NFL Combine presents golden opportunity for Tate

Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Tate

Like all young men leaving college, Golden Tate is eagerly anticipating his real job interview. And so Tate is doing the prudent thing in preparing for that once-in-a-lifetime first “real world” job.

But Tate won’t be wearing a suit and tie in this interview process, and he won’t have to drop off his resume with any clerk. No, Tate’s big moment will come all at once later this month with 32 different potential employers watching and analyzing his every move and dissecting his every action.

That’s because Tate, who starred at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville before going on to success at Notre Dame, is readying himself for the make-or-break opportunity that comes at the NFL Combine (Feb. 25-28).

Somewhere along the way, between the Combine and his Pro Day at Notre Dame in March and any private workouts or visits he schedules between now and the draft on April 22, Tate will get his first taste of life in the National Football League.

As for visits, Tate won’t yet know what teams will bring him in, but the Tennessee Titans will almost certainly be one of them, since teams are allowed to conduct interviews with any players who have local connections. Not to mention the fact that the Titans still could use a quality wide-out.

All those things, from his personal interviews to his body of work for the Fighting Irish to his time in the 40-yard dash, will help determine exactly where Tate will fit into this year’s NFL Draft. Most prognosticators’ early speculation say Tate will probably fall somewhere between the middle of the first round and the top of the second round.

For his part, Tate knows his fate is tied to what he does leading up to draft weekend. And the Combine is along that path.

“I really don’t know what round I will go in. It’s really way too early to tell all that,” says Tate. “I’ll get a better idea once I’ve been to the Combine and had my pro day.”

Warm-weather workout

To enhance his chances of being an earlier pick, Tate’s agent Todd France has sent him to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is one of a number of high draft hopefuls working out with specialized trainers in order to improve their draft stock. Tate is on the roster of prospects at API (Athletes’ Performance Institute) readying for the Combine — an impressive group that includes surefire first-rounders defensive tackle Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma and defensive end Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech.

“This is my third week out here,” Tate told The City Paper last week, “and I’ll probably come back here after the Combine and work out some more until my Pro Day. I’ve just spent a lot of time preparing and getting used to all the lifting and training.

“There’s a nice little group of guys here, and it’s good because they split you up into groups and you get a chance to get some individual coaching.”

That would include individual coaching on important job requirements, such as the 40-yard dash.

“There’s one coach here who is a track guy and at age 36, he said he ran a 4.3, so I’m definitely going to talk with him,” Tate says, though he hasn’t yet decided how much work he will do at the Combine. There is the chance he could do everything, but it is just as likely that he could elect to do a partial workout with lifting only and save his 40-yard time for March in South Bend.

Or he could do his entire workout on the Notre Dame campus where he would be in the comfortable surroundings of the Fighting Irish facilities — though Arizona is a lot warmer. Even the Combine, while held in winter in Indiana, will be held under the dome of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Wherever and whenever Tate decides to show his skills, a couple of issues will be in play for the scouts and coaches who come to watch him. Tate knows it, as do the so-called draft experts who dissect every college hopeful in pool of draft-eligible players.

The raps on Tate include his time in the 40-yard dash and his route-running, which needs to improve for him to find consistent success at the NFL level.

“He’s going to have to work on his route-running. He’s raw in his route-running and he still has to learn how to set up defensive backs,” says NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.

But that’s not anything Tate didn’t already know. It’s a big part of why he is in Arizona right now.

“One of the things that I definitely want to improve on is my 40-yard dash. I’m not a guy that’s 6-1 or 6-2 or 6-3, so I have to make up for that with my speed, so I’ll definitely be focusing on running the 40,” Tate says. “I’m working to get my legs stronger and to get my hips looser, because I know a good 40 time will help me out [in the draft].”

Notre Dame’s official website lists Tate’s height at 5-11 and his weight at 195 pounds. What he measures in Indianapolis will be much more pertinent, and the smaller he measures, the better 40-time he probably needs.

“You’ve got to wait and see the actual 40 time. Right now, I’d say he’s a second-round pick, but he could sneak into first round,” says Tony Pauline of TFY Draft. “With underclassmen, you don’t know their exact height, weight and speed until they the Combine and their pro day. The 40 time is important for him, and his official height and weight are important.

“Does he need to run 4.4s? He needs to be a little bit faster than that. If he’s 5-9 and change, he’s gonna have to run in the 4.3s. And if he doesn’t have track star speed and doesn’t time well in the 40, then he’s gonna drop.”

As for a desired time, Tate says he doesn’t have a particular number in mind just yet at least.

“I want to run as fast as I can, but I’m not shooting for any particular time, but I know I’ll be comfortable with whatever time I run,” he says.

The notion is that taller receivers have an advantage over shorter defensive backs, who are usually among the fastest players in the NFL. Taller receivers gain separation from defenders vertically. Shorter pass catchers, like Tate, need to gain separation horizontally with quick cuts and bursts of speed.

And it is possible for a player to learn to run more efficiently and with a better technique to bolster that 40 time.

“The problem with all these guys is they don’t know how to run and they don’t run with the proper running form,” Pauline offers. “It’s not just to make them faster, but teaching them the right techniques and running form. … It can help a lot. A lot of Combine intensive training can help. If you do a good job of it, put your nose to the grindstone, then it will help them.”

It’s not everything

While those aspects of prospect evaluation are important, teams have discovered that such “measurables” are not always the be-all, end-all with draft prospects. There is the school of thought among some scouts and coaches that on-field performance can and should trump measurables.

Consider how the Titans were teased and ultimately burned by running back Chris Henry’s size-and-speed combination just three drafts ago. They tossed away a second-round pick on a workout warrior, who finished this past season on the Houston Texans practice squad.

On-field performance is definitely a strength for Tate, whose highlight reel dates all the way back to his PJPII days when he scored two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick all in the final minute to lead a comeback win against Goodpasture.

Mayock is a believer in Tate from what he saw of him at Notre Dame, where Tate had won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver in 2009.

“I think he’s probably a first-round pick,” Mayock suggests. “He catches the football at its highest point. And when he catches the football, he is great at running after the catch. He’s probably the best of the wide receiver group in this draft at running after the catch. He looks like a running back once he makes the catch and has the ball in his hands.”

There’s a reason for that. Tate was a running back at Pope John Paul.

“I think that’s definitely a pro for me. In high school I actually played running back, so I kind of know what it takes to do punt returns, kickoff returns and it helps from that standpoint,” Tate says.

And though Pauline believes Tate still has a ways to go to be a polished receiver, he said the plays Tate made at Notre Dame cannot be ignored. Tate had 93 catches for 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns. That built on a sophomore year where he caught 58 passes for 1,080 yards and 10 scores.

“As far as his body of work, he’s been a pretty good player for Notre Dame. He wasn’t a one-year wonder,” he says.

Making plays is something Tate has been doing since he was a youngster, first at St. Joseph’s in middle school and later at Pope John Paul.

“He played eighth grade football at St. Joseph’s, and he obviously stood out among everyone,” Pope John Paul coach Jeff Brothers recalls. “You never know how it’s going to translate at that age as they grow up, but about three games into his freshman year, he started making some really remarkable plays and showing the ability to avoid tackles and make catches. It didn’t take long for us to realize he was special.”

Now, Tate has to make NFL scouts realize the same thing about him. The fact that he is a kick returner with big-play potential and has experience from the wildcat formation are pluses for him as well.

“I’m hoping the things I did this year in the wildcat and on punt returns will help my stock at the draft,” he says.

Pauline thinks it will, but he says Tate has to improve his overall game to meet NFL standards.

“Obviously he’s a game breaker. He’s an explosive home run hitter than can change the tide of momentum both as a receiver and as a return specialist,” says Pauline. “He can score from any point on the field. When you’ve got a guy like that, that steps on the field it’s gonna strike fear into anybody.”

But…

“He doesn’t have the size and build you look for in a No. 1 receiver and for every tremendous catch he makes, he seems to drop an easy catch. In my opinion, he’s a long way from being NFL-ready at this time. He may be able to help out as a return man immediately, but needs a lot of polish to be an NFL receiver.”

And that is why Tate toils daily in Arizona to make sure to make the most of this opportunity. The decision that it was time to turn pro was a collective one made by Tate, his family and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who after his dismissal is the new offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. [As an aside, the 4-12 Chiefs could certainly use the type of explosiveness Tate brings to the table.]

“Coach Weis and I sat down with my family and we weighed all the pros and cons of whether or not I should turn pro, and we felt that the pros outweighed the cons,” remembers Tate. “There were a few cons, such as not staying in school and graduating and not playing another year of college football where I could work on things like being a better route runner and improving my overall game a little.”

In deciding that it was time to leave Notre Dame and pass up his senior season, Tate said the move had less to do with Weis’ departure than the decision of junior Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen to enter the draft this spring.

‘It really didn’t have too much to do with the coaching change, but it had more to do with me winning the Biletnikoff Award and with Jimmy deciding to leave early as well,” he says. “So I thought I would try the NFL out.”

The seeds of potentially turning pro were sewn even earlier, but it had to be only if everything worked out right during the 2009 season.

“I talked to him at Christmas [2008],” Brothers said, “ and I had a gut feeling if this [last] season went the way he hoped it would, that he might leave and go pro. He talked about possibly not playing baseball in the spring, and when he said that I knew it might be the end of it [at Notre Dame].”

But as any college student heading into the job market knows, it's not the end. It’s really just a new beginning.