INDIANAPOLIS — Steve Schilling sat there taking questions maybe for the last time about all the garbage — Rich Rodriguez, the 24-26 record Schilling endured in four seasons at Michigan, the drama.
But this time, the questions weren’t about the team anymore. The fifth-year senior and captain of the 2010 football team already answered those questions week in and week out. After games — good and obscenely bad — Schilling spoke like the team leader he was. He even stood up at the podium on most Monday afternoons for press conferences, playing with his feet the same way Rodriguez would, pushing his toes into the ground.
It was hard to be comfortable, but he always faced the music.
Now, sitting at table No. 5, surrounded by a handful of reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine, he was asked not about the team, but about himself.
Even though you’ve graduated, would you like to stay another year at Michigan to see how things play out?
Schilling responded with a company line — he thought next year’s senior class would do a fine job with the transition.
But that’s not exactly what the reporter was getting at. What about what Steve wants?
As Schilling walked away, the reporter clarified.
Would a little part of you like to play another year, just to play without all of that constant drama?
Now Schilling opened up.
“It’s tough to play with those distractions,” he said. “It wears on you, even if you’re not thinking about it. Part of me last year was consciously just trying to tell myself to have fun playing — enjoy it. It was my senior year, try to avoid all of the distractions.”
So, what about another year?
“It would be nice.”
For Schilling and fifth-year senior linebacker Jonas Mouton — Michigan’s two lonely representatives at this year’s combine — how could you not feel sorry for those two guys? And any other member of this senior class exiting Michigan during such a low point in the football program’s history.
Schilling and Mouton both came from the West Coast — Schilling from Washington and Mouton from California — and left Pac-10 country to come to Ann Arbor to play for Lloyd Carr, to play in a pro-style offense and a 4-3 defense, to compete for championships — not Gator Bowl trophies.
But alas, here they were, five years removed from their redshirt season when they watched Michigan battle Ohio State in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game. Then they sat by as their teammates played USC in the Rose Bowl. That was what they were going to be a part of. They were recruited to be the next in line and chosen to fill those cookie-cutter roles that were the NFL’s training ground for years.
Then, everything changed.
Carr left and so did the NFL-ready schemes he coached.
Rodriguez brought a style of play that won him games at West Virginia, but it didn’t garner a reputation of being an NFL pipeline.
Transitioning from Rodriguez’s spread-option offense or 3-3-5 defense to the NFL is like a improv actor trying to make the jump to Broadway. They may have the ability to do it, and both involved acting. Some of the skills translate, but it’s not the same.
NFL coaches and general managers alike will tell you, there are enough colleges running those types of schemes that they have to adjust how they evaluate players — but they never know for sure if a player will be able to make the adjustment.
So in Indianapolis, Schilling and Mouton had to make their cases — that Schilling could be a bulldozer rather than just a guard who can play in space and that Mouton could be a physical linebacker in the 4-3. Both of them had the same answer for teams.
Just pop in my freshman year tape, when I played for coach Carr.
How unusual — as if the past three years were for naught.
But the past three years did have an effect — a negative one. Twenty-two losses is a lot for a school like Michigan to pile up. ESPN’s director of college football scouting for Scouts Inc., Todd McShay, put it like this: What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Was Michigan so bad because only two players were worthy of invites to the NFL Combine? Or were there only two players invited because Michigan was so bad?
Teams pay attention to whether or not your team had success. Everyone wants to be around winners.
“They’re just around a certain atmosphere,” said Seattle Seahawks G.M. John Schneider. “They come in with a certain level of confidence and preparation and professionalism.”
Added Denver Broncos G.M. Brian Xanders: “We want winners. We want people that love football.”
Anyone who’s been a part of the Michigan program for the past three seasons can’t claim to be a winner and keep a straight face.
The past three years might have gone as badly as it possibly could have for Schilling and Mouton’s draft stock, considering everything but their individual play.
That’s the saddest part. None of this was in Schilling’s or Mouton’s control: Carr’s departure, playing outside of their strong-suits and adapting to Rodriguez’s schemes, the losing and the drama that choked the program.
They stayed with Michigan, took their lumps and look where it got them — McShay said the losing culture probably would drop their stock a round or two in the draft.
At this point, of course it would.
Here’s hoping Schilling and Mouton catch a break at the next level.
They’ve dealt with more than their fair share of garbage already.
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org