Darius Fleming cramped up just before his 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, ran a tenth-of-a-second slower than he had hoped to and made the most of it after that. But when you get an audience with Bill Belichick, it’s hard not to consider the weekend a success.
The New England Patriots were among the teams that invited Fleming to a secondary interview at the combine last week in Indianapolis. And regardless of where you’re expected to be drafted – the former St. Rita star is still pegged as a fourth- to seventh-round pick – if Belichick thinks you can play for him, it’s generally a good thing.
The Patriots switched to a 4-3 defense last season but might return to the 3-4 scheme they had played throughout Belichick’s tenure in New England for 2012. That’s key for Fleming, a 6-2, 245-pound linebacker from Notre Dame whose ability to ‘‘set the edge” as a pass rusher in a 3-4 scheme is considered his best fit in the NFL.
‘‘It was a very cool experience,” Fleming said of his visit with the Patriots. ‘‘He’s a great guy. I really look up to him. I appreciate his coaching style. That’s somebody who I would love to play for.”
Players at the combine meet informally with every NFL team in 15-minute sessions when they arrive at Lucas Oil Stadium. Teams that want more information request secondary interviews. The head coach, general manager and position coach are among those who usually attend the formal interview.
‘‘It was pretty much the same stuff – a lot of background questions,” Fleming said. ‘‘There were a couple of football questions at the end [of his interview with the Patriots]. But the biggest thing was character.”
That played to Fleming’s strength. Several players spent much of their interviews with the teams and the media explaining youthful indiscretions. Fleming zipped right through that part. And it’s hardly a perfunctory part of the process. For him, it could be the difference between getting drafted in the fourth round or the seventh. Or not at all.
‘‘The biggest thing for me was that through my college career and childhood, I’ve never had any big problems,” Fleming said. ‘‘Even academics – they look into all of that. That’s something that is really going to help me because character plays a big part when teams are thinking about drafting you.
‘‘Some teams were surprised – ‘Seriously, you’ve never gotten in trouble?’ or things like that. It was actually pretty cool that I could say no to all those things. Most guys have gotten into trouble or had an issue with the law once or twice. I never had any of those problems.”
But two days of intense physicals (‘‘Sometimes there are four or five guys pulling at you at one time,” Fleming said.), the Wonderlic test and all those interviews can take a toll.
‘‘The only thing that hurt me was the 40,” Fleming said. ‘‘Right before I got up to [run], my name was called – and my calves started cramping up. That prevented me from running like I wanted to. I couldn’t stride out like I wanted to. It hurt my whole run because my calves were cramping up.
‘‘I was hydrated, but when you’re having those long days, you kind of forget to drink water throughout the day. It catches up to you.”
Fleming ran a 4.77 in the 40 – he was hoping to run 4.65 – which put him in the middle of the pack among linebackers. He was in the top 10 among linebackers in the bench press (27 reps), the three-cone drill (7.03 seconds) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.28 seconds). He’ll try to improve on his 40, vertical jump (331/2 inches) and broad jump (9 feet, 6 inches) at his Pro Day on April 3 at Notre Dame.
‘‘I’d give him a B-minus,” said Elias Karras, Fleming’s trainer at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park. ‘‘He reached his goals in three of the seven drills. Overall, it was above-average. If he didn’t cramp and ran in the 4.6s, it would’ve been a great day for him.”
‘‘I feel pretty good about it; I think I helped myself,” Fleming said about the combine. ‘‘[The 40] didn’t bother me too much. I know I have another opportunity at my Pro Day. I know I can run faster. My calves won’t be a problem the next time. If I can fix that, I’ll be fine.”