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The Combine Interview: Inside the Chargers' Closed Door Meeting with a Top Prospect

Millions of fans around the world watch the Scouting Combine each year, keeping a close eye on how the NFL's future stars perform in the spotlight.

However, the most crucial moments for each prospect takes place in complete secrecy behind locked doors.

Every night from 6:00pm to 10:00pm, teams take their spot at the Train Station, holding court in private rooms as they grill prospects one-on-one.  Teams can schedule up to 60 of these formal interviews in 15-minute increments.

It is only one piece of the puzzle, but an important one.

It's the first time they get the chance to meet with a prospect they have on their draft board.

"It wasn't with the Chargers, but there was one team I was with where we took a player completely off our board after our interview with him at the Combine," recollects Director of Player Personnel JoJo Wooden. "It doesn't happen often, but it can make or break a player.  We had some worries, and hearing him talk, it confirmed things and we realized that player wasn't for us."

General Manager Tom Telesco can't recall a time he removed someone completely off the draft board, but noted the team may proceed differently with the prospect based on the interview.

"We won't take a kid and drop him off the board because of a 15 minute interview," Telesco says. "But, maybe we'll go visit him at his college or go back and scout him some more as a result.  We learn a lot in these interviews. Each kid has a different story, and it's our job (find out) what it is."

As a result, fans understandably clamor to know what goes on inside these secret interviews.  It's the Holy Grail for reporters as well, prodding each prospect about who they met with and what they were asked about.

Everyone longs to know what truly goes on inside the interview room, but few really know.

Until now.

For the first time ever, the Chargers are lifting the veil of secrecy to give fans a sneak peek at what goes on behind closed doors.

Of course, confidentiality is a must, so we can't reveal the prospect's name that is detailed below.

However, he is a well-known wide receiver who many mock drafts project to be selected in the first or second round of the NFL Draft.

We will refer to him simply as Prospect X.

Now, take a peek behind the veil as the Chargers interview one of the 2017 NFL Draft's top prospects.

Part 1: The Night Before

It's Tuesday night and Kevin Kelly is busy in his hotel room.

The Chargers' Director of College Scouting is cultivating his game plan for the next night's round of interviews, taking a year's worth of information for the dozen or so players the team will meet with and condensing it into only a half dozen or so questions.

Kelly leads off every formal interview for the Bolts at the Combine, but the amount of time he has with each player varies.  The list of 60 includes prospects ranging from first round locks to late round targets. The information they already have varies based on a number of factors, including the school, conference and university policies; not to mention differences in their personality, performance and history off the field.

Each player requires a custom interview game plan tailored specifically around his past, present and future. 

Prospect X has very few question marks when it comes to his life off the field, so Kelly's line of questioning will revolve mainly around his play and football decisions.

It's an art form, and one Kelly has mastered over 17 seasons in the business.  He's perfected it since joining the Chargers in 2013.

"I always say when you are at the school scouting, you are like a private investigator," he explains. "You talk to everybody about the kid, but you don't talk to the player.  Well, here is our chance to finally meet him. I want to feel him out.  I want to feel his competitiveness.  I want to look in his eye and see what he stands for.  You learn a lot just by his body language.  You learn to trust your instinct on people and players."

Part 2: The First Five Minutes

It's Wednesday night approaching the 10:00pm hour and the horn sounds throughout the Crown Plaza.

The 15 minutes start now.

Each team has set up shop in their own room in what is better known as the Train Station, and it's where they'll convene all week long to conduct the formal interviews.

Every second counts when you only have 15 minutes, and a few have already passed from when the interview was supposed to begin.  Just as the Bolts start to wonder where he is, Player X is escorted into the room.

The player shakes hands and introduces himself to the 10 members of the Chargers front office who are present.  They all offer quick pleasantries as he takes his seat in the middle of the room.

Directly in front of him a few feet away is Kelly, the stopwatch on his phone visible by his side as he keeps track of every second ticking by.  Telesco and Wooden sit to his left on a black leather couch, followed by President of Football Operations John Spanos and a pair of scouts.

To Kelly's right are the three coaches sitting in on today's meeting.  They include Head Coach Anthony Lynn, Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Wide Receivers Coach Nick Sirianni.

Behind the player is a video screen with a play ready to be dissected.

Over his left shoulder is a white board with multiple players diagramed.

Prospect X takes a quick glance at it as he takes his seat, but that part comes later. 

First, the Bolts want to know more about the person, not the player. 

Kelly begins asking him about his background and family, getting a better glimpse into the character of the man.

The wideout answers each question directly and honestly in a polite, straightforward manner. He mentions those he holds dearest in his heart and explains how they helped mold him into the person he is today.

The Bolts also want to delve into the player's injury history. They ask about his health, aiming to clarify information they already have.

No matter if you have a completely clean bill of health or a past checkered with numerous surgeries, the Chargers place emphasis on making sure they have complete and full medical information.

Prospect X is a bit tense early on, but he quickly begins to relax.  That's how it usually goes in these interviews, which is why Kelly does his best to put the player's mind at ease.

"I want the kid to feel comfortable," he later explains.  "I want to see his personality come out. We understand that he walks in and he is on the hot seat in front of 10 people.  It's natural (to be nervous). We know so much about each kid, but in every interview, there is always new information that we learn.  Sometimes it's even their personality, make up or football IQ that comes off differently than their college coaches described. That can be good or bad; it goes both ways. But there is nothing like getting to know the player's make up, character and competitiveness. You can tell the kid's maturity (level).  Just like when you meet people, first impressions are usually pretty accurate."

There aren't any red flags in Prospect X's background, so the topic quickly changes to football. Kelly asks him about his career at school, wanting specific information about events each year as well as major decisions made along the way. 

The prospect provides important insight into the type of player the Bolts would get with each answer. Everyone in the suite has their eyes glued to him as they jot down notes.  Lynn interrupts for clarification regarding something from his sophomore season.  Meanwhile, Telesco wants more information about the player's high school playing days. 

The GM wants to know why he made the decision to play against certain players compared to others.

"Because I'm competitive," Prospect X responds.

Then, Kelly asks about a specific game that occurred last fall in which he struggled.

Prospect X doesn't offer any BS.

He explains he expected different coverages going into the game than they saw on the field, and he, as well as the team, struggled to adjust.

And just like that, Kelly's time with Prospect X is over.

"There is so much preparation that goes into narrowing down what we really need to know about that specific player, and then it is over so fast," Kelly explains.  "I've got to keep it tight, so there is no room to really (improvise). I do listen to the answer, and if there is something I'm not comfortable with of course I can follow up.  And sometimes that comes later when we have our 30 player visits.  There are a lot of moving parts, and that's why there is so much preparation that goes into each kid's interview. The time we have with him goes quickly, and then I need to get him over to the coaches."

Part 3: The Whiteboard

Just under 10 minutes remain and time is going fast when Sirianni jumps to the front of the room.

Kelly explains to Prospect X that the team's wide receiver coach will now go over a couple of plays on the white board.

Speaking a mile a minute, Sirianni describes the multiple plays already drawn up.

Prospect X sits back in his chair, his eyes looking at the whiteboard and never at Sirianni.

He is trying to soak in as much as he can, but it is a lot to comprehend.

The Bolts purposely make it as complex as possible as they attempt to learn the player's ability to process, comprehend and recall information.

How does he grasp the terminology?

Does he understand the concepts and why he's asked to run the route in certain ways?

Does he remember how he must adapt depending on the defense's coverage?

The Chargers don't necessarily judge how the player processes the information.  At the very least, they are getting a baseline for what to expect once the player enters the building should they draft him.

"This interview is more important for the coaching aspects (than scouting) just to get a gauge of where a guy is mentally," Wooden says. "It's great to get him on the board and just start talking ball with him. We find out a lot about who he is when it comes to football. Is he soft-spoken?  Is he loud?  Is he confident? How is his memory?  How did he pick things up? How did he solve the play? For me, we see how he puts everything together."

Where is he at in his own development?

What is his ability to process and recall?

Do they have to teach him from scratch, or did his college coaches prepare him for a smooth transition?

This all occurs in about 90 seconds.

Now the attention turns to the video screen.

Part 4: The Film Review

A third down play from last season flashes on the screen, and the Chargers want to know as much information as possible about what went down. 

Sirianni peppers him with questions.

Who was on the field with him?

Who did he line up against?

What was each player's responsibility?

Why did he run the route he did?

The prospect is able to recall most of the answers.  Some he can't as the staff jots down every bit of information.

"These kids do a lot of prep work getting ready to perform that they don't really go over their seasons," Wooden later explains. "They've been away from football for a bit, so you put their film on and they get excited about it. And then you start asking about plays maybe from September, and they don't remember specifics sometimes.  Or maybe it was a year ago when they were an underclassman.  So it can be tough sometimes on them."

The play itself was a success as the wideout gained separation at the top of his route to move the chains.

Now Whisenhunt chimes in.

"Why did you come off your route like that?"

The wideout explains how even though he moved the chains, he came out of his break too flat. Instead he should have angled back to the ball.

Whisenhunt follows up.

"What can happen if you run routes flat like that?"

Prospect X explains he gave the corner a better chance to jump the route and make a play on the ball.

Now it's time for the next play from his college career.

The questions are quite similar.

What type of coverage did you hope to see when it was called?

What was your responsibility?

Who was the first option on the play?

What was the name of the route?

The prospect responds as quickly and accurately as he can.

The same process is repeated for a handful of plays.

Meanwhile, Telesco checks his watch to see how much time they have with the wideout.

Every. Second. Counts.

Part 5: The Two-Minute Warning

The horn blares again throughout the Train Station.

It's the two minute warning.

Sirianni goes back to the whiteboard and the prospect is put to what might be his toughest task yet – recalling the exact play, terminology and responsibilities outlined eight minutes earlier.

It is purposely complex.

The wide receiver does his best, recalling much while admitting there are some he can't remember.

This is no surprise.  The prospects are being pushed to their mental limits.

He is asked to identify coverages on the new play he has been presented, and what he would do if he is played certain ways by the defense. 

"There is a lot of information that is going to be thrown at him week to week in the NFL," Wooden says after the interview. "There may be something in Week 6 where you didn't prepare for it, but you have to go back and remember what happened in Week 2 and what happened in that game.  Sometimes in this league, you have to remember what happened three years ago when you went up against a player you are facing now.  So this gives us an idea mentally how big his mind is."

The horn blows again. 

Prospect X rises to his feet as does every member of the Chargers front office.  They shake hands, wish him well and just like that he is gone.

One prospect leaves.

The next one enters.

Another blast of the horn and the process repeats again.

Part 6: The End Result

So how did Prospect X fare?

"There wasn't anything we necessarily didn't like," Wooden says.  "There were no red flags that caused him to fall down our draft board. I've seen him play.  I know what he can do on the field.  Our scouts have gone into the school so we know what he can do."

If anything, the team now has a much better sense of how he'd fit into the locker room.  They know where he is at in his development, how to best teach him and what his baseline will be from day one.

"For me, I got a good sense of where he'll be at if we draft him and that is very important," Wooden continues.  "This is the first time we had a chance to talk with him, so I know who the guy is.  If he comes into the organization, I know where he will be at when he comes into the meeting room.  I see how he responds to coaching.  I know where he's at for his starting point."

Kelly agrees with Wooden's assessment.

"We were looking for things like his maturity, life skills, football preparation (and so on). We got a good feel for him there.  It's only 15 minutes, but we have a better idea of who he is now.  This is the first time we had a chance to talk with him and feel him (out). We saw his personality come out, and that's important."

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