NFL scout: CIS product David Onyemata ‘one of my top sleepers’

Sean Reynolds reports on the remarkable story of Manitoba Bisons defensive lineman David Onyemata who five years ago had never played football, but is now being scouted by NFL teams.

David Onyemata walked out onto the football field at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, Fla., for practice with the West team at the East-West Shrine Game in late January. The big Nigerian-Canadian was standing with other defensive linemen when an NFL scout approached. He spoke to everyone in the group and turned to Onyemata last, looked at his number, then down at the roster and said, “I don’t have any information on you. Here’s a sheet and a pen—can you go over to the stands and fill it out quickly?”

Disheartened but not deterred, the University of Manitoba product made his way to the bleachers, completed the form and returned it before practice began.

Then the 23-year-old did what he could to make sure everyone knew his name from that point forward. In some evaluators’ eyes, he turned in a breakout session, displaying burst off the line of scrimmage, strong hands and raw power that he used to beat offensive linemen.

While walking back to the locker room afterwards, Onyemata heard his name being called. He turned to see the same NFL scout from before practice running towards him to shake his hand and say how good he’d looked out on the field. It was a 180-degree flip, spurred on by what was unquestionably the turning point of his week—and perhaps his entire pre-draft process as he competes for a coveted NFL Draft spot.

It’s true that Onyemata had far less name recognition due to picking up the game late, suiting up in Canada and playing hundreds of fewer reps than an average NCAA player, but now personnel evaluators are viewing the latter as a positive. To some, it means his ceiling could be much higher than a player from Alabama or Ohio State who is far closer to his potential, seeing him as a raw piece of clay that they can mold.

“Give him two years with our defensive line coach and he’ll be a starter. He’s talented, quick and strong,” one NFL scout says. “That young guy is one of my top sleepers. If he’s still there in round five I’m going to fight for him.”

Onyemata has seen his fair share of scouts over the past few months. Since winning the J.P. Metras trophy as the most outstanding down lineman in CIS football for the 2015 season, it’s been a whirlwind process. He signed with NFL agent Carter Chow, then went out to California to train in preparation for the East-West Shrine Game, then flew all the way back east for lead-up practice sessions and the game itself.

As the week went on in St. Petersburg, scouts say Onyemata improved each day, which wasn’t easy because he was playing defensive end—a spot where he had never lined up on the football field. Then it all paid off in the NFL Network–televised showcase on Jan. 23: In limited playing time, Onyemata recorded one tackle, one tackle for a loss and one sack in the Shrine game. That performance created a buzz around the NFL, and it reverberated back in Winnipeg.

“Forty-eight hours [later], the calls [from NFL teams] started coming,” says University of Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie.

Many personnel men around the league believed the athletic defensive lineman’s Shrine Game performance would earn him an invite to the NFL Combine, but one never came. So Onyemata tried to get into a Pro Day at a big NCAA school, but NFL rules wouldn’t allow it, and the league nixed appeals for him to participate at Northwestern University or the University of Minnesota.

That’s when Chow and Dobie decided to hold the first-ever University of Manitoba Pro Day. While the two would have been happy if a handful of teams had shown up, they ended up with reps from over half of the teams in the NFL, and it could’ve been more—two flights were cancelled and two personnel men couldn’t get the proper documentation in time for the trip.

David Onyemata, Pro Day measurements and testing results
Height: 6’3″
Weight: 300 lb.
Hand length: 10 3/8″
Arm length: 33 ¼”
Wingspan: 82 ¼”
Vertical jump: 33″ (would have tied for 15th at the NFL Combine)
Broad jump: 9’11” (would’ve tied for 8th at the NFL Combine)
Bench press: 33 reps (would’ve tied for first at the NFL Combine)
40-yard time: 5.06
3-cone: 7.25 (would’ve placed him 11th at the NFL Combine)
Shuttle: 4.65

Onyemata didn’t disappoint. He accumulated a 136.1 SPARQ score—an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness designed to measure sport-specific athleticism—which ranks him third among all defensive linemen in the 2016 NFL Draft class.

“At the end of the day, the NFL scouts were saying he looks like the real deal,” Dobie says.

When all was said and done, it perhaps even helped that Onyemata did his own event because he was the only show in town—all the scouts were focused on him. After the Pro Day, nearly 20 teams had Onyemata in for a visit, which gave him the sit-downs with NFL decision makers he missed out on at the Combine.

“I’ve been in this business for 10 years and he’s been on more team visits leading up to the draft than any other player that I’ve ever worked with,” Chow says.

Dobie, meanwhile, estimates that he’s talked to 26 NFL teams and many of them more than once—some four or five times. The calls can go for an hour or more because decision-makers are asking about every detail: Has he ever been in trouble? Do you see leadership qualities? How does he learn? Does he have a fire in his eye? How does he respond to being criticized and getting yelled at? Can he be trusted? Will he succumb to pressure or fight through to win?

“Thank goodness for speakerphones in cars. I live 30 minutes away from the office. So I drive home and pull into the garage—my wife probably wonders what’s going on—because I’m still sitting in the car for 15, 20 or 30 minutes talking to an NFL team,” Dobie says.

Now that the calls, workouts and visits are done, Onyemata must simply wait to find out which team turns in a card with his name on it. Fittingly, he’ll be at the University of Manitoba campus in Winnipeg for the draft, surrounded by the Bisons coaches and teammates who helped him get to the cusp of a professional football career.

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