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The Four Horsemen saddle up for the NFL

BY CARL BIALIK AND DAVE GOLDENBRG

The Ivy League, as a non-scholarship Division I-AA conference, will never get the same attention from pro scouts as major Division I-A conferences. Running back Rashad Bartholomew, MC '01, thinks that's unfair. "I don't know why scouts focus on different levels so much," he said."The Ivy League is much closer to the SEC and the Big 10 than those conferences are to the pros. All college players play at a different level from the pros, so I don't see why it even matters."
COURTESY SPORTS PUBLICITY

Four Bulldog seniors—Bartholomew, receiver/punter Eric Johnson, JE '01, safety Than Merrill, JE '01, and cornerback Josh Phillips, MC '01—have faced this reality, however unfair, and have worked tirelessly since the close of the football season on marketing themselves and improving their vital stats."The scouts are obsessed with testing numbers," Head Football Coach Jack Siedlecki said. "Bad tests can really hurt an individual's chances. Peter Sarantos, [MC '00], did not run well for the pro coaches that came in and timed him last spring, and it killed his chances." (Sarantos recently signed a contract to play for the Baden Bruins of the European Pro Football League.) Johnson may suffer the same fate if he cannot lower his mediocre time in the 40-yard dash; he was most recently clocked at 4.8 seconds. "I've never really learned how to run a 40," he said.
COURTESY THAN MERRILL

To that end, Johnson, along with Merrill, spent a week attending speed camp in Dallas, Tex., where they worked on running and turning. They plan to return to the camp in February. While back in New Haven, Johnson and Merrill have been getting up at 7:30 a.m. four days a week to train with Phillips. Meanwhile, Bartholomew, after graduating from Yale in December, is training at the Air Force Academy, which he attended before transferring to Yale. He is working out with former teammate Chris Gizzi, Air Force '00, now a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers.

(Net)working the field

The four prospects are facing stiff odds, as no Yale player has been drafted since 1982. But there may be safety in numbers—scouts are more likely to visit Yale since there is more than one player to evaluate. Chris Eitzmann, who graduated from Harvard last year and now plays tight end for the New England Patriots, benefited from this while training at Harvard with classmate and current Seahawks linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski. "A lot of scouts would come to look at Isaiah, and our coaches would give my tape to them," he said. Johnson said, "If teams are coming to see Than, then our agent will say, `While you're here, check out Eric.'"

Merrill and Johnson have both signed with Joe Linta, TC '82, and Bartholomew lists Linta as one of his final choices. Linta, a former player and assistant coach for the Bulldogs, currently serves as an agent for many players in the NFL, including Bears quarterback Jim Miller and Pro Bowl-bound Chiefs guard Will Shields. He specializes in potential late round/free agent prospects, a major factor for the Yale players. "He sounded the most confident about getting teams in there to see us," Merrill said. "He's got good NFL contacts and knows lots of guys on different teams," Johnson added.

Phillips, who finished the season with 50 tackles and four interceptions, has worked perhaps more than any of Yale's prospects at marketing himself to the NFL. He used family connections to get the phone number of Steve Hogans, director of the Rotary Gridiron Classic All-Star Game. Yale defensive coordinator Rick Flanders called Hogans and convinced him to look at Phillips' tape. After Oklahoma safety J.T. Thatcher '01 backed out of the game, Phillips got his chance, playing safety for the Buddy Ryan-coached Team U.S.A. In a defensive struggle, Team Florida won the game, 10-0, but Phillips acquitted himself nicely, making four tackles and no big mistakes. "While I didn't stand out, I didn't look any worse than anyone else," he said. "I blended in." He added, "The scouts were mainly there to watch practice, and I had a really good week."

In the rotation

Phillips did well at the All-Star Game, despite playing safety for the first time ever. This flexibility will likely serve him well in his quest to make the pros. The ability to play more than one position and excel in special teams can be the difference between making the roster and getting cut. "I had a lineman drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals when I was at Lafayette," Siedlecki said. "He made the roster because he could play all three positions: center, guard, and tackle. They only keep eight linemen, so a guy like that can make the team because he is bright and offers more flexibility."

Indeed, Carolina Panther Chris Hetherington, JE '96, has made a pro career out of being a special teams and situational player. After college, he swi-tched from quarterback, which he played at Yale, to halfback, a position from which he scored both rushing and receiving touchdowns this year. "Hetherington was drafted as an athlete with good size," Yale linebackers and special teams coach Shawn Halloran said. "They put even more size on him at the next level." Since joining the NFL, Hetherington has put on almost 30 pounds in his transition from quarterback to running back.

Johnson is also projected to be a situational halfback or fullback at the next level, and he, too, is trying to put on some extra pounds. "I'm also trying to keep my punting skills up, just in case the teams want to see it," Johnson said. "You've got to use as much stuff as you've got in your bag to sell yourself." Marty Matarazzo, director of ProActive Sports, a scouting service that specializes in finding steals, thinks Johnson's punting skills should help him. "I don't understand how teams can be so worried about the salary cap and pass up a dual prospect like him," Matarazzo said.

"I might be put at nickel linebacker," Merrill, who played strong safety at Yale, said. "In the NFL, teams pass so much that they want linebackers that are smaller and can move. The Tampa guy said that if I was with them, I'd start out at safety, then maybe move to linebacker."

Playing their cards right

Of the four prospects, only Phillips was invited to the All-Star Game; the others lamented missing an opportunity for more national exposure. "I think it hurts us that we didn't make it to an all-star game," Bartholomew said. "A game like that would have been an opportunity to prove ourselves against higher-level competition." Johnson would have liked to actually play against bigger school prospects on the field in front of scouts. "I consider myself much better on the field playing than in drill," he said. "I probably could have helped my chances by going." Though Eitzmann made it without being invited to one of the games, he too recognizes the importance of national exposure. "It definitely helps to go to a senior bowl," he said. "Isaiah really helped himself by showing he could play with the big schools."

Though they didn't get as much exposure as they wished, Yale's pro-hopefuls are still getting noticed. When John Dorsey, director of College Scouting for the Green Bay Packers, was asked about Yale's players, he immediately recited Bartholomew's achievements at Yale and said of him, "He's got good hands. He's not a breakaway-type runner, but he's got intriguing size. It makes you think he's got a chance." Matarazzo added, "The thing that I like about Bartholomew is that he only lost 76 yards last year, and he carried the ball well over 200 times. Most guys will lose a lot of yards thinking, `I can dance my way outta that,' but Bartholomew will go up the middle."

Pro Football Weekly has Barthol-omew rated as the 15th best back entering the draft; 22 running backs were drafted in last year's NFL draft. "I should be much higher than 15th," Bartholomew said. "If you ask me, I should be number one or two. But I guess it's my job to show them that." He added, "I'm going to do my spring workout and I'm gonna blow it up. I'm gonna do so well they'll have to take me."

At this point, all four Yale pro prospects are banking on doing just that—getting an opportunity and then "blowing it up." As Siedlecki said, "The key is to get into a pro camp and get an opportunity. Being in great shape and testing well when the scouts and coaches come back in March and April is extremely important."

Eitzmann has some advice for Yale's players. "Get seen by as many teams as you can," he said. "Ivy football is better than most people think. It's your job to open their eyes to that fact."

See next week's Herald for more on the Ivy League's resurgent reputation with the NFL. Photos courtesy Sports Publicity and Than Merrill.

 

The basics behind Yale's prospects Rashad Bartholomew #34; Height: 6'0"; Weight: 215 lbs.; 40 yard time: 4.40; Potential pro position: RB Joel Buchsbaum says: "He's a good back who dominated the Ivies. He can really cut back against the grain. Rashad is ranked the 15th best RB by ProFootball Weekly."

Eric Johnson #21; Height: 6'3"; Weight: 225 lbs.; 40 yard time: 4.80; Potential pro position: HB/WR/P Joel Buchsbaum says: "He's probably going to be used as an H-back and may be a late-round pick. He's got good hands but is not a blocker." Eric is ranked the 27th best H-back/TE by ProFootball Weekly.

Than Merrill #8; Height 6'3"; Weight: 220 lbs.; 40 yard time: 4.50; Potential pro position: SS/LB Joel Buchsbaum says: "I have some questions about his coverage."

Josh Phillips #27; Height: 6'0"; Weight: 193 lbs.; 40 yard time: 4.47; Potential pro position: CB/S Joel Buchsbaum says: "Tough safety, though a little loose on coverage."

Joel Buchsbaum is an editor of ProFootball Weekly, author of the Draft Preview Book, and a widely respected independent analyst of pro football.

 

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