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Former NDSU running back Crockett puts skills on display at Combine

INDIANAPOLIS - John Crockett wasn't fazed. In fact, perhaps the only person who was more at ease than the former North Dakota State running back inside the room at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Indianapolis was Bill Belichick himself.

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NDSU running back John Crockett shouts to the Bison fans from the stage after FCS title game Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, at FC Dallas Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. David Samson / The Forum

INDIANAPOLIS – John Crockett wasn’t fazed. In fact, perhaps the only person who was more at ease than the former North Dakota State running back inside the room at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Indianapolis was Bill Belichick himself.

“Belichick? He was a pretty cool guy,” Crockett said in a phone interview Monday, as he reflected upon his experience at the annual NFL Scouting Combine – one that included a formal interview with the New England head coach and the Patriots’ staff.

“He was hanging out, eating chips, asking me questions, just being cool.”

For some NFL prospects, a formal interview with the newly crowned Super Bowl champions might be more than a little overwhelming. For those trying to make the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision – even someone with the resume and self-assurance Crockett has – it could be even more nerve-wracking.

“I was just being me,” Crockett said from Miami, where he’s training in advance of the April 30-May 2 NFL Draft. “I was just blessed to be there. I was just relishing the opportunity. Yes, NFL is great. Yes, the NFL has all these great stars and everything. But if this is the career path I want to go down, I have to be able to interact with these folks. You can’t be scared.”

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Crockett, who also had a formal interview with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a host of informal meetings with other NFL teams, certainly isn’t scared of the next level, and he wasn’t overwhelmed during his combine experience, as he showed off his explosiveness in the vertical jump (40 inches) and broad jump (125 inches). Although the unofficial 40-yard dash time that flashed on the NFL Network telecast – 4.62 seconds – set of a torrent of text messages from his friends, his former NDSU coaches and teammates, family and even his mother, NFL executives told him his time was actually 4.53 seconds.

“Everybody was like, ‘You’re so slow!’” Crockett said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Just relax, and let me be the football player.’”

And there’s no denying the kid is a football player. In 16 starts as a senior last season for the national champions, he set school records for all-purpose yards (2,419), rushing yards (1,994) and rushing attempts (368) while running for 21 touchdowns, two off the school record. In a system where he’d shared the load during his sophomore (194 carries, 1,038 yards) and junior (190 carries, 1,277 yards) years, last season he was a workhorse.

“One of my biggest beliefs in football or athletics in general is, get the ball in your playmakers’ hands,” NDSU offensive coordinator Tim Polasek said of Crockett, who turned 23 last week. “There’s nothing physically that’ll hold him back at the NFL level. He’s got a toughness in him that he’ll put his face in you in pass protection, and pass game-wise, we tried to formation him as good as we could to get him out as a wideout. To be honest with you, he had as good of receiver skills as anyone on our team other than our top guy (at receiver). He’s got a really good feel for the screen game. And the thing I like best about John is, when the ball is in the air, where he’s got to twist and come down, he’s got safety receiver type balls.”

With NFL coaches preferring running backs who can play all three downs, those pass-catching skills have to be part of the equation, and Crockett did have at least one reception in 15 of the team’s 16 games, finishing with 30 receptions for 397 yards and a touchdown.

“I feel like my route running and my pass catching ability is kind of underrated, to be honest with you,” Crockett said. “If you look at the tape, if you look at how I am around the ball, I’m a natural pass catcher. That’s something I want to pride myself on. I want to be a three-down back, I want to be a back that won’t come off the field.”

That’s why Crockett, who grew up in the Twin Cities following Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, views another veteran NFC North back as his prototype: Chicago’s Matt Forte. Also to his advantage: The Bison’s pro-style offense that Crockett believes makes him “one of the most pro-ready guys” in the draft.

“That spread stuff is cute, but at the end of the day, how are you going to get 5 yards?” Crockett said. “That’s what we do, we ground and pound.”

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To Polasek, NDSU’s offense helps running backs and quarterbacks have a chance at the NFL because “the things we ask them to do are the things they’ll be asked to do at the next level. John’s running on the angles and attacking the line of scrimmage at the angles he’s going to be asked to at the next level.”

And if there are teams worried about the level of competition Crockett and the Bison faced in FCS, scouts should watch him against Iowa State last season, when he had a career-long 80-yard touchdown run in a 34-14 road win in which he scored a career-high three TDs and rushed for 139 yards on 17 carries.

“You know, you get that all the time. ‘Has he played against anybody? Can he run away from the big guys?’ And my mindset is, look at our resume,” Crockett said. “We’ve beat bigger schools. Kansas State, after they won the Big 12 championship. Iowa State last year. They’re a bigger school, and it was like another day at the office. We beat Minnesota, we beat Colorado State. We beat Kansas. At the end of the day, I think we answer that question.”

Now, it’s up to Crockett to answer whatever questions about him remain. He’ll take part in the Bison’s March 26 pro day, although he plans to let his 4.53-second time in the 40 stand. He’ll re-do his bench press (15 reps at 225 pounds) and may re-run his agility tests. With a wide variance of draft projections – he’s heard everything from the third round to priority free agent, with being picked on Day 3 the most likely scenario – he plans to be ready for whatever happens.

Who knows? Maybe Belichick will be the one who calls.

“That would be very cool,” Crockett said. “At the end of the day, you want to go to a place that’s all about winning. That’s the person I am. I’ve won at every level – high school, college. To have an opportunity to play on a team that is winning Super Bowls, it doesn’t get better than that.”

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