MADISON—Teammate James White calls him “freakishly athletic,” and Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward lived up to that description on Wednesday.
At the University of Wisconsin’s pro day, in front of representatives from 20 NFL teams – including the Packers, whose small contingent included Director of Pro Personnel Eliot Wolf and Director of College Scouting Brian Gutekunst – Southward was the star of the show.
He clocked an unofficial 40-yard dash time in the 4.3s and recorded a vertical jump of 42 inches at the McClain Center, adjacent to Camp Randall Stadium on the Madison campus. Southward also looked the part during position drills as he backpedaled, changed direction, flipped his hips and chased down deep passes the way a safety is supposed to do.
It was a huge day for Southward, who did not receive medical clearance to run or do any drills at the scouting combine in Indianapolis two weeks ago. He claims an x-ray was mistakenly diagnosed as a fracture in the C-5 vertebra – “I’ve never injured my neck before in my career,” he said – and he was told just hours before his scheduled drills in Indy that he’d have to sit out.
“I cried, I balled my eyes out,” he said. “That was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, to be held out of it. I’m a really competitive guy, man.”
After the combine, he sent his x-rays to specialists around the country, including Dr. Bob Watkins, the surgeon who operated on Peyton Manning’s neck. He was cleared by everyone, learned he indeed does not have a fractured vertebra, and he finally got to display his “freakish” athletic ability for the pro scouts.
“I think there were a lot of unanswered questions,” Southward said. “How fast is he? How explosive is he? Can he flip? Can he go up and get the ball? I think a lot of those questions I was able to answer.”
Scouts with stopwatches relayed to Southward 40 times that ranged from 4.31 to 4.38 seconds. He claims he could get another inch or two higher on his vertical. His broad jump of 10 feet, 5 inches, was another measure of his explosiveness.
Southward still needs to translate those measurables to the field more consistently, as he came to Wisconsin with just one year of high school football experience and his ball skills have been lacking at times. But some NFL team is bound to take a flyer on a 6-1, 212-pound athlete who played both cornerback and safety in the Big Ten, and see how that athleticism might develop over time.
“I heard numbers as slow as 4.55 projected for me to run, and I was excited to destroy that number,” he said. “I definitely did that. Hopefully, the eyes that were already on me opened up a little bit more, and the ones that weren’t, they saw something.”
Southward was one of six Badgers who attended the scouting combine, while eight other teammates, plus linebacker Cole Klotz from Division III University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, were part of the pro day.
White (a high school teammate of Southward’s from Florida), along with receiver Jared Abbrederis and offensive lineman Ryan Groy, did not do any of the testing and are standing on their combine numbers.
White and Abbrederis did position drills only, running routes and catching passes from an Oakland scout serving as the quarterback. Tight end Jacob Pedersen was also part of that skill-position crew, but ran the 40 again to improve on his 4.89 from the combine. Pedersen said most scouts had him in the 4.7s this time, which pleased him.
Pedersen has heard draft projections of anywhere from the middle rounds to undrafted free agent. He’s trying to continue the steady stream of Wisconsin tight ends making it in the NFL, which over the past decade has included Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks.
"All those guys I’ve been able to learn (from) when I first got here, and they’ve been successful in the league," he said. "It definitely doesn’t hurt you. I’ve tried to emulate my game after them and hopefully I can have the same success."
Linebacker Chris Borland also improved his 40 time from the combine (4.83), though he wasn’t sure by how much. Borland also boosted his vertical jump from 31 to 35 inches and his broad jump from 9-5 to 9-8.
"That was far from my best performance at the combine, and I improved everything today, so I think it was a good decision (to re-do everything)," said Borland, who suggested he’s ready to move on from the track-and-field type activities and get back to playing football again soon.
"I’m looking forward to doing more football-specific things, and individual drills, and ultimately camp and the season. That’s what I love to do. Football is my passion. It’s a lot more fun playing the game."
The Big Ten’s defensive player of the year this past season, Borland has been knocked for being a half-inch shy of 6 feet, and some of his test numbers at the combine were diminishing the buzz he generated with an impressive Senior Bowl week.
Ultimately, Borland is counting on his game tape and Senior Bowl workouts carrying the day and determining when he’s selected in the draft, not his height or other measurables.
"It’s probably different by team," he said. “I know a lot of teams like prototypical guys. Other teams like great football players. Hopefully, I’ll stick with the latter.
"I think tape is the most important thing. You shouldn’t ignore the numbers. The numbers are important, but film is No. 1. Teams know that. I’ve talked to position coaches that understand that."