GREEN BAY – Simon Stepaniak's college football career was headed for the right kind of finish, and then it wasn't.
His position coach at Indiana, Darren Hiller, felt Stepaniak had just played maybe his best game in the Old Oaken Bucket rivalry against Purdue to end the regular season.
But during preparation for the Gator Bowl, during an 11-on-11 practice period, Stepaniak's planted leg got caught in an awkward position. The starting guard and team captain had damaged his ACL.
The crescendo that was going to take him through the bowl game into a college all-star game and then to the NFL Scouting Combine was rudely halted, and his draft prospects suddenly became anyone's guess.
He was thrilled to get the call from the Packers in the sixth round (No. 209 overall) on the draft's third day, and while the timeline for getting medically cleared for on-field work as a rookie remains uncertain, the question also lingers how high the 6-4, 313-pounder might have been selected if not for the unfortunate injury.
"When you put on the film in Week 12 and you see a guy that's a fifth-year senior and is playing some of his best football, that's really cool," said Hiller, Indiana's run-game coordinator and offensive line coach, in a phone interview with packers.com.
"That (knee injury) was a bummer. It was a total freak deal."
Knowing the typical pre-draft process was out the window following an early January surgery, Stepaniak decided to focus on one thing he could show NFL scouts – his upper-body strength.
A weight-room warrior much of his life, Stepaniak used what little post-surgery window he had to prepare for the bench press at the combine in Indianapolis. His best shot in difficult circumstances turned out to be pretty good.
Just six weeks after knee surgery, Stepaniak cranked out 37 reps at 225 pounds, one of the top totals of any lineman at the combine. It's a weightlifting feat Hiller ranks as probably the most impressive from a guy who was known, along with Indiana teammate and 2019 Washington draft pick Wes Martin, to push around "silly" amounts of weight.
"Even though you're pressing the weight with your chest and triceps and it's an upper-body movement, your legs still have to be screwed into the ground," Hiller said. "So for him to get himself to where he could do 37 reps … had he not had the setback with the injury, he would have been over 40. I don't know what the number would have been, but it would have been over 40."
Hiller had been intrigued by Stepaniak's strength and power back in his high school days. While coaching the offensive line at the University of Cincinnati, Hiller had been part of a recruiting effort to get Stepaniak to become a Bearcat, but the Hamilton, Ohio, native ultimately chose Indiana.
Two years later, in 2017, Hiller wound up in Bloomington and became his position coach anyway. Stepaniak would start 29 games (28 at right guard) over the next three seasons for the Hoosiers and put his raw, brute force to good use.
"He was already a very physically mature young man," Hiller said of meeting Stepaniak as a high schooler. "I want to say he was (bench-pressing) in the 330-pound range. You could tell, even back then, Simon had grown up lifting weights. It was not a question of whether or not he was going to be a big, strong guy."
Where Hiller worked with him most was on his techniques, expanding and varying them. Despite being right-handed, Stepaniak threw a wicked punch with his left (his inside hand at right guard).
But overreliance on one initial move would leave him vulnerable to certain counters, so Hiller harped on balancing his attacks.
"He would tend to be a little bit lazy with his outside hand as a guard, his right hand," Hiller said. "I used to get on him and say, 'Listen, if I was ever to get in a fistfight with you, I'd kick your (rear), because I know you're going to throw your left hand first.'
"He worked hard at using that right hand. It was fun to watch him grow and stay on the grind. He paid his dues."
Hiller said the offensive coaching staff challenged Stepaniak heading into last year to be more of a vocal leader, particularly with Martin and Brandon Knight (2019 UDFA, Dallas) gone to the NFL.
Stepaniak responded. Whether he was badgering Hiller for the next day's schedule at 8:55 p.m. so he could go to bed at 9, or dropping humorous GIFs into the offensive line's group text, he developed into the leader the Hoosiers needed in a turn-the-corner eight-win season, most for the program since 1993. The breakthrough year fell one agonizing point shy of a ninth win in the Gator Bowl, the finale Stepaniak missed.
"He theoretically could have put a knee brace on and played in the bowl game, and some parts of him wanted to do that," Hiller said. "But we weren't willing to risk that for one football game. We knew he had an opportunity to play in the NFL, and we wanted to get him back and healthy to give him that opportunity."