By Joe Scalzo
Chris Elkins grew up in Beaver Falls, Pa., a city located 30 miles from Pittsburgh that is best known for producing Joe Namath and lots and lots of Steeler fans.
Elkins, meanwhile, cheered for the Bucs.
The Tampa Bay Bucs.
“When I was a little, everyone was a Steelers fan and I didn’t want to be like everyone else,” he said. “I used to play them [the Buccaneers] on Madden [video games] and I liked their jerseys and I liked their defense. It just stuck.”
“I’m a fan of whoever wants me,” he said, chuckling.
After earning first team all-conference honors for the second straight year, the lightly recruited Elkins has blossomed into a solid NFL prospect, one of four Penguins with a chance of signing with an NFL team this weekend. The others are tackle Kyle Bryant, quarterback Kurt Hess and punter Nick Liste.
“I’m going into it like I’m going to be [an undrafted] free agent,” Elkins said. “That way, if nothing happens with the draft, I’m not going to be upset about the whole deal. But I’ve gotten a few calls and texts [from NFL teams] that were reassuring, so something might happen.
“Who knows, really?”
Elkins, who is ranked as the 19th best center prospect in the draft by CBS’ NFLDraftScout.com, was chosen for January’s East-West Shrine Game, along with Bryant. Elkins (6-2, 298) then posted impressive measurables at YSU’s Pro Day in March, running a faster 40-yard dash than Hess.
“It’s just been a lot of waiting since then, honestly,” said Elkins, who has heard from teams like Detroit, Denver, San Francisco and Green Bay. “The calls have really picked up recently. This past weekend I got the most calls I’ve ever gotten. Most of them have just been simple pre-draft questions, making sure they have the right contact [number] and making sure I haven’t been injured since pro day.”
His teammates have gotten similar calls — “I’m thinking something will happen this weekend, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” said Liste, a Niles High graduate — and after a long layoff, one thing is clear: They’re ready to play football again.
“It’s tough because it’s just like you’re hanging in the balance,” said Bryant (6-6, 320). “I’m ready for it to be over and done with. Hopefully I do get drafted, and I’m staying positive and optimistic, but if not, I know I’ll be a priority free agent. I’m not worried about that. I just want to get my foot in the door and stick.”
That approach has served past Penguins well. YSU hasn’t had a player drafted since Harry Deligianis in 1998, but there have since been six Penguins who signed as undrafted free agents and went on to play in at least one NFL game: LB Tim Johnson (Ravens, 2001, 2006; Raiders, 2002-05), LB Russell Stuvaints (Steelers, 2003-05), RB Marcus Mason (Redskins, 2007), WR Donald Jones (Bills, 2010-12), CB Brandian Ross (Raiders, 2012-13) and OL Lamar Mady (Raiders, 2013).
Mady was one of three YSU players to sign with NFL teams after last year’s draft, with RB Jamaine Cook spending the last 10 weeks on the Browns’ practice squad and TE Will Shaw earning camp invites with the Steelers and Eagles.
Hess, who holds just about every school passing record after a four-year career, said he’s gotten a couple pre-draft calls from the Miami Dolphins, but Penguins offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery believes if Hess gets into a camp, he’ll have a good chance to stay there.
“He’s one of those guys, along with somebody like Chris Elkins, where if they can just get into camp, I think the coaches will really like them,” said Montgomery, who was the offensive coordinator for Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio). “Kurt’s a guy that’s a smart player, that does what you ask him to do, and you know he’s going to bust his tail to do everything asked of him.
“If he can just get his foot into the door at camp, I think he’ll impress them and he’ll be a guy that’s hard to cut.”