By BRIAN HUNSICKER
At the University of Richmond, Justin McElfish played guard on a line that plowed over opposing defenses, averaging just under 200 rushing yards per game last season. That Richmond averaged 3.9 yards per carry says all that’s necessary about the Spiders offense: Run, run, and run some more. That seems at odds with the NFL’s predominantly pass-first philosophy, but McElfish believes it’s not such a bad thing – he sees himself as a blank slate.
“I’m still considered a raw talent,” said McElfish, an Osbourn Park graduate who’s expected to be a low-round pick or a free agent signee once this weekend’s NFL Draft concludes.
“It’s not like I went to a school where we passed a lot and I did it badly.”
McElfish has spent much of the past seven weeks trying to change perceptions, like the one him being only a run-blocker. In that time, he’s worked with Bob Blainton, a high school strength coach in Richmond who has trained Olympic athletes.
From that time seven weeks ago, McElfish prepared himself for Richmond’s Pro Day, when NFL scouts came to campus to get a feel for the seniors coming out of the Spiders’ program this year. So he brushed up on the common components of workouts in front of scouts: 40-yard dashes, repetitions in a 225-pound bench press and agility drills.
He also kept working in the weight room. In the Spiders’ media guide, McElfish was listed at 290 pounds. Of the 60 offensive linemen listed as starters for last year’s NFL playoff teams, only seven were at 290 or below – and the lightest of them was Tampa center Jeff Christy at 285.
So McElfish increased his bulk to 315, another step in helping to prove he’s not too small to play at the next level.
“I gained a lot in size, and I’m letting [the scouts] see that. I’ve changed my body structure,” McElfish said. “In seven weeks, I gained almost than I did in five years [at Richmond]. It looks fine on paper, but I want them to see I’m 315 pounds and moving as fast as I did.”
One perception McElfish didn’t have to worry about was his intellectual ability. He’s already graduated from Richmond – he finished up in December – and Sports Illustrated’s draft bio uses words like “heady” and “cognizant.”
If he can stick with a team, McElfish thinks he’ll be a practice squad player for his rookie year. But after a year of adjusting to the NFL and getting coached in the best way at pass blocking, he feels he can make an impact down the road.
He’s already been exposed to some NFL coaching. Washington held a regional combine and McElfish, along with other selected regional players, were invited to showcase their skills for the Redskins and player of personnel Vinny Cerrato. McElfish said he received favorable reviews for his performance and got a chance to work with Redskins offensive line coach Kim Helton.
The one preconception McElfish won’t be able to overcome is where he played his college ball. According to Sports Illustrated’s Web site, the top of the guard class features players from schools like Southern Miss, Hawaii, Florida State and Texas – all Division I-A. Players from Richmond and other I-AA schools will likely always face questions about whether they’ve been sufficiently exposed to the type of talent they’ll see regularly on Sundays, and whether they’re ready to move from a stadium like Richmond’s (capacity: 22,000) to places like FedEx Field (capacity: 86,484).
McElfish was a small player, by NFL standards, at a small school, compared to most of those that will be selected before him. He’s worked hard to let the NFL know that the McElfish in a Spiders uniform won’t be the same one that suits up in late July at training camp.
On Sunday night, he’ll find out if all those preparations were enough to overcome those preconceptions.