Penguins make their case for the NFL Draft at YSU’s Pro Day

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes. YSU receiver Bryce Oliver snags a pass with one hand during Pro Day drills on Wednesday at the WATTS.

YOUNGSTOWN — Former Youngstown State star running back Jaleel McLaughlin established the blueprint last year. Now with the NFL Draft coming up, this year’s class of draft-eligible Penguins are trying to follow it.

McLaughlin, who played at Notre Dame College in 2018 and 2019 before transferring to YSU from 2020 to 2022, broke the NCAA’s all-time career rushing record in his final season with the Penguins. After a strong Pro Day showing, he went undrafted before signing as an undrafted free agent with the Denver Broncos.

He then made his way through OTAs and training camp before finally making Denver’s 53-man final roster before the start of the 2023 NFL season. As a rookie, McLaughlin ran for 410 yards and a touchdown, while also tallying 160 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.

“He set that foundation way back when he was here,” YSU receiver Bryce Oliver said. “Sometimes people would catch him (working out) three hours before practice started at 2 a.m. — he’d be working when nobody else was looking. So he set that blueprint way before he got to the NFL, to that next level. When people see that and notice that, they want to take that next step themselves. So I think he was a big influence and a big leader in the way he showed how to put your head down and work.”

Oliver was one of seven Penguins players who worked out Wednesday as part of YSU’s annual Pro Day in the hope of following McLaughlin to the next level.

Oliver, quarterback Mitch Davidson, running back Dra Rushton, linebacker Greg Benton Jr., offensive lineman Ryan Johnson and defensive backs Quincy Lenton and Marcus Hooker all went through NFL Combine-type drills at the Watson and Tressel Training Site in front of family, friends, teammates and NFL scouts from the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers.

“(We’ve) just been preparing for this Pro Day, for this one day,” Oliver said. “You put in 8-10 weeks of work for just two hours (of drills). So I’m just taking this thing day-by-day and soaking it all in because we’re only going to get one shot at this.”

Notre Dame College defensive back and Maple Heights native Antoine Holloway II also made the trip down from the Cleveland area to participate in Pro Day.

The players started off with the vertical jump and the bench press inside the football facility in Stambaugh Stadium. Hooker had the best vertical, with a 36-inch jump. Benton jumped 33.5 inches, while Davidson, Johnson and Lenton all measured at 33 inches.

On the bench press, Benton led the group with 16 reps, followed by Lenton with 13 and Oliver with 12. Then the players made their way to the WATTS for the field drills.

Hooker had the best broad jump, measuring at 10-feet, 4 inches. Benton, Davidson and Oliver each also eclipsed the 10-foot mark.

“I think I did pretty well,” said Rushton, a Youngstown native and Liberty product. “There’s some things I trained better in, but either slipped or just didn’t get out the way I wanted to. But overall, I thought it was a good day. The work definitely showed.”

The players also did the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill and open field passing and catching drills with the receivers and defensive backs. Benton surprised with his speed, posting 4.53 and 4.56 unofficial 40-yard dash times, while Oliver had the fastest times with 4.48 and 4.53 unofficially.

Oliver had one drop in the passing drills that he was unhappy about, but he redeemed himself with a clean one-handed catch along the sideline on a corner route on his next rep.

“There’s always room for improvement. I dropped a ball I know I should have caught for sure,” Oliver said. “That’s kind of routine, you’ve seen me make one-handed catches before in game. So it’s nothing new to me. That’s just the connection that me and Mitch have.”

Since YSU’s season ended in the FCS playoffs against Villanova back in December, each of the seven Penguins have been preparing for the draft process with their respective agencies.

They’ve each been working out, corresponding with scouts and getting feedback, and in Davidson and Oliver’s case, they each played in the Trillion Tropical Bowl in January, which is a showcase for FBS and FCS players in front of NFL and UFL representatives.

Oliver has been down in Boca Raton, Florida training, while Davidson has been over in Columbus working with former Ohio State and NFL QB Cardale Jones the past few months.

“I don’t even say it’s nervousness. Me and Cardale actually have talked about this a lot. It’s anxiousness, it’s like the nerves you get before a game,” Davidson said of the preparation and lead up to Pro Day. “It’s anxious nerves, and that’s good. I take that positively. Going through this whole process, we’ve taken 12 weeks to prepare for this moment today. I felt more than prepared. Coming out here, the first rep on a vertical I was a little shaky, but after I got that first one, I was like, alright — it’s go time. It’s game day.”

Ultimately, each of them is just hoping to get a similar opportunity that McLaughlin had.

“My agency has told me that a few teams said they were looking at my film and they liked the things they saw,” Rushton said. “I know if I get on a team, I’m going to stay on a team (just like McLaughlin). So I’m just hoping to get a call and we’re putting everything in God’s hands.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Neel Madhavan by email at nmadhavan@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @NeelMadhavan.


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