INDIANAPOLIS-Growing up in Omaha, Nick DeLuca dreamed of playing for the University of Nebraska.
"That's all we have there," DeLuca said. "There's no pro teams. It didn't work out but my path took me a different way, and I couldn't have been happier with where I ended up. Here I am now. It all worked out."
"Here" was the NFL Scouting Combine. An All-American linebacker at North Dakota State, DeLuca got another chance to show he could compete with the big names from the big schools. After playing in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in late January, DeLuca got a chance to show his strength and speed at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as one of 336 players invited to the Scouting Combine.
"It's been great," DeLuca said on Saturday, a day before Sunday's workout. "I think it's a really good experience, good exposure. Being a small-school guy, definitely getting out here and being able to compete at the highest level is a good thing."
DeLuca's workout was a mixed bag. His 4.85-second timing in the 40-yard dash ranked 26th out of 27 off-the-ball linebackers that performed the test and his 29.5-inch vertical jump tied for the worst among 21 linebackers that performed that test. However, his 4.23-second clocking in the 20-yard shuttle-a critical drill for a linebacker because it shows his change-of-direction agility-ranked fourth out of 15 linebackers that ran through that test.
"I'd like to see 4.7s in the 40-yard dash," said Rob Rang, an analyst at NFL Draft Scout. "I'd like to see good change of direction, not only in the short shuttle and three-cone but in the linebacker drills. When I watched him at the Senior Bowl, I saw a guy who saw where the ball was going but couldn't get there in time to do much about it. He showed instincts; he just didn't show that explosive speed to be able to compete with the top-notch running backs at the Senior Bowl. I want to see that kind of athletic ability. That raw athletic ability, has that improved since he's been getting ready for the Combine?"
Along with the physical testing, DeLuca spent time meeting with scouts and coaches from around the league. Among the more difficult questions: defining his biggest weakness.
"That's something no one wants to admit and come to terms with, but you have to find a way to articulate that and explain it as best you can," DeLuca said.
And what was his response?
"I think it's just technique and finding little things" to improve, he said. "You can always continue to perfect your craft. I'm a perfectionist. I'm really critical of myself. There's little things I pick up here and there that I'm always trying to get better on as far as coverages, footwork, technique."
DeLuca finished his career ranked eighth in school history with 329 tackles. Statistically, 2015 was his best season as he tallied 135 tackles, including 10 for losses, and broke up eight passes.
With the NFL squarely in his sights, his 2016 season was thrown for a loss when he suffered a separated shoulder in the opening game. He played two more games, anyway-an interception returned for a touchdown in an overtime win vs. Eastern Washington and eight tackles in an upset win at Iowa. Granted a medical redshirt, DeLuca came back for 2017 and was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defender in FCS. He had 74 tackles and a career-high three forced fumbles as a redshirt senior.
"It was definitely frustrating going into what I thought was going to be my senior year and, the opening game, hurting my shoulder and having to get a redshirt," DeLuca said. "It was a lot of adversity. Having to take a step back and see things from a different perspective really helped me mature as a player and a teammate."
Ultimately, DeLuca's Scouting Combine performance neither helped him nor hurt him. College film trumps 40-yard dash times. With 59 career games and 36 career starts, DeLuca has plenty of film for scouts to digest.
"Physical, instinctual player," DeLuca said in describing his style. "That's something I pride myself on is being able to read plays and attack them and diagnose them and make the tackle."
NFL Draft Scout ranks DeLuca as the fifth-best inside linebacker and a potential fourth-round pick.
"I think he's an instinctive player," Rang said. "He's a physical, productive player. I thought at the Senior Bowl, it looked like he could compete at that level but I didn't think he excelled. He's a guy that's a backup linebacker in the NFL, a special-teams guy, a guy that's a draftable commodity. When you're talking North Dakota State, you're talking guys like Carson Wentz and Joe Haeg and some of the guys that have been so productive in the past. He's a draftable player but this is a good linebacker class, so I see him as a mid-to-late Day 3 kind of guy."