EVANSTON, Ill. — Austin Carr’s path to the NFL never was going to be a straight one, not after walking on at Northwestern as a zero-star recruit, not even seeing the field for two years for the Wildcats, and having to cut his teeth on special teams when he finally did.
But after pacing the Big Ten with a 90-catch, 1,247-yard, 12-touchdown season in 2016 — hitting for the conference’s receiving Triple Crown and being named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the best receiver in college football — the 6-foot, 202-pound Carr figured the NFL had to take notice by that point. Oh, the league knew him by that point. It just didn’t think Carr was worthy of attending the NFL’s scouting combine. Even after a solid week at the East-West Shrine Game in January, Carr’s invitation never came.
Fifty-eight NFL-hopeful wide receivers — including two from Eastern Washington and one from Marian University (Ind.), an NAIA school — got to work out in Indianapolis in front of every meaningful decision maker in the league. Heck, the NFL even looked past its own rules about past conduct to invite Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, who had past domestic violence complaints against him.
Carr stayed home and watched the event on TV.
“I didn’t pout,” Carr said. “Honestly, by then I had put it past me.”
But that combine snub made Tuesday’s pro day all the more important for his pro football dreams, and 30 of the 32 NFL teams watched him work out, even though none of them were head coaches or general managers. (Only the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t attend.)
“Even if there was pressure, I like pressure,” Carr said. “Third-and-long, throw me the ball.”
Yes, the Wildcats have two draftable defensive players in linebacker Anthony Walker and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo — both combine invitees — and Indiana State tight end Robert Tonyan, a converted quarterback who was invited to work out at the event, opened eyes with a strong performance.
But the day belonged to Carr, who was an unknown with barely 400 receiving yards to his name prior to 2016. He put his best foot forward last season and had a strong workout in drills. He caught every catchable pass from the smattering of quarterbacks cobbled together for the event, even though many were not on target.
Carr also turned in acceptable testing numbers, which one team in attendance shared with Shutdown Corner: 40-yard dash times of 4.60 and 4.61 (slower than some published reports had him running), a 4.04-second short shuttle, a 33.5-inch vertical and 16 reps on the bench press.
The 40 times and the vertical were average by combine WR standards. But the shuttle time would have placed him in the top five among combine receivers, and the bench total was the third-most by combine receivers smaller than Carr.
He profiles as a slot receiver in the NFL if he gets a chance, and Carr told Shutdown Corner he likes watching the New England Patriots and how they use their smaller, quicker, savvier receivers to create mismatches underneath.
“That’s me,” he said. “That’s my game.”
After Tuesday’s position work, it appeared Carr’s big day was done. But the scouts wanted to see a little more: Could he run a 60-yard shuttle too?
Even with a slip on the first turn, Carr kept his balance and finished the test in style. (Shutdown Corner did not get the official time for it.) A scout for the Los Angeles Rams sought out Carr after the drill and threw an arm around him, telling him not to take it as a slight that he was asked to perform what only 21 combine receivers chose to run.
“Hey, don’t worry about them throwing that [expletive] at you at the end there,” he said. “That drill means nothing, trust me. In 20 years I’ve been doing this, we never once talked about the [60-yard shuttle] numbers for a guy, OK?
“You did it the right way all season long, and it showed … it showed up on the tape.”
The tape it showed up most on was Carr’s eight-catch, 158-yard destruction of Ohio State, roasting a Buckeyes secondary that featured three possible top-20 picks in this draft class, one that is as chock full of secondary talent as we’ve seen in years. Although Carr mostly was matched up in single coverage in that game against Buckeyes corners Damon Webb Jr. and Denzel Ward, who are still in school, it didn’t take away from how he performed on such as big stage at the Horseshoe against such a talented opponent.
“I was surprised more teams didn’t double him until later in the year,” Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We kept waiting for it.”
Still, Carr knows that NFL teams watching OSU defensive tape will take notice of his exploits from that game.
“The better they do, the better I look,” Carr said.
Factor in his extensive experience on special teams, his solid measurable and his impossible-to-overlook production, and Carr certainly has a good formula that will appeal to many NFL teams.
“He’s not a diva in a league full of diva receivers,” Fitzgerald said. “This guy’s going to be a grinder, a blue-collar guy.”
The blue collar still has a little glitz, mind you. The son of a drummer father and a piano-playing mother, he has a showman’s name — Austin Durant Mozée Carr — and a deft game to match. Carr chose football over the arts when he decided he wanted to will his way onto the Wildcats roster but also found time to dabble in the stage and screen when he could.
That artfulness is evident on the field, where Carr plays with excellent balance and touch. But what his coach likes best about Carr is that he never lost his drive or work ethic, even when the reps weren’t coming early on. Few thought it could happen like this, but it paid off in a big way.
“He’s a self-made guy,” Fitzgerald said. “This wasn’t a five-star recruit. He was a guy that walked on, really dedicated himself in the weight room, running routes. He had great trust and chemistry and he was willing to do the dirty work.”
And now Carr is willing to do whatever it takes to realize his NFL dreams, even if it means a few more roadblocks along the way. Why change the path now?
“I’m just grateful for the chance,” he said.
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