Believe it or not, the 2020 NFL Draft is less than a week away, offering some semblance of professional sports entertainment since the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down collegiate and professional sports across the country.
Despite the pandemic and the tight restrictions it has placed on thousands of college football players across the country, players have still been gearing up for the NFL Draft, hoping one of the 32 NFL teams calls their name over the three day period from April 23-25.
But the reality has been tough for these NFL hopefuls, as all NCAA football facilities are closed to staff and students to train, pro days for a majority of Division I schools were shut down and video and phone calls are the only forms of communication between players and scouts.
Former Iowa State long snapper Steve Wirtel is living in that reality and has been faced with preparing for the biggest moment of his life in the middle of a global pandemic.
Despite the circumstances, Wirtel's confidence is sky high, detailing what his process leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft has been like in a phone interview with the Iowa State Daily.
Wirtel said he is still in Ames, Iowa, training and lifting weights as much as he can and will head back home to Orland Park, Illinois, the week of the draft to be with his family. Wirtel said he has trained as much as possible given that the Iowa State football facility is closed and most public gyms are closed as well.
'Blessing in disguise'
As the only representative from Iowa State to get an invite to the NFL Combine back in late February, Wirtel knew from the beginning that his invite to the NFL Combine was a blessing.
But now, with COVID-19 shutting down multiple opportunities for himself and his former teammates, Wirtel views his combine invite, giving him the ability to show his skills to NFL talent, as a true blessing. With that blessing, his goal of playing in the NFL was given an advantage that most players didn't receive.
Wirtel showed his skills in a big way at the combine, setting an NFL Combine record with his 4.76 40-yard dash, the fastest time by a long snapper in combine history. Wirtel measured a 26.0 inch vertical jump and put up 19 reps on the bench press.
Wirtel said he met with close to every team at the combine and said he felt that his performance was the best version of himself.
But for players that didn't get a chance to participate at the combine, the option of filming a virtual pro day for NFL scouts to get a look at their skills is the last option. Former TCU wide receiver Jalen Reagor filmed a pro day for NFL teams and showed his speed and athletic ability.
For Wirtel, no virtual pro day is needed.
"Actually, every team has been very satisfied with my combine performance," Wirtel said. "It really was a blessing in disguise, and I took my opportunity and ran with it. I feel like I really gave them that ‘wow’ factor."
In Wirtel's opinion, the biggest thing a snapper can show at the combine isn't how fast they can snap the ball or how accurate the snap is, rather, it's showing the ability to get down field and make plays for your team.
Wirtel said teams wanted to evaluate how athletic each long snapper would be on special teams after the ball was snapped and how much of an impact they might have on blocking downfield and making tackles.
“I was kind of licking my chops to show I’m a football player and show my athletic ability and put up numbers that align with a lot of other guys," Wirtel said.
Wirtel's teammates who didn't get invited to the NFL Combine had their biggest opportunity taken away from them due to COVID-19, with the virus shutting down Iowa State's pro day originally scheduled for March 24. For players like Marcel Spears Jr., Ray Lima, Deshaunte Jones and others, the best way for NFL evaluators to see their skills outside of the combine was gone.
Wirtel feels for his former teammates, as he knows Iowa State's pro day would have been their best opportunity to show off in front of NFL scouts.
Wirtel mentioned that during his talks with team representatives at the NFL Combine, he threw out some names of his former teammates to scouts, hoping they would give his former teammates a look.
"All of those guys have great tape, the film speaks for itself for all of them," Wirtel said.
Despite the odds that being a specialist lends itself to the possibility that Wirtel could end up being a fringe late-round selection, the four year long snapper for the Cyclones made it clear he is as confident in his chances of getting drafted as ever, even with a global pandemic looming large.
Wirtel said he always has confidence in himself and knows he showed NFL evaluators his best at the combine back in February. Wirtel said his opportunities at the NFL Combine and Reese's Senior Bowl allowed teams multiple chances to see all the skills he brings to the table, skills he feels separate him from the rest.
"I feel like I separated myself from the rest of the snappers in the country. I really do think I’m the best long snapper in the country," Wirtel said.
Wirtel's confidence is backed up by his consistent grades from NFL draft analysts, making him one of the highest-rated specialists in this year's draft. The confidence could also come from the fact that the NFL Draft has seen a rise in the selection of long snappers over the last five years.
In each of the last five drafts, one long snapper has been selected. Here are the three most recent examples:
2019: Austin Cutting drafted by the Minnesota Vikings with the 250th pick in the seventh round from Air Force.
2018: Hunter Bradley drafted by the Green Bay Packers with the 239th pick in the seventh round from Mississippi State.
2017: Colin Holba drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 213th pick in the sixth round from Louisville. Holba is now on the New York Giants.
Dream come true?
Wirtel's hometown may be about a 35 minute drive to Chicago, Illinois, home of the Chicago Bears, but Wirtel said he grew up rooting for a different team, the Washington Redskins.
Wirtel said he has tons of Washington Redskins gear, jerseys and memorabilia and said if the Redskins gave him a call on draft night, it would be nothing short of a childhood dream come true.
"It would literally be a dream come true for me to get drafted by my childhood team," Wirtel said. "Obviously whatever team is willing to take a chance on me, I’m going to be super excited and grateful.”