By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007
It took only 4.29 seconds for Geoff Pope's life to change.
That was the time that elapsed as he ran 40 yards in front of NFL scouts at his pro day on March 15, a blazing performance that transformed him from little-known Howard University cornerback into a potential draft pick.
That time was one of the main reasons why Pope worked out for over half of the teams in the league, and why he spent about 30 minutes Tuesday morning backpedaling and cutting and changing direction under the watchful eyes of two members of the Baltimore Ravens' organization, area scout Joe Douglas and secondary coach Dennis Thurman.
"You either have it or you don't," Thurman said. "You can only get so much faster. But in terms of developing technique and fundamentals, you can do those through a combination of drills. What [Pope] has -- straight sheer speed -- you can't coach that. So you have to come take a look at that."
Pope, 22, played on a Bison team that finished 5-6 and wasn't even named first-team all-MEAC (he was second team), but he has attributes -- 6 feet, 193 pounds, terrific speed -- that get noticed by NFL scouts. He had two pro days -- in which he was timed or measured while doing different exercises, like the 40 or the short shuttle or the bench press -- at Howard and held eight private workouts. Last week, he went to Cincinnati for an official visit with the Bengals.
A Howard defensive back has been drafted in each of the past two seasons: In 2005, Ronald Bartell was a second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams, and last year, the Indianapolis Colts took Antoine Bethea in the sixth round. Pope, who transferred from Eastern Michigan before his junior season, could be the third in a row.
"All of them had their little niche. Bartell [6-1, 200] was a great-looking specimen of a football player; he had the speed and all the things you're looking for," said former Howard secondary coach Ron Bolton, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL. "Bethea [5-11, 203] was an overachiever; he came in a small, scrawny guy and worked hard on his craft and became good. Geoff came to me as a kid with a great deal of potential and speed, and given the opportunity to get into the NFL, I feel he'll do a great job."
So far, Bartell and Bethea have played well in the NFL, which has helped Pope. "The fact that a couple of guys from here have gone on and had some success, that gives him a little bit of credibility," Thurman said. Bartell has played in 26 games for the Rams, while Bethea wound up starting for the Super Bowl champions as a rookie.
Pope wasn't as dominant as either of those players at Howard (Bethea was a three-time Black College all-American), and he was injured as a senior. He broke the fourth metacarpal bone in his left (dominant) hand midway through the season, and played the final six games with a cast. He had two interceptions and was named second-team all-conference.
But he is faster than both Bartell and Bethea; NFL scouts first took notice of Pope last spring, when he was timed at 4.31 and 4.33 for the 40 during his junior workouts. Anything faster than a 4.4 is considered to be good for a cornerback, and sub-4.3 speed is elite. According to NFL.com, no defensive back ran faster than 4.32 at this year's combine, and only three players ran a 4.29 at their respective pro days: Pope, Arkansas cornerback Darius Vinnett and Indiana State wide receiver Carl Berman.
"Like I told him, everybody can't have the same story: Go to the combine, work out, get drafted," said Bethea, who is close friends with Pope. "You have to take a different route. His is going to be a little tougher; because we come from a small school, there are different avenues and obstacles."
Pope hired a manager, 27-year-old Omar Sillah, and an agent, former Maryland football captain Chad Wiestling, and they formulated a blueprint for Pope to follow. The first thing was to send Pope to Atlanta to work with speed and strength trainer Chip Smith to prepare him for his workouts with NFL teams.
Most prospects work with Smith for six weeks; Pope, who flew to Atlanta just three days after finishing his finals, stayed for three months. Smith said that in 17 years of training draft prospects, he had never had a player stay as long or work as hard as Pope did.
"We joked that we were going to name our inside running area 'Geoff Pope Hall' because he spent more time in there than anybody else," Smith said.
Pope's main goal was to add muscle while maintaining his speed; he weighed 181 pounds when Howard's season ended. Many of the players who worked alongside him in Atlanta were getting ready for the late February combine, but Pope -- unlike Bartell and Bethea in previous years -- wasn't invited. Instead, he watched it on television while sitting in Smith's office.
"It was tough sitting back in the training facility and watching those guys, and we're looking at them and they're running what I call 'forevers,' which is a bad 40 time," Pope said. "I said I could do that right now, with no training! It was hard. I worked out, I watched the combine that morning, and then I worked out again because it made me so angry."
Since Pope didn't go to the combine, he focused all his energy on preparing for his first pro day -- and in particular, for that 40-yard dash. Smith said that out of the more than 600 NFL players he has trained, only five had run a sub-4.3 before Pope, who now joins a list that includes Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, San Francisco wide receiver Ashley Lelie and Dallas cornerback Terence Newman.
"Everything depended on how fast I was going to run," said Pope, who, as a freshman at Eastern Michigan, placed fourth in the 60-meter dash (6.78) at the Mid-American Conference indoor track championships. "It's a lot of pressure."
Pope and his representatives have been told that he has a mid-round grade, but he realizes that he could just as easily end up undrafted. Two mock drafts illustrate how capricious the business can be: FoxSports.com predicts that the New Orleans Saints will take Pope in the fourth round with the 123rd overall pick, while ESPN.com doesn't have Pope being selected at all.
So this weekend will be nerve-racking for Pope. His mother, Elaine, will host friends and family in Detroit on both Saturday and Sunday, but he doesn't plan on joining them. "They're going to tear the house down, whether I'm there or not," he said.
Instead, he will stay in the D.C. area -- "this is where I put the work in" -- and spend the weekend with either Sillah or Wiestling. Pope has instructed his friends not to call him, or at least not before Sunday night -- he needs to keep his cellphone line open, just in case an NFL team is trying to reach him.
"No matter where I go as far as the draft or what team, I've got my own expectations. I'm going to work hard," Pope said. "Just to get drafted as high as possible would be great, especially coming from a small school, and being the third defensive back from Howard would be pretty big. But any round would be a success to me."