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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, March 03, 2018 1:00 am

Proof Indiana on upswing: 5 at combine

Kyle Rowland | For The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – To understand how far Indiana football has come, all one needs to do is scan the list of invitees for the NFL scouting combine.

The Hoosiers have a program-record-tying five players participating in the annual predraft showcase. Perhaps more impressive is that it's the fourth-most invitees from the Big Ten.

After a generation of losing, Indiana has been to two bowl games in the past three seasons and won 26 games over the past five years, the Hoosiers' best five-year stretch since the early 1990s. The proof is in the combine pudding.

Wide receiver Simmie Cobbs, linebacker Tegray Scales and tight end Ian Thomas could go anywhere from the second to fifth round – Cobbs and Scales are expected to hear their names called at the earlier end of that spectrum. Cornerback Rashard Fant and linebacker Chris Covington could be late-round picks.

“I think we're close (to a breakthrough),” Indiana coach Tom Allen said last season.

Cobbs, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2017, proved to be a big-play threat when he torched Ohio State for 11 receptions, 149 yards and one touchdown in the season opener. He finished 2017 with 72 receptions for 841 yards and eight touchdowns. And all that production came one year after a season-ending ankle injury.

“(Ohio State) is a very talented team, (Denzel Ward) is a very talented player,” Cobbs said. “I just showcased the abilities that I performed in that game in such a way it definitely gave me a boost, gave me more confidence than I had going into the game and facing a player like that.”

In three seasons, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Cobbs totaled 139 receptions, 1,990 yards and 12 touchdowns. His seven career 100-yard games is fourth all time at Indiana. He did 11 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press Friday, a solid number for a wide receiver. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. lists Cobbs as a top-10 wide receiver.

Despite putting up eye-popping numbers and becoming Indiana's first All-American linebacker in nearly 30 years, Scales remains an unknown quantity. He finished his career with 324 tackles, 46 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and eight interceptions. In 2016, Scales led the nation with an absurd 23.5 tackles for loss. In his final two seasons, Scales recorded 36 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

“I imagine Scales is a name that gets hot at some point,” said Kyle Crabbs of NDT Scouting.

At the East-West Shrine Game, where Scales had a team-high seven tackles, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, “He showed some good man-to-man skills this week and can run to the football.”

A knock on Scales is his size – 6-foot, 230 pounds. But the NFL is trending toward smaller, mobile linebackers effective in space.

Thomas showed he's a downfield threat, hauling in 25 receptions for 376 yards and five touchdowns. He too had one of his best games against Ohio State, catching five passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas, 6-foot-4, 259 pounds, finished second in the Big Ten and fourth nationally among tight ends with 15 yards per reception.

“I'm athletic, I'm fast, I'm a big player in the blocking game,” Thomas said.

As Indiana's all-time leader with 58 passes defended and 53 pass breakups, Fant flashed the ability to be a quarterback's – and wide receiver's – worst nightmare. In 2016, quarterbacks had a passer rating of 33.1 when targeting the 5-foot-10, 177-pound cornerback and receivers caught only 38.7 percent of those passes.

Fant's biggest struggle is when passes are completed – he's a below-average tackler and is prone to defensive holding and pass interference penalties.

It's not often a quarterback changes positions to linebacker and then gets invited to the combine. But that's the chronology of Covington's Indiana career.

His freshman season featured five games at quarterback before a torn ACL ended his year prematurely. Covington returned as a linebacker and tallied 118 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. In 2017, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Covington had 85 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, one fumble recovery and five pass breakups, leading to honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors and Indiana's defensive player of the year award.