“To put it up in a little bit of perspective, you never see the punter catch the ball,” Udelhoven said. “Once you see the ball to about seven to eight yards maybe max, and if you’re looking at the ball past that time, then you’re too slow getting up.”

Udelhoven, Wisconsin’s 2016 special teams player of the year, will attempt to impress scouts and earn workout opportunities with teams, but currently doesn’t have an agent. He received exposure, however, through the Kohl’s Kicking Pro Combine in Phoenix on Feb. 11-12.

According to Udelhoven, participants who qualified would be welcomed back for a YouTube live stream video session that could be viewed by teams and personnel. He was one of the six best long-snappers to make the finals that weekend.

“I guess that’s just nice having some exposure out there for yourself,” Udelhoven said, “and it was a great opportunity by Kohl’s to present us to get our name out there.”

[See the start of Udelhoven’s performance at the 49:46 mark.]

Goals

For Udelhoven, the objective is pretty clear-cut in a league where teams ideally keep only one long-snapper.

“I guess the immediate goal is just to perform well enough on pro day to be able to get an opportunity to have a private workout somewhere, have enough interest where they want you to get you on campus.”

Houston said the training has gone well with the group of former teammates as they encouraged each other and worked together. He has his strengths, notably the zip he provides on his throws and recently reducing that zip when working on touch passes, but he’s also worked to improve certain areas of growth.

Those include working on footwork related to pocket movement and throwing more on the run, especially to the left side of the field—a more difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback.

When asked how a quarterback prepares for a pro day, the signal caller looked at how teams will assess that quality.

“Throwing-wise, that’s the most important for me,” said Houston, who finished his senior season strong by completing over 68 percent of his passes with five touchdowns. “I just got to put the ball in the right place. Rob has been throwing with me, and we’ve gotten some good timing, great timing down.”

For Wheelwright, who caught 69 career passes in his time at Wisconsin, he has set his sights on the top five combine results of each drill. The 6’3, 211-pound wide receiver knows a breakout performance could show teams that he can be a sleeper or secret wide receiver in this class.

“I think coming out here and having a good showing and showing them that I’m able, I want them to have questions leaving,” Wheelwright said. “I want them to be like, ‘OK, so why didn’t that guy have a thousand yards?”

“I want them to look deeper at my film, and I know if I have a good showing, that’s the only thing they can do is look at the the film and restudy it and get to know me more, guessing if I’ll be a great fit for their team.”