You'd think, after being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year, your path to the NFL would be paved with gold. But like his former teammate Michael Sam, Missouri linebacker Shane Ray's road to the next level has been filled with potholes.
A foot injury held Ray out of the NFL Combine, leaving him only his Pro Day to impress NFL scouts. What's more, Ray, a down lineman in Mizzou's 4-3 defense, is being asked to transition to outside linebacker in the NFL.
Attempting to show scouts that you can grasp a new position when your body is not at full strength is a Herculean task, but Ray excelled at it. At his Pro Day, he ran the 40-Yard Dash between 4.55 and 4.63; and although his foot slightly hindered his linebacker drills, he was slotted to go eighth overall to the Atlanta Falcons in ESPN's Todd McShay's latest mock draft.
We chatted with Ray a few days after his Pro Day to talk about his performance, his rehab and what's coming at the next level.
STACK: So, the big question. How did your Pro Day go?
Shane Ray: I think my Pro Day went well. Coming off the foot injury, I understood it was going to be hard for me to go out and do what I needed to do as far as my drills [at the Combine]. I just wanted to impress with my performance drills and linebacker drills to show my athleticism, because I put on 20 pounds. I wanted to show that I could be a 4-3 guy or a 3-4 guy. With my foot injury, I knew my numbers weren't going to be where they normally are, but I still feel confident in what I did at my Pro Day. It was a great turnout, and I showed a lot of teams and coaches what I can do and that I can play in space as well.
Usually, guys get two chances to strut their stuff: at the Combine and at their Pro Day. For you, it was all on your Pro Day. Did you have any nerves?
I just wanted to go out there and be the best that I could be under the circumstances. Those coaches knew that I was injured at the Combine, and they understood what I was going through. Coming off an injury like that and still performing the best I can, that's what they wanted to see. So I wasn't nervous about it. I just went out and had fun with my teammates and did the best I can do.
Did your preparation differ at all because of the foot injury?
For the first month, because I couldn't run, I was following a regimen of where I'd be up at 7:30, be at breakfast by 8 or 8: 30, and by 9 (at the latest) we're working out at our first session. For the first month, I was kind of by myself. I was working on explosion and hip strength and still trying to work on the things the other guys were training, just without running. After that, I would immediately go to rehab. I stayed in Cryo chambers and did rehab immediately after my workouts. After that, I would have an upper body session at 12. Then I would go to rehab again. Then I would meet with doctors at 5.
The first month was a whole lot of rehabilitation. Trying to get my foot back where I could run. Around Combine time, maybe 10 or 11 days prior to the Combine, I had finally started back jogging and really being able to put my foot on the ground. We worked as fast as we could to prepare me for the Combine, but there wasn't much I could really put emphasis on. At that time, I felt if I could just run straight, I could still run my 40 and still do fine. For the next couple of weeks, I was training on having my 40 the best I could have it. I knew I still wasn't going to be able to do my position drills, because I still couldn't even cut on my foot. I got tolerable to my pain running my 40, so I said if I can bust out two of these, I'll be alright. When I got to the Combine, they ended up exempting me from the workout anyway. So it was kind of like right back to the drawing board for me.
How tough was it, rehabbing and training as hard as you did, especially in that first month?
It's a difficult process, but at the end of the day it's what you do as an athlete. You're working for a goal so you expect it to be tough. When I was going through what I was going through, I felt like I had a lot that I needed to show people. For me to stay focused was pretty easy because I wanted to be the best prepared for the Combine. I wanted to get my foot as healthy as I could possibly get it. I knew I couldn't do that if I wasn't taking my rehab seriously and putting in all the hours that I could put in. I was asking my trainer if I needed to come in more or what else I needed to do. It was a good amount of odds stacked up against me, but I accepted the challenge and I don't make any excuses for anything, I just work hard and the best that I do is what I put in. And I can live with that.
One of the biggest thing teams want to know about you is if you can convert from a defensive end to an outside linebacker. Has preparing for that been different from what you were used to at Mizzou?
At Mizzou, even though we were in a 4-3, we did drop at times. We'd have a 3-4 defense where the ends would stand up and rush. I think Mizzou does a great job of recruiting defensive ends with more athletic builds. Markus Golden was a linebacker, and they converted him to a lineman, so it's not like we weren't used to having to stand up and do that. The training that I was doing, I worked with Chuck Smith and Jeremy Lincoln for my linebacker drills and Coach Lincoln would help me with my footwork, trying to move my feet like a defensive back and turning my hips and all those things. It was more so getting the footwork down and getting relaxed and getting used to doing it.
The mistake that a lot of guys make is, they go out there and they look all out of control and their feet aren't in the right places. You want to be smooth. Coach Chuck Smith said, "smooth becomes quick." So if you're smooth you're going to look quick, you're going to look good. If you're out of control, they're going to be like "OK, this guy needs some work." So I tried to make sure I looked smooth in my drills, looked good on my cuts, not anticipating where the coach was going to move the ball but being able to react.
Speaking of Mizzou, what's in the water over there? You guys are sending defensive guys to the NFL like hotcakes.
I think it starts with our coaching. As a defensive coordinator, coach [Dave] Steckel demanded your best effort on every play. When you have a coach like that, that everyone respects and who has guys moving 100 mph every play, it eliminates the time for failure to occur. If you're giving full effort on every play, you can kind of make up for some things you lack.
Guys have adopted a mentality, especially with the defensive linemen, that everyone wants to be great. It built a huge competition, because everyone wants to be that top defensive lineman coming out of Missouri. When I got there, the greats were Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ziggy Hood and Sean Weatherspoon. And then I get there the same time as Sheldon Richardson, who shows me the blueprint of how to do it. At the same time, I'm competing with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. These guys are real competitive football players. It was the key to our success and our room.
Michael Sam finds himself in a situation similar to yours: looking to catch on with an NFL team. What are your thoughts on your former teammate?
Mike is trying to do what he can with his life. He's a grown man trying to find some success. You can't fault the man for trying to live his dream, whether it's playing football or whatever he has going on. Him accepting his opportunities to be on television, that's something he's got going on with his life, and you've got to respect that. You just hope at the end of the day it all works out.
As always, there are doubters. One anonymous scout said "there's no way in hell" you can be an outside linebacker. Does that stuff get to you?
I always try to focus on myself and not let people's opinions affect what I have going on and how I see myself as a football player. But in this new day and age that we're in with social media, everyone has a voice. Sometimes you can't avoid people's opinions. Not everyone is going to like me, and I'm alright with that. At the end of the day, I know what I feel I can do as a football player and what I've done and been able to accomplish at Missouri. I have full faith and confidence in what I can do at the next level, and no one can take that away from me.
Before we let you go, who do you model your game after? What kind of player will you be in the NFL?
I looked up to guys like Ray Lewis, Derrick Thomas and Lawrence Taylor. Von Miller is a guy I watch a lot right now. I want to embody the idea of being a defensive player that plays with a lot of energy, a lot of passion and aggression. That's something I try to bring to the table every Saturday, no matter how I'm feeling. I think that makes me a little bit different. I feel like that's what those greats did and how they got to their status.
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