Sojourn Shelton knew at a young age that he wanted to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine. That’s a lofty goal many children have, emulating their football idols on Pop Warner fields and progressing to shine inside high school stadiums on Friday nights. Some are lucky enough to earn scholarships to Division I programs, a few even luckier to receive Power Five conference offers and play on the biggest stages in college football.
Shelton did just that for the Wisconsin Badgers, playing in 54 games, tied for the most in school history. They included 51 starts as part of some of the best defenses in recent memory for a senior class that was the winningest in Badgers history.
Earlier this winter, Shelton received that invite to what’s essentially a four-day long, often stressful job interview, but it validated the time and energy the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native spent honing his craft.
“When I finally got that email, I was pretty excited to see all that hard work that came together,” Shelton told B5Q on Feb. 24, “and I’d get a chance to be around all the NFL scouts and all the guys that are the best at my position.”
On Friday, Shelton flew out to Indianapolis to make the most of an opportunity most college football players work toward but never achieve, to impress the right people on a huge stage. All in hopes of making a long-standing dream to play in the NFL a reality.
Training extensively in the Midwest since his days as a Badger ended, Shelton boasts a combination of physical tools, confidence and drive that could turn some heads this weekend in Indianapolis.
Before the invite came, Shelton began preparation for the next level after a collegiate career in which he recorded nine interceptions, four of them coming in a senior campaign where he stymied opposing wide receivers and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors by the media.
Shelton trained four days a week with Wisconsin head strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej, starting a few days after the Badgers’ 24-16 victory over Western Michigan in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
Kolodziej, a former UW defensive lineman from 1997-2000 who played seven years in the NFL, noted players don’t necessarily run these drills often outside of the combine, their pro day or possibly as a street free agent in their first or second year trying out for NFL teams.
“Even with that being said, they’re very technical drills,” Kolodziej said on Friday, “and so we spend a lot more time specifically with those guys deconstructing the drill and breaking it down, and spending a lot of time on the start and the transitions and going over it on the field. Watching tape, filming them, watching them—so we spend a considerable amount of time on these drills versus, for us, for our objectives in winter conditioning, they’re a little bit different.”
Shelton decided to forego NFLPA Collegiate Bowl activities, opting to focus on taking care of a few areas such as improving his size and ensuring he was in “top shape” and ready for the chance to showcase his skills in early March. That included seeing a dietitian in Los Angeles to start eating healthier.
Wisconsin’s 2016 roster listed Shelton at 168 pounds. He told B5Q last Friday he weighed in at 181. On Saturday, he weighed 177 pounds. The nine to 13-pound increase should help squelch doubts from analysts and NFL personnel about his size.
Despite the rigorous training schedule, he also enlisted the help of former Minnesota All-American and NFL defensive back Tyrone Carter. The former Gophers standout runs TC Elite Training School, and Shelton would fly up to the Twin Cities on certain off days for position work.
“Everything’s just been fine-tuning at this point,” Shelton said about the position drill work which, according to the former ESPN four-star prep recruit, was about an hour-plus per session. “If you’re not familiar with some of the things already, then something’s not right.”
Carter played 11 years in the NFL after his Gophers career, winning two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now training the next generations of players, he praised the Wisconsin defensive back for what many have seen for most of his four years in cardinal and white.
“He’s a quick learner. His skill set is unreal, man, so you don’t have to do too much to help this kid,” Carter said on Monday after training Shelton about one day a week. “I’m all about fundamentals and getting him back to that. He’s already got a solid base, a solid foundation that he’s working with, and that’s helping him service him better, I think, already ahead of a lot of the kids that I train, getting ready for the combine or getting ready for the league. He’s got a nice base already, so all I do is just tweak that and give him the student part—what it takes for you to stay longer in this game.”
The former NFL defensive back believes Shelton’s experience at Wisconsin shaped him to be in the promising position he’s in, “preparing kids to maximize their potential.”
There were a couple of areas Carter worked on with Shelton, including “harping on his technique once he’s tired” in hopes of staying sound after being worn out during the course of a game.
Carter, who has trained current NFL players Marquies Gray and Ra’Shede Hageman, also guided him on pre-snap alignment to gather enough information before the ball is snapped. His drills are predicated on what’s going to happen in a route in a game, helping defensive backs like Shelton put his body in position with muscle memory, understand route recognition, formation tendencies and how the receiver is trying to get to his route. As the former defensive back noted, “to be that that elite, you got to take it a little farther and become a student of the game.”
“You got to understand what the offensive coordinator is trying to do,” Carter said, “and once you understand that, you can let your God-given ability just take over, and that’s what he has.
“Some kids don’t have that. He has that already. He’s fast, he’s quick. He can back pedal, he can break. His break is unreal for his age. He’s breaking on the ball, and I’m like, wow. It comes easy.”
The buzz around Shelton has sharpened in the past couple of weeks. Bleacher Report’s Michael Felder effusively declared on Feb. 25 that the corner is someone to watch in Indianapolis.
Keep your eyes peeled for DB Sojourn Shelton at the NFL Scouting Combine. When he's in coverage he's bulletproof to QBs. pic.twitter.com/Bt2INflftn— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 25, 2017
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin’s secondary coach and new defensive coordinator who also worked with Shelton on his technique, retweeted Felder’s message and added his two cents.
I'm so excited for this guy. He's ready for his opportunity and will make the most of it. https://t.co/b9TGkgLjPw— Jim Leonhard (@jimleonhard) February 25, 2017
The endorsements from Leonhard and Carter hold significant value, as the two combined for 21 years in the NFL. The former Gopher didn’t want to necessarily designate a role Shelton could fill in the NFL or limit his ability, but he believes Shelton is a “complete” cornerback who can play on the inside slot and the outside.
Shelton is listed at 5’9, as was Carter, with Leonhard an inch shorter. Both were highly productive playing on Sundays, and Carter says the Wisconsin product’s work ethic makes up for his lack of size.
“His drive and the way his confidence level is, shoot, I always say, ‘5’9 with a soul of a 6’4 cat.’ I see that in him, man,” Carter said. “The guy doesn’t waiver. He continues to grind. He continues to set the challenge. You look at him, when he’s playing the one-on-ones, playing in the games, he followed the best receiver every where they went, and it didn’t matter about no size or height. That cat played. He could jump, he’s fast, he’s aggressive at the line, so I don’t really see that height really playing a factor with this kid.”
The combine weigh-ins, the physicals, all the media and team interviews will take place this weekend. After that process is over, Shelton will finally showcase his skills on the field inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday with the rest of the defensive backs.
“We looked at all the data from the past few combines,” Kolodziej said, “and he’s got a chance to really—whether it’s some of his jumps or any of the sprints or the agility drills—he’s got a chance to be in the top-five conversation in many of those drills. I’m very excited to see how well he does this weekend.”
Shelton’s time to perform will come shortly. The eagerness and emotions are there, but he’s taking it all in stride.
“I am excited, but at the same time, it’ll happen when it happens,” Shelton said. “I don’t want to get overly excited or anything like that. I’m just ready for everything to kind of take off.
“Like I said, it’ll get here when it gets here.”