PEMBROKE — Since the football season ended for B.J. Bunn in late November, the former receiving standout from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is preparing himself for the business nature that comes with the job he wants out of college.
He sees his chance like preparing for a job interview, but his idea of job interviews does not involve resumes and cover letters, but takes place in NFL practice facilities leading up to the draft on April 27-29. Bunn is one of three former UNCP football players working out at combines and individual workouts in hopes that their name might be called on stage, or be invited by teams to rookie camps for teams in the weeks to follow.
“You’ve got to treat it as a business or a job interview,” Bunn said. “You want to go to the job interview already having all the answers to the questions they’re going to ask. Pretty much it’s about preparation.”
Joining the Braves’ former sure-handed receiver trying to find a chance in the NFL is kicker Matt Davis and offensive tackle Lawrence Keys.
“It’s exciting for them as individuals and for the program,” UNCP coach Shane Richardson said. “They’re serious about it. These guys love football and they want to keep playing and they realize there’s an opportunity to keep playing. Their work ethic is showing through right now and it’s probably a lot they learned from the program and now they’re taking it out on their own.”
Bunn is coming off a historic season for the Braves as he hauled in 1,142 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first receiver in program history with 1,000 yards in a season.
Much like how Bunn sees preparation as key for impressing the teams at workouts and combines, Davis is enjoying his time getting his body ready. Bunn and Davis have been doing specialty drills and workouts to help craft their skills on the field for the individual tryouts they have with NFL teams in the coming weeks.
“I’m just enjoying the process and the grind of getting stronger,” Davis said. “When I’m out kicking, I’ve set up some uprights that are arena width, nine feet across, and that way when I go out to the real ones it feels like they are 40 feet across.”
Bunn and Davis were named all-American this season and Davis picked up the Fred Mitchell Award as the top kicker on and off the field among FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA.
The trio has been keeping in touch training in separate locations, and there has been occasions where their paths have crossed. Bunn and Keys worked out at the NFL regional combine held at the New Orleans Saints practice facility on March 11-12. Davis and Keys both worked out at Campbell University’s pro day on March 20, where Davis was the only kicker to participate.
Being the lone player at his position at the pro day, attention was easy to come by, even with the drills staying inside a relatively short distance for him at 55 yards.
“All of the scouts there talked after I got done and they just made a big huddle around me and asked a lot of questions,” Davis said. “A lot of teams have shown interest in me.”
As much as getting yourself physically ready is important during the pre-draft period, finding a capable agent is just as pressing. Bunn learned from previous UNCP players who have went through the draft process that having an agent with connections is a major part that they missed out on.
The three have signed agents that have opened up opportunities so far. Bunn signed with Robert Walker with Unlimited Success Sports in Indian Trail, Davis signed with Joel Turner who represents 28 NFL players out of Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Keys signed with Joe Romano from Gridiron Sports Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
Now with the representation, the training has started and Bunn and Keys have looked to past and present NFL players to aid them and their knowledge of their positions. Training at D1 sports in Charlotte, Bunn is working with Anthony Wright, a nine-year NFL quarterback who played in 31 games.
“We work on some of the things he wants to see. He has 10 years of experience so he has an idea of what receivers run routes like and how they come out of their breaks,” Bunn said. “I’ve also worked with Donald Britt, an ex player that used to play out here (at UNCP), and he has a training thing called ‘Level Up.’ … I’ve just been getting help from everybody and I’m soaking it in, being a sponge.”
Keys is in Cleveland training with former and current pro offensive lineman and is making the transition from tackle to center, working alongside current NFL players Drew Kaser and John Hughes.
“I’ve also been working with my offensive line coach Kevin Kowalski, who has played in the NFL for four years. So me and him are really working on my center mechanics, considering that’s the position that I’m going to be playing,” Keys said. “I played it in high school and some in college but he’s really transformed me into a NFL caliber center.”
Former NFL players Jason Trusnik and Reggie Hodges have aided in Keys’ transformation that he feels has been seamless since he has prior experience. He has been at Pro Sports Performance since early January.
“I’ve just worked to make sure my steps are crisp and my fundamentals are sharp,” Keys said. “One thing that has been a little different is snapping and getting used to the repetition and being able to do it 70 times in a game.”
One things that Keys sees that separates him from other centers is his speed. Having to have quickness as a tackle going up against edge rushers, he feels his skill set will work well as an interior lineman.
“I had a scout from the Saints tell me at Campbell that I ran a 1.67 10-yard split, which was one of the fastest times even among the centers that was at the NFL combine in Indianapolis,” he said. “My quickness off the line is what sets me apart. I have great speed and had good success playing against the fast guys that are on the edge.”
While the other two are training in a little different way than Davis, who is working out at home in Richland, he is still seeing significant improvement and growth working out and kicking at his high school on his own.
“Things are going well. I’m training at home and going to Warehouse Sports Performance here in town. One of my buddy’s runs it and he’s works with athletes,” Davis said. “I’ve been working on getting stronger and my leg power is up significantly.”
An increase in leg strength seems to be eye-popping after he had a career long field at UNCP this season of 58 yards, and oftentimes warmed up outside of 60 yards. Davis hasn’t tested his longest distance yet, but likes the way the ball feels coming off his foot.
“Never in a million years would I have thought I would be the top kicker in the nation,” Davis said. “Teams have told me that I have the best leg in the country and it’s cool and surreal.”
The best leg in the country? While it might seem like a stretch, Davis put it to the test at a punters and kickers combine in Phoenix, Ariz. earlier this year. Going side by side with some of the nation’s top college kickers, and he stacked up well beside them.
“I would definitely say that I had everyone beat on distance,” Davis said. “Coming off my foot, one of the guys working it told me that nobody could match me.”
Bunn has also tried to stand out while going up against fellow college graduates that are looking for the same spot he wants on a team. Even going up against players from Division I schools at the combine, he knows he has skills that sets him apart.
“When you’re in college, you’ve got some good players and some great players. When you get to the next level, everyone’s great so you’ve got to do something that will separate yourself,” he said. “For me, what separates me is the 50-50 ball in the air and it separates me from a lot of slot guys. I feel like I’m really strong at that.”
Just like Keys, Bunn will also be having to make a positional change in hopes of being picked up by a team. After playing outside receiver in college, being 5-10 means that he will be undersized for that position and will have to make the move to the slot.
Size and his pass-catching ability will be a strong point for Bunn as he prepares to be a slot receiver.
“I was an outside receiver in college and now I’m moving to the slot in the NFL. I feel like my size is going to separate me being 200-plus (pounds). Not a lot of guys in the slot are 200-plus,” Bunn said.
Much like any job interview, Bunn knows that the room for error is minimal and that all eyes are on him for a short amount of time. Leaving an impression is critical and those high pressure conditions are ones he tends to thrive in.
“When the time comes for me to perform, I just tackle everything like you’ve only got one shot at something,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to in the league, sometimes you only get one shot.”
That one shot is all Keys asks for.
“I went through a lot just to play college football, and I don’t care how I get there if I get drafted or as an undrafted free agent. I know I have the talent and I want teams to give me a shot,” he said.
UNCP has never had a player drafted, but has on several occasions had players get called to rookie mini-camps for post-draft workouts. Last year defensive lineman Mike Keck was at the Buffalo Bills rookie camp is the most recent occurrence.
The chances a first for the program are wide open but there have been signs already that there could be history for the young program in the next month.
“I have heard everything from fifth round to a preferred free agent,” Davis said. “Even if there’s a chance I could get drafted, I’m just hoping that my phone will ring and I can get invited to a camp.”
Richardson knows that what these players are going through are showing they have passion for what they are doing and that fulfilling a dream of getting a phone call on draft day or afterwards for a camp invite would be a monumental step for them and the program.
“It’s just a great testimony to what the program tries to stand for and tries to ingrain in these guys,” Richardson said. “It would be very very special to have anybody recognized at that level.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.