It began when Bill Belichick walked to a corner of the Georgia indoor facility. The area cleared, and the four players gathered around him. At first, it looked like it would just be a nice brief opportunity to meet the New England Patriots coach. But then it kept going.
Over the next 20 minutes the coach considered by many to be the most accomplished coach in NFL history personally ran drills with the four Georgia starting linebackers during its playoff run: Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Reggie Carter.
“Control the block. Don’t get off it. Control it,” Belichick said, calmly but firmly guiding the four linebackers through one drill.
“Knock it out. Finish. Finish!” Belichick said at another point.
Belichick’s aide during the drill: Matt Patricia, the new Detroit Lions coach who had been the New England Patriots’ defensive coordinator. The occasion was UGA’s pro day, which turned into a public mini-tryout for Georgia’s now-former linebackers with the most recognizable, and accomplished, coach in the NFL.
“It’s crazy. It’s kind of surreal,” Lorenzo Carter said. “Growing up I was a Pats fan. So seeing Bill, having Coach Belichick work us through drills it’s cool. But it’s what we work for.”
It wasn’t a surprise that Belichick, who politely declined an interview request afterward, was in attendance. He’s come before; he personally worked out offensive lineman David Andrews in preparation for the 2015 draft. Andrews went undrafted, the Patriots signed him as a free agent, and Andrews just started a second-straight Super Bowl.
This time the star power at UGA was quite evident: Smith headlines a draft class that could be the best in Georgia history, with as many as five players projected to be selected in the first four rounds, including three who could go in the first round.
Every NFL team sent at least one person. Four NFL coaches attended: Belichick, Patricia, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and Atlanta’s Dan Quinn. So did personnel people, including Falcons’ general manager Tom Dimitroff, who lauded the four Georgia linebackers.
“It’s such a talented group,” Dimitroff said. “They’re big guys who have range. When you talk about Lo Carter or you talk about Roquan, those guys can fly. Their range is so important for our defense.”
“It’s an honor to say we coached them, but it’s even better to see them do what they want to do,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “And to do it in front of a wonderful audience. I mean, who gets to do linebacker drills with Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia?”
The somewhat-impromptu session happened near the end of the pro day. When Belichick has attended in the past he has mostly watched. The NFL draft process is so cloak and dagger, with teams not wanting other teams to know who they’re working out or what they’re thinking.
This, however, was in full view of everybody. Which doesn’t mean the Patriots are about to select one of those four. (They’d have to trade up from their No. 31 overall pick to get Smith.) Smart opined it was just about Belichick wanting to be involved.
“I know he’s got a passion, he loves the game, he loves coaching,” Smart said. “So it’s a chance for him to get out there and coach guys and make them better – and evaluate talent.”
It led to one accidental moment: Smith knocked over Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, who was assisting in a drill in which linebackers are asked to jump from a stance and push off. Bellamy and Carter had done so without incident, but when it was Smith’s turn, he knocked the 68-year-old Pasqualoni to the ground.
“I don’t know what I did, if I hit it a little awkward or anything to make him flip like that,” Smith said. “But I was just trying to get a work in.”
Smith was asked if he apologized.
“No I didn’t apologize,” Smith said with an incredulous smile.
The day wasn’t all about those four starting linebackers and their very public tryout. Georgia had 22 players working out. A few other notables:
- Javon Wims, the team’s leading receiver last year, said he improved his time in the 40-yard dash, from 4.53 at the NFL combine last month to 4.47 on Wednesday.
- Punter Cameron Nizialek boomed some punts into the roof at the indoor facility.
- Tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb caught some passes but didn’t run or lift.
- Aaron Davis, the four-year starter in the secondary who was snubbed for an invite to the NFL combine, tried to make up for it, showing scouts his speed and catching ability.
But the highlight was the four linebackers working with the legendary head coach. They were what Smart called “recognition drills” that are more standard for a team practice, and typically aren’t done at the combine. Belichick was very hands on, running with the players during part of the drills.
When it ended, the four linebackers gathered around, and Belichick extended his hand.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Belichick said, shaking each of their hands.
Smith later played the session off as no big deal. (“My job is to get the work done, and that’s end of it,” he said.) And so did Bellamy.
“Everybody’s going to be like, ‘Whoa, that’s Bill Belichick.’ But at the end of the day he’s here to work me out,” Bellamy said. “And any coach here that’s here to work me out I’m going to give 110 [percent] for. So I was just locked in and giving it all I had.”