All Nathan Cottrell could do was laugh. It was a recent phone call with an NFL scout who had watched the former Georgia Tech receiver/running back’s special-teams game video.
The scout, Cottrell said, told him that his team had rated him as its top special-teams player on its draft board.
“I was on the phone and I got that compliment and I started giggling like a little kid,” Cottrell told the AJC. “I was like, what? I was like, thank you so much, but on the inside, I was doing backflips. It was wild.”
In the seven-round NFL draft that runs Thursday through Saturday, chances aren’t great that any of the four draft-eligible Yellow Jackets (safety Christian Campbell, tight end Tyler Davis, offensive lineman Jared Southers and Cottrell) will be selected. Likely, Davis has the highest chance. But undrafted free-agent deals seem like a probable outcome.
>> NFL hopefuls: Tyler Davis | Keshun Freeman | T.J. Barnes
Cottrell, who started a total of four games in his Tech career, would take any foot in the door, and conversations that he said he has had with NFL teams suggest he’ll get one.
“That’s all I can ask for,” Cottrell said. “Whatever opportunity I get, I’ll be incredibly thankful for and definitely will take full advantage of.”
Cottrell named seven teams – Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles Rams, Miami, New England and New York Giants – who have reached out to him either through scouts or special-teams coordinators since Tech’s Pro Day on March 11, where he opened eyes by tearing through the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.
Immediately after the workout, Cottrell said, representatives from the Giants and Chargers both spoke with him. The 40 time undoubtedly won him attention. At the NFL combine, only two prospects ran faster, although the combine’s timing system is automated and often slower than hand-timed results.
(On the other hand, Cottrell ran a 4.35 on an automated timer in high school. Also, Tech strength coach Lewis Caralla, with whom Cottrell did his Pro Day training, clocked Cottrell at the Pro Day in a possibly dubious 4.28. Said Cottrell, “He said, ‘I got this (time) because I love you.’”)
Whatever the impact of his 40 time and workout, they only reinforced his play this past season on special teams. Picked out by coach Geoff Collins to be a special-teams contributor, Cottrell played on the kickoff, punt, kickoff-return and punt-return units and finished the season with nine tackles. He did so despite the fact that his only special-teams experience before last season, he said, was a limited role as a kickoff returner.
Cottrell stood out to Collins not only for his speed, but the effort he gave on each practice repetition that he took.
“He showed early in all of the special-teams work and special-teams drills we did that he was a guy that we were going to be able to count on,” Collins told the AJC.
At first, Cottrell said, he wasn’t sure how to do the jobs, but gained familiarity with practice repetitions and instruction from the likes of safeties coach Nathan Burton, who worked with the gunners on the punt team. He learned intricacies such as which angle to take when running downfield, how to shed blocks and make tackles.
“By the end of the year, it was just second nature to me, which was really good because at that point, you’re able to slow plays down in your head,” Cottrell said. “You can get a wider vision of everything happening and get more of a natural feel for it.”
While fans may remember him most for his 41-yard touchdown reception from punter Pressley Harvin on a fake punt against Miami, the play that perhaps best represents his progress happened against Georgia.
On a second-quarter punt, Cottrell raced down the field, running well clear of the Bulldogs player assigned to block him and bore down on returner Dominick Blaylock. Perhaps sensing Cottrell lining him up for a clean shot, Blaylock muffed the punt. Cottrell drove into Blaylock to separate him from the ball and in the process knocked the ball toward the goal line.
When Georgia’s Tyler Simmons dove to recover the ball, Cottrell made a heads-up play. Rather than dive for the ball, Cottrell went for Simmons to pull him away from the ball. The next four players to the ball all were Yellow Jackets, including Tyler Cooksey, who recovered it. Cottrell called it a play made with instinct and an understanding of the scheme, one he’s not sure he could have made at the start of the season.
“I was like, all right, I’ve got to get him off the ball at least to allow one of my teammates to get it,” Cottrell said. “The way our (punt) team was set up, if a gunner missed a tackle, then the next nine guys should be there to make the tackle.”
Such plays apparently have drawn the attention of scouts and special-teams coordinators. Besides the scout who told him he was No. 1 on his team’s board for special-teams players, Cottrell said another scout told him he was rated as the top special-teams player in the Southeast. Collins said that two teams have told him that Cottrell is No. 1 on their boards for special-teams players.
“When you think of the terms of that, it’s just absolutely mind-blowing,” Cottrell said. “I just never would have thought that it would come to this.”
Cottrell lately has been driving up to Forsyth County to work out with Richard Camp, father of Jackets Jalen and Jamal Camp, while trying to observe social-distancing guidelines. He’ll go back home to Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend to wait for his chance.
“I would never have thought in a million years I’d be in this position,” Cottrell said. “It’s been fun coming up to this draft week. We’ll just kind of have to see how things play out, whether it’s a free-agent deal or what. Either way, I’m extremely excited and blessed to even have this opportunity.”