April 23, 2009

Cline Sacrificing For A Shot At The Next Level

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It's not completely unchartered territory, but it's still somewhat unfamiliar to a newcomer to the top level of college football.

WKU has had its share of former football players make the NFL, but few have been drafted. The Toppers have had just three such players this decade, with cornerback Joseph Jefferson drafted in the third round of 2002 and safety Mel Mitchell going in the fifth round in that same year. Fullback Jeremi Johnson was drafted in the fourth round in 2003.

Then again, it's pretty tough to be a gateway to the professional level as a Division I-AA program, a title WKU shed in 2007.

Now, the Toppers are prepared to be that next step. Signees from the class of 2009 have mentioned the aspiration of shooting for the NFL.

It's inevitable that there will be one player who will finally start that trend for the Toppers. Defensive end Dan Cline is now asking, why not me?

Cline has come a long way since his high school days. Then, he was thin and couldn't quite hold his own physically. That was in large part due to his body not letting him. Though he was 6-foot-6, he was only 190 pounds in his junior year.

But then, before last season, the weight came. He played last season at a listed weight of 265 pounds. Cline finished his senior season with 33 tackles, eight tackles for loss, a blocked kick, forced fumble and fumble recovery.

Look beyond the stats however. Cline saw multiple double teams throughout the season, but his work ethic, intensity and leadership skills drew plenty of attention.

After his junior season, Cline worked out for three NFL scouts at WKU's pro day, along with wide receiver Jessie Quinn and offensive lineman Greg Ryan.

The NFL combine, held in February each year is where the top NFL prospects workout and go through drills in front of scouts, upon invitation. Cline wasn't invited, the downside of coming from a newly, still rather under-hyped program. But on March 25, he worked out for NFL scouts again at WKU's pro day. This time, it was in front of scouts from eight teams.

Inside Hilltopper Sports has been following Cline in his preparations towards his chance of making it professionally in football.


Feb. 26
I'm running a little late.

Covering WKU men's basketball's senior day and game against Florida Atlantic, I hadn't finished the recap story and notes until after 10 p.m. If Dan was irked at leaving later than normal, he didn't show it, reassuring me that it was ok that I was running behind schedule. Dan had told me earlier in the week that he was set to leave between 9:30 and 10 p.m.

In his 1999 maroon Jeep Grand Cherokee, we pulled out of Bowling Green at 10:45 p.m. Though he said he has no regrets and loved his time at WKU Dan tells me about the unfortunate downside of coming from a program that's still getting its feet wet at the top collegiate level.

"Hey, here's a diamond in the rough, gimme some pub please!" he said he'd like to tell an NFL team.

Dan simulates what he hopes an NFL team will say once they see him.

"He played in a 3-4, but I see him at the next level," the executive will say. "He'll be a James Harrison, Steelers-type of guy."

Dan's made this drive north on I-65 plenty of times before. When he's heading to his hometown of Centerville, OH, he'll drive to Louisville, get on I-71 towards Cincinnati, then change over to north on I-75. Just before Dayton, he'll take I-675.

But lately, he's travelled a little less than halfway. Since early January, Dan's gone to Velocity Performance Center in Louisville at least three days a week. Tomorrow, he'll get there at 9 a.m., workout for two hours, drive back to Bowling Green and lift weights with WKU strength coach Jim Nowell for three hours. He'll drive back to Louisville that night, go back to Velocity Saturday morning and then back again on Monday.

At this point, he's pretty used to it.

And now, there are more important things to discuss.

Dan was never a Cincinnati Reds fan, but he used to frequent games at the old Riverfront Stadium as a kid.

"They used to show me on the jumbo tron, running back and forth in the top of the stadium," he said. "I missed a foul ball from (former New York Met) Edgardo Alfonzo. But one time I caught a hot dog from the cannon."

Just after we pass the sign for Metro Louisville, it's east on I-265, west on I-64 and then after the exit for Blankenbaker Parkway, hang a left.

Usually, Dan stays the night with a friend or friend of a friend in Louisville. Tonight, his agent, Jon Rabinowitz has paid for him to stay in the Jameson Inn.

Rabinowitz is young and somewhat untested, but has gone to bat for him, Dan said. Rabinowitz got his name mentioned to over 25 NFL team representatives at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The agent gets three percent of whatever Dan makes professionally.

Velocity is literally a three-wood away from Jameson Inn. "And, we're golden," Dan says as we pull into a parking spot near the front of the hotel at nearly 1:30 a.m. eastern time.

Dan brings a duffle bag's worth of belongings to the room and immediately flips the television on Sports Center. But he also brings the essentials: two peanut butter sandwiches, a bottle of water, a Nutri-Grain bar and most importantly, a heating pad.

The topic of conversation on Sports Center is Bob Huggins and West Virginia.

"I love Huggy Bear," Dan says, wearing a Cincinnati black, jersey polo. "His coaching style's awesome."

At nearly 2 a.m., Dan's ready to turn off the lights and got to sleep. But before he can get to the lamp, he spills water all over his bed. Cursing, he still kept eating his sandwich. A big man still needs his nourishment.


Feb. 27
It's like an icebox in the room when the alarm goes off at 7:45. But Dan likes it cold, he says.

I elected to wake earlier to get a shower, but at 8:10, Dan's up and headed down the hallway to the lobby for continental breakfast. He eats a couple of Belgian waffles and muffins.

At 8:55, we're in the parking lot opening the doors to the Grand Cherokee. With a dash of his 'good friend' Gold Bond powder, we're off.

The outside of Velocity Sports Performance Center is unassuming. It's a simple, gray bricked building with no windows, except in the foyer at the entrance. But walking past the front desk, it takes on a whole new look. A dozen or so plastic chairs for scouts and other visitors, sits in front of a window looking into the facility.

It's slightly dim-lit, but the 60x75-yard, turf floor has different stations. There's a 50x15-yard or so turf section that's lined like a football field. To the far left side there's two half-basketball courts, and to the far right side, there's a track. There's also a padded floor where a small group of older people are doing yoga and behind them are some weights and workout equipment. Large Nike signs adorn the walls. 'Get Faster,' 'Get Quicker' and 'Be A Better Athlete,' they say.

Dan introduces me to his trainer, Greg Frederick, who's the sports performance director. Frederick already has a tie to WKU, having been a strength and conditioning coach at Auburn during current Toppers baseball coach Chris Finwood's stint there.

Next, I'm introduced to the guys. There's offensive linemen Garry Williams, defensive lineman Ventrell Jenkins, running back Tony Dixon and punter Tim Masthay. From Louisville, there's defensive lineman Earl Heyman and from Kentucky State, there's Anthony Richardson.

Dan and the other players all change their shoes and stretch.

Walking around the guys and talking with them is Keith Sherman, who owns the facility.

"I wish there was more red here," he tells me. "All the other guys from around here were signed and shipped to Velocitys in California."

There's 64 Velocity centers located across the country serving a myriad of different athletes in different sports. But this one has had some interesting clients. Sherman said before we arrived, former Chicago Bulls forward Will Perdue came in and worked out and Ray Lewis has worked out here in the off-season.

Sherman says that Dan had concerns about his strength when he first started training here, but that he has great length.

As Sherman speaks, John Mellencamp's "Small Town" plays on a radio in the back of the facility. Ironically, as Dan works out, this might be his biggest obstacle, coming from a program that's just getting started on the national level in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"The burden is on him to develop," Sherman says. "Scouts will be there for his pro day. He's a smart worker and a smart kid. In his initial workout, he was raw, but there was always a desire to do well. All these guys are from big schools and they push each other. What will make Dan attractive to an NFL scout is his long arms."

Frederick puts the guys through all the same drills done at the NFL Combine and that will be done at the pro days. Each school will hold a day inviting scouts to attend and put prospects through drills and tests.

Dan's work is showing in his times. His ten-yard sprint, not at the pro day, but to improve acceleration, has improved from 1.90 to 1.73. He also shows his nice guy personality, helping Frederick pick up the cones between drills.

In the L Drill, Dan finishes in 7.18 seconds, just behind Dixon.

"You had everything there," Frederick tells Dan. "You were elongated with your body. Make sure you hit the lines though at the end."

The workout ends at around 11 a.m. and the guys all stretch. Frederick makes all the guys 'recovery shakes,' basically the equivalent of protein shakes. Dan offers me a 'swig.' It tastes like blueberry.

Dan has another 'good friend' in the car waiting on him in case he needs him when he gets done with his workout, Ben Gay, which he's put in a Pantene Shampoo bottle. He doesn't put any on today, though.

There's little time for Dan to waste though. At 2:30 CT, Dan will regularly lift with WKU strength coach Jim Nowell. The session will last until 5 or 6 p.m. Then, he'll drive back to Velocity afterward for another workout tomorrow morning.

"This is like a full-time job, which people don't realize," Dan says. "Then, I'm starting my MBA. It's my life."

At the same time, Dan has learned to eat smart and healthy. Just outside of Bowling Green, he calls Toby's Steakhouse to order his routine meal: the grilled chicken vegetable medley, which consists of two chicken breasts, cauliflower, carrots and other vegetables. Toby's is owned by Rafferty's and according to him is the same food at half price. "It's the usual Monday, Friday carry out guy," he says when placing his order on the phone.

On the drive back to Bowling Green, Dan also tells me he's already receiving looks from other football leagues. The coach of a team in a German football league, the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes, knows WKU special teams coordinator Stuart Holt. The team has contacted Dan about playing.

The Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League have also inquired about Dan. The general manager and head coach have called Nowell, defensive line coach Eric Mathies and associate director Todd Stewart about Dan's character. Dan was an intern in the sports information department at WKU.

"When I first started, I said football, I'll give it a shot," Dan says. "Now that I'm in this process, football is more of a reality. I'm just happy and grateful to be in these shoes."

Over the next week, I call Frederick and a few of the guys from Velocity to ask their thoughts on Dan, while he's not standing there beside me, like at Velocity. The answers are encouraging.

"He's very intelligent," Frederick said. "He picks up a lot of the things I try to teach him real, real well. Every week that we go through, he improves and every time, as we have the last three weeks, we've been doing time drills, he's been getting quicker each and every session that we do. All the movement skills, he's done really well with. His change direction ability is very good, which is good for a d-lineman. Just with all the offensive schemes that NFL teams have and a lot of change of direction work and so forth, he's able to cut and change and able to have good decelerate and re-accelerate. Most of his agility tests have done real well."

Jenkins, a fellow defensive end prospect, says only good things as well. It might also be because Dan has had better times on many of the drills.

"He's determined, he's smart and he works hard," Jenkins said. "He's one of those guys, when I first met him, he was quiet and he was 245-250 pounds and he was fast. I worked out with him today and he's 270-275 pounds and you can't even tell it. He's still as quick as he was when he was 245 pounds. That 20-25 extra pounds to anybody's frame, you can't do anything but work hard to maintain your speed. That just says a whole lot about his character, that he's a hard-worker."


March 12
Dan's working out in the WKU workout facility at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. There's also some familiar faces working out as well.

Cornerback Marcus Minor, Ryan, running back Stephen Willis, linebacker Alonzo Higgins and Dan all seniors last season, workout at generally the same time together. Like Dan, they have hopes of playing at the next level, too.

"It's good to see someone hasn't forgotten about us," Ryan tells me, smiling and out of breath from lifting, as I enter the room.

Ryan tells me he's been training since January 4.

Strangely, I notice as Dan does the bench press, he's wearing a loose fitting, red, WKU, long-sleeved fleece. Don't people usually wear tight fitting clothes so they don't get in the way? But there's a method to the madness. Dan has a habit of raising his rear end in the air when benching. By wearing a red fleece and getting used to lifting with it, he hopes it will mask this habit somewhat.

On the power clean, Dan raises 455. He and Willis take turns spotting each other. But Dan's also available to help anyone else out. He notices junior running back Andrew McCloud eyeing the bench press and offers to spot him, which he does.

Dan also does curls with the weights which have the WKU towel logo and the phrase, 'Topper Power' on each of them.

They'll lift for another 30 minutes or so, before stopping for the day. But Dan doesn't have too much free time. He'll be off to Velocity in the morning.


March 17
Nowell has asked all the guys training to meet him on the field at 3:30. The group consists of Dan, Higgins, Ryan, Willis and Minor. Junior Jihad Morris is also partaking in most of the drills to come.

At 3:25, the guys stretch near the goal line, in front of the scoreboard. Just after 3:30, Nowell jaunts out on the field and asks the guys to gather in the end zone.

Nowell has seen and worked with plenty of top athletes, football players included. Before coming to WKU in 2007, he was the strength and conditioning coach at Mississippi State for three years, West Virginia for two and as assistant strength and conditioning coach at LSU for two years.

"Gentlemen, I hold in my hand, the secret to the league," Nowell tells them, holding the workout he's planned out. "Mental preparation and looking forward to the events is critical."

After he has introduced them to what they're about to do for the day, he has them go through a series of warm-ups, including the prisoner walk, walking knee-ups and quad stretches. As they warm up, he takes me aside and has me raise my right hand. I'm sworn in not to reveal the intricate details of the workout.

In the ten-yard sprint, Dan has bettered his time from just two weeks ago, with 1.68 seconds. Willis runs in 1.50 seconds. Nowell is quick to point out that Indianapolis Colts running back and former LSU tiger Joseph Addai ran in 1.52 seconds. In the 20-yard sprint, Dan clocks in at 2.90.

"You want your head down, but your eyes up a little bit," Nowell tells them. "You've gotta be explosive on your start."

In the L-drill, Dan again betters his time from Velocity, with 7.09 seconds.

Nowell tells the other guys that Dan is doing it the way it should be done.

"Side to side," Nowell says. "See how he's bending? It's all about bending."
The workout lasts just over an hour and a half. The mood of the guys, with Dan particularly, seems loose, but serious at the same time. WKU's pro day is eight days away.


March 24
Dan's grandpa and his dad make the trip down to see Dan perform. They stay at the Drury Inn and Dan goes to hangout and gain words of inspiration.

For the past few days, Dan says he's eaten nothing but grilled chicken, whole wheat pasta and a baked potato with nothing on it.

"I've been doing it myself and I'm not much of a cook, so it's been a challenge," he says.

It's a short visit, though. Dan goes to bed at 11 p.m.

Tomorrow he hopes, the trips and all the time spent readying himself comes to fruition at WKU's pro day.

March 25
Rise and shine for Dan is at 7 a.m., he says.

Breakfast is similar to what he's had for the past few days: scrambled eggs, grilled chicken, baked potato and whole wheat pasta. All provide pure carbohydrates and protein for the workout ahead.

Dan arrives at the stadium at 9 a.m., to meet Rabinowitz, who arrives at about the same time. Rabinowitz and Dan go over the process of the pro day.

Just before the events get underway, Dan and team chaplain Greg Farrell go through their same routine they went through before every football game. They say a prayer together.

The first drills will take place in the weight room at the stadium. There's a group of at least 50, including scouts, players, relatives and football staff. For Dan, his agent, dad, grandpa and Frederick are all here for support.

Scouts in attendance are from the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions.

The Browns scout gives the instructions for the first drill, the bench press. "Keep your butt on the bench, feet on the floor and lock it out," he says.

Dan again wears his red fleece, though he's improved on keeping his rear end on the bench. He reps 21 at 225 pounds.

The scout from the Bengals instructs on the next drill, the broad jump.

"Come up to the tape," he says. "Do not go into the tape. Most important is when you land, stick the jump. Everybody gets two."

Dan and Willis take their best jumps of nine feet, six inches. In the vertical jump, Dan jumps 30 and a half inches, three and a half inches behind Willis, the best overall.

With the inside drills done, normally, the rest would be concluded on the field. The weather had other ideas. Rain had come down steadily and hard at times since early morning. Now, it was a light rain. The consensus is made among the scouts, WKU coaches and players to do the drills in the Preston Center.

The biggest negative with that move is that the scouts will have to adjust the results, to reflect the change of venue.

"I was wanting to run outside, just because that's what we were practicing," Dan would say later. "We never ran on Preston. It's a dirty, student-rec floor. They (scouts) take into account the floor and how bad it was. They'll probably subtract time or put an asterisk by it. They know that and everything. I definitely could've ran lower times. Then in Preston, after I got ready and kinda realized this is just adversity, you need to overcome it."

Changing out of his wet shoes, from walking outside after getting in Preston, Dan and the other players go through brief warm-ups on the far left basketball court.

They'll run on the blue, worn rubbery surface against the back wall, under the platform track. Dan goes first, with little trouble, but after him, the other players noticeably are hindered by the change in surfaces. Defensive tackle Robert Dark falls face first at the end of his 40-yard dash. Dan finishes with times of 4.87 and 4.85 seconds.

Before the L Drill, Dan decides to change shoes again to another running shoe that he hopes will provide more traction. While he changes, Higgins goes. He slides slightly. Dark slides and falls completely.

"We wanna see you bend and touch the line," the Packers scout says. "It's more important to be under control than fast."

Dan finishes with a time of 7.15 seconds in the L-drill and a time of 4.54 in the pro shuttle. The scouts then ask if anyone wants to perform the optional 60-yard shuttle.

"I'm trying to be marketed as a defensive end or outside linebacker," Dan said later. "I remember talking to my agent for like five minutes and just seeing if this was a risk that I do this. If I slipped, that would hurt my stock. I was the only flawless guy and I was putting that on the line. I decided to do it because I was feeling good and I'd been practicing that up at Velocity. I went over there and all the scouts said, 'Cline, you're not doing this because you're a lineman.' I looked at them and said, 'Put me at defensive end, put me at outside linebacker, put me anywhere on your team, I'm doing this drill.' They kinda backed off and said, alright."

After the other players balk at the chance, Dan offers to go. The Patriots scout likes his spirit.

"Cline, I want you to do this 60-yard shuttle," he says.

Dan finishes in 12.10 seconds, tied with Minor for the best mark. Only Willis and Higgins also later go.

With the core drills now complete, Dan has definitely come up big.

"I just told him, if you give it your best, that's all you can ask for," his dad, Doug Cline tells me.

The scouts have decided that want to see more from Dan and Ryan. With a steady mist and drizzle, they wanna put them through more agility and other drills. On the way over to the field, the Browns scout tells Dan's dad and grandpa about the late George Allen, a pro football hall of fame coach inductee, who coached over 20 years in the NFL.

"George Allen would've taken a kid like (Dan)," the scout says. "We'll bring in ten or 12 guys. Then we'll look at our positions and needs."

Dan again impresses the onlookers. In agility drills, he's right on or nearly on every motion. In eight one on one pass rush drills against Greg, arguably the best WKU lineman over the past few years and who's also getting some pro looks, Dan excels on nearly every drill.

After 30 minutes or so, the Patriots and Ravens scouts are still very intrigued by Dan and Greg. The two players go upstairs to the club level and are given two Wunderlic-like tests by the scouts. They both took the test last year and therefore have to be given different versions this time. The tests try to bring out any background red flag issues and also provide some casual talk.

It's done. Dan is now done with the training, the long drives back and forth to Louisville and all the sacrifices he made for this one morning.

"It feels incredible," Dan says that night. "It's more of a sense of relief than anything, a chance to exhale. It's kinda nerve-wracking to think that you got four months to train for two hours. I can't imagine how people in the Olympics feel, four years for just one day. I know that physically, I've done everything I can possibly do. The hay is in the barn, so to speak and everything's done that needs to be done."

Now, all Dan can do is wait. He's done all he can to ready himself and to try to promote himself. There are no more games to play. It'll be a decent wait. But on April 25 and 26, Dan hopes to hear his name called as a draft pick. If not, there's the hope that he'll sign on somewhere as an unsigned free agent. There's also the option of another country, another league. It's a final destination for a player who at once had the odds against him that he'd even see the field much at WKU. Now, he's the model for a program and for himself of achieving what may seem to many as impossible.


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