Several former EWU football players anticipate NFL Draft amidst COVID-19 chaos

Former+EWU+safety+Dehonta+Hayes+is+hoping+to+get+an+opportunity+with+an+NFL+team.

Malati Powell for The Easterner

Former EWU safety Dehonta Hayes is hoping to get an opportunity with an NFL team.

By Drew Lawson, Sports Editor / Co-Managing Editor

This upcoming weekend, hundreds of college football players will see their professional dreams come true as they hear their name called during one of the seven rounds of the now-virtual NFL Draft. Others won’t hear their name called, but will earn opportunities as undrafted free agents or training camp invitees. For several former EWU football players, the only thing needed is a chance.

The former players preparing for the draft are safety Dehonta Hayes, center Spencer Blackburn, defensive lineman Jim Townsend, wide receiver Jayson Williams, running back Antoine Custer Jr. and tight end Jayce Gilder. No player is projected to be picked before the third day of the draft, which is rounds 4-7. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrinkle in the players’ preparation. According to players like Hayes and Gilder, the biggest drawback was the forced cancelation of EWU’s Pro Day, which is when NFL scouts can see players in person and view them in drills and strength performances. Players must now post their highlights and marks online, hoping to gain recognition from NFL teams.

“It was a huge problem not being able to do a Pro Day in front of NFL scouts,” Hayes said. “I’m still getting attention from a lot of NFL teams … but I feel like I would’ve gotten more (attention).”

Gilder echoed Hayes’ sentiment, saying players at smaller schools often benefit from being seen at Pro Days.

“Not having a Pro Day definitely hurts,” Gilder said. “A Pro Day is where you can showcase your talents … (now) you don’t get to be evaluated, except for what (teams) see on film.”

Richard N. Clark IV for The Easterner
EWU TE Jayce Gilder celebrates a touchdown during EWU 50-19 FCS Semifinal victory over Maine on December 15, 2018.

Gilder put up impressive numbers at his virtual “Pro Day,” scoring marks that would’ve been in the top five among tight ends at the NFL Combine. Despite that, he still wishes he had had an in-person Pro Day. He said he prefers the pressure, feeling that’s when he would’ve given his best performances. 

“I like having that big adrenaline rush where I know this has to be my best rep,” Gilder said. 

Hayes said he and his agent have heard from eight teams, including the Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals. Hayes is hoping to hear his name at some point on day three of the draft, and if not, he anticipates getting an opportunity as an undrafted free agent. 

“As long as I get on a team and I’m able to showcase what I can do, that’s all that matters to me,” Hayes said. 

Hayes is staying ready by training in Cheney with current EWU safeties such as Anthany Smith and Anfernee Gurley. He plans on going home to Tacoma to be with family during the draft. 

Gilder is also training in Cheney and has been working with his agent to get his name, which has been largely flying under the radar, in the minds of NFL teams. Gilder said he’s gotten texts from four NFL teams, but not much engagement beyond that. 

Gilder’s goal is to try and get an invitation to a team’s training camp.

“Realistically, I hope for an invite or something undrafted,” Gilder said. “I’m not projected to be drafted. I’m hoping that when they see these numbers and see that I have the film to back up these numbers, something will rise up for me.”

Gilder is undecided on whether to travel home to Montana for the draft or remain in Cheney to watch with his roommates.

Williams is back home in Tacoma training and staying in shape by running up and down the stairs at the nearby high school football stadium. He said he hasn’t met with any teams, but he and his agent have heard from a couple, including the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams have rostered many EWU players and currently feature wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Nsimba Webster, as well as linebacker Samson Ebukam. 

Williams said he recognizes that in a stacked wide receiver class, he’s a rather unknown guy trying to fly under the radar and earn an invite to a team’s training camp.

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner
EWU senior wide receiver Jayson Williams hauls in a pass. Williams had a team high 115 receiving yards in EWU’s 54-21 victory over Northern Colorado Saturday.

“I’m not a big name guy,” Williams said. “I’m not (Alabama standout receiver) Jerry Jeudy. Being from a small school, I’m looking at the Kendrick Bourne route, going undrafted. Even getting my foot in the door would be a big accomplishment for me.”

Bourne is a former EWU star receiver and is currently part of the San Francisco 49ers receiving corps.

Williams will watch the draft with his dad in Tacoma, something he said is a yearly tradition. 

Custer said he’s also talked to the Rams during his pre-draft preparation.

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

EWU told The Easterner that Blackburn and Townsend have yet to hear from any NFL teams. 

Right tackle Chris Schlichting ranks somewhat favorably on many draft boards, but he decided to retire after college football, citing a desire to spend more time with family and his girlfriend. 

“Training and going into the NFL wasn’t right for me,” Schlichting said. “It would’ve been fun to try and pursue, but I have other things in my life that I’m passionate about and want to try out.”

The NFL Draft runs from April 23-25. It will be broadcast on ESPN, ABC and NFL Network.