INDIANAPOLIS – It's a big deal among offensive linemen. Centers who can play guard. Guards and tackles who can be interchangeable, with the best of those also being able to go from left to right or vice versa. That's position flexibility, and teams find out about that during training camp.
What Carnell Lake did here in 1989 is way beyond that. When he took part in the NFL Scouting Combine as a player, Carnell Lake re-made himself. What Denard Robinson is trying to do right now is what Antwaan Randle El did in 2002 in going from quarterback to receiver/returner, but Lake's assignment was tougher. He was making the move from college linebacker to NFL safety. The guy who had 25.5 sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss in college was moving to the secondary in a league where the hot offensive trend was the run-and-shoot.
I knew I was going to try to make the transition from linebacker to safety," said Lake, "and so what I really was trying to do was to shed myself of all linebacker thoughts."
Lake played in both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, but he knew he needed to show NFL scouts more if he was going to entice them to use a draft pick on him. Bill Nunn is one of the greatest scouts of all time, and his philosophy on defensive backs always has been that you watch to see if the guy has the requisite athletic skills and movement. If a guy has that, then Nunn believes he can be coached to play the position the way his team wants it done.
"What I thought I would do in my preparation for the Combine was I didn't worry about the bench press, because I knew I'd be strong enough for cornerback or safety," said Lake. "I wanted to make sure I was ready for the 40 and the vertical jump and the other drills I would have to do. So once the Senior Bowl ended, I didn't go into the weight room hardly at all. I just went onto the field and ran 40s and did defensive back drills."
Lake played on a UCLA defense that included Daryl Henley, a cornerback who ended up drafted in the second round by the Rams that same year, and for Lake there was no stint at a performance camp or paying a private trainer. He simply asked Henley to show him some defensive back drills he could practice on his own.
"When I got to the Combine, they didn't tell me what group I was going to be in," said Lake. "Initially, they threw me in with the linebackers, and I knocked that out. I wasn't worried about doing the 40, or the vertical, or the cone drills with the linebackers. I figured I'm probably going to be faster than those guys anyway. What I was concerned about was whether they would put me in the defensive backs drills. It turned out they put me in both. So on the day of the workouts, I had to stay. I did the linebacker drills with the linebackers, and then they told me to stay and I did the defensive backs drills with the DBs. I had to work out twice that day."
And so it was that Lake's Combine experience included working in the same linebackers group with Derrick Thomas and then running the 40 with the defensive backs group that included Deion Sanders. Also at that time, players did the bench press and the 40 on the same day, at least those players who weren't sufficiently big-time to avoid it.
"I'm exhausted after I finished the linebacker drills, and Deion is over there warming up for the 40," said Lake. "Deion said, 'I'm just running the 40. I'm not doing any of that other stuff.' And I thought to myself, man, I wish I had it like that. I was bench pressing and stretching and jumping. When the 40 times came out, I thought, I'll bet I would've been a lot closer to Deion's time if I didn't have to do all of that other stuff."
But doing all of that other stuff caught the attention of the Steelers, and they used a second-round pick, the 34th overall, on a player who would go on to fashion a career that resulted in him being one of 33 players on the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team.
Whether Robinson can use his time here to lay the foundation for an NFL career at another position as Carnell Lake did is a story still being written. But what's going on here – these drills and measurements and tests – Lake is telling you they have value.
"It definitely helped me," said Lake. "People got an opportunity to see me, at least in shorts, doing workouts at a position I never had in college. Even though I played some safety in the college all-star games, teams got a chance to see me a little bit closer at the Combine. Maybe by performing well at the Combine I gave teams a chance to maybe consider me where before the Combine they had not. When people put on my college tape, they saw I could blitz, tackle, take on linemen, but could I backpedal and cover? I started to chip away at those things at the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shine Game, but I still really didn't know what I was doing. Then at the Combine, I just wanted to knock it out, at least in the 40, to show that there was some talent there. What I have seen over the years is that teams will pick guys based on talent, especially the Steelers."
That's what the Steelers did in the 1970s, what they did with Lake in 1989. It's what Lake is doing with the Steelers now as their defensive backs coach.
"You have to start with talent first," said Lake. "When I look at players, sometimes I look at the on-field deficiencies they have and decide that those things are correctable. Some people might not see it that way, but I do. I see the issues a guy has, and we just need to get those issues corrected. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can't. Maybe there is a learning issue there, I don't know. You try to work through those issues one by one. It's definitely talent first, and then let's see if we can mold him. Because that was me."
It was Lake. It also was Ike Taylor some time ago and Cortez Allen more recently, and Lake has been here scouring the floor of Lucas Oil Field for more like them.
"The obvious thing is – is the guy fast?" said Lake. "Everybody can see that, time it, it's factual. But what I look at, for instance, is what I had to go through at the Combine. I had to work out at two different positions and do it all in one day. What some scouts or some coaches may not see is – how well conditioned is that guy? They might not even think about it, that a guy was out there doing drills and lifting and running all day and still was able to maintain a high level. I look at those things. If I see a defensive back at the Combine and he's winded after the 40, or if he's winded after a few drills, I realize he's not taking his game seriously because he's not in shape. That's a guy I would probably shy away from, because in the fourth quarter up in Denver where you don't get a lot of oxygen, when we get into the fourth quarter what's this guy got? Has he been preparing himself for moments like this?"
Is he like Carnell Lake was?
CARNELL LAKE COLLEGE TIDBTS "We thought in the Senior Bowl he progressed pretty quickly as a safety and there's a lot of things he can do on the football field right away that will be positive for us. He'll be a special teams guy, probably a return guy, kickoffs. He will be able to play right away, full-time."
-- Former Steelers Director of Pro Personel Dick Haley on Draft Day
"There was a big question mark as far as me being able to play safety. I really felt I helped myself because I played a little free safety in the East-West Shrine game and then I played the whole game at safety in the Senior Bowl. I felt really natural at that position. I think the combine helped me the most. I ran a gnood 40-time and I did both outside linebacker drills and DB drills. The teams could really get a good look at me."
-- Carnell Lake on his Draft Day
Carnell Lake's UCLA Statistics