The easy part was the competition.
Shedding blockers, chasing ballcarriers, lining up for the next play – that was nothing compared to the anxiety Arik Armstead and Shaq Thompson are feeling these days.
The longtime Sacramento friends who share a dream of playing in the NFL are restless as they count down the days until their names are called during this week’s NFL draft.
Armstead, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound defensive lineman from Pleasant Grove High School and Oregon, is projected to be picked in the first round, with several mock drafts having him going to the 49ers at No. 15. Thompson, a 6-2, 228-pound linebacker from Grant and Washington, could be selected anywhere from late in the first round to the third round.
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For Armstead and Thompson, waiting has been the hardest part.
“I’m ready for this,” Armstead said. “It’s been an amazing process, a lot of work. It’s been fun getting to meet coaches, staffs, people I might be working with. But it’s time. It’s hard to wait.”
Armstead, who has visited NFL teams across the country, works out daily in Sacramento under direction of his father and mentor, Guss Armstead. Anything to burn calories and ease the nerves.
Thompson went from February’s NFL combine in Indianapolis to Seattle, returning to take classes at Washington. The draft is out of his control; working toward his degree is not.
“I promised myself and my mom that I’d graduate,” Thompson said. “It’s big for me and my family.”
Thompson and Armstead participated in pro days with college teammates earlier this spring. There were more workouts, drills, observation and conversations, with NFL personnel charting every move.
Thompson wore a Superman shirt on his pro day, and he looked the part, but even Superman can get fatigued.
“This process is crazy and tiring,” Thompson said then. “It’s just a lot of stress. I can’t wait for it to be over and have a home team.”
Staying home for the draft
The draft, in Chicago this year, draws big TV ratings as fans follow their team’s picks. But, like many other players – quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are the most prominent – Armstead and Thompson won’t be in Chicago. Instead, they will be camped out at home, Armstead in Elk Grove and Thompson in North Sacramento, surrounded by family and friends.
There will be no green room tension for these two, at least not for public consumption. Armstead expects the mood to be light at home. “We’re having a big party,” he said. Thompson, just as low key, echoed: “I want to be with family.”
Armstead and Thompson largely have been identified by their football success since they were national recruits in high school in 2010, but the game doesn’t completely define them, their parents say.
“I know exactly what Shaq is thinking and why he doesn’t want to go to Chicago for the draft,” said Thompson’s mother, Patty. “He says, ‘My glory is around my family and friends, and that’s where I want to be.’ I love that about him.”
Patty Thompson also appreciates her son’s ambition to finish his degree in American ethnic studies.
“I wouldn’t have blamed him if he focused all this time for the draft, knowing that school will always be there,” she said. “The draft is big, but this is bigger, working on a degree. He’s very focused. I joked with Shaq to always take school seriously at Washington, and he always has. Told him, ‘Don’t make me come up there and sit in class with you!’
“I ran into his counselors during a banquet, and they said Shaq comes by every Friday to visit, for updates. I loved hearing that. That’s how dedicated he is to school. You’re talking to a proud mom.”
Thompson celebrated his 21st birthday on Tuesday, posing for a selfie while decked out in new threads.
“He’s 21, a grown man, and his first real drink should be a gallon of chocolate milk,” Patty Thompson said, laughing. “OK, chocolate milk on ice.”
Armstead grew up around athletics, with the gym and weight room a second home. He was inspired by his older brother and idol, Armond (a former star defensive lineman at USC and in the Canadian Football League ), and mesmerized by the NBA players working out under the watchful eye of his father, a prominent Sacramento-area strength and conditioning coach.
“Arik’s been groomed for this his whole life,” said Guss Armstead, adding that he never pushed his kids into athletics. “He was on my hip as a little guy, watching Mitch Richmond work out, watching Matt Barnes work out, Ryan Anderson, growing into that lifestyle, watching what it takes to get better, how important work is. He has reaped what he has sowed. I gave him the template, and just like Armond, he worked his butt off. Very ambitious, career-oriented, writing down goals and going for it.”
And, Guss Armstead said, his son’s character is as strong as his frame.
“His spirituality, his loyalty to family, he’s impressed me,” Guss Armstead said. “He’s taken it all in, and there’s been expectations all the way. He was a No. 1-recruit lineman in high school, then Oregon, getting double- and triple-teamed, playing hurt. I’m excited for him, to see where he goes.”
On to the next level
Though where Armstead and Thompson go is anyone’s guess, one certainty is that Armstead will play on the defensive line, as a run stuffer and quarterback chaser. Armstead played big when it mattered most, using his mobility, strength and long arms to make nine tackles in the national championship game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes won 42-20.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock said this week Armstead is a “logical” choice for the 49ers at No. 15. “His best football is in front of him,” Mayock said. “He’s a physical freak.”
Added NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah, on the “Path to the Draft” on the NFL Network: “When you look at Arik Armstead, you look at somebody who has elite traits. He has elite size; he has elite strength at the point of attack. I know people look at him and say he’s not an elite pass rusher, lacks some of that quickness. Not what he was asked to do in that Oregon scheme. I think he definitely is going to be a much better pass rusher at the next level, and that’s why I say he could go all the way up in the top 10.”
Thompson is all over the place in mock drafts, much as he has been on the field. Though Thompson’s versatility impresses coaches, it also presents a quandary: What’s his best position?
Thompson played safety, linebacker and running back at Washington last fall. He had 81 tackles; scored four defensive touchdowns, including a 100-yard fumble return for a score at Cal; and rushed for 456 yards (7.5 yards a carry). He won the 2014 Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player.
Thompson prefers to play linebacker, though he said he’s willing to play any position. Thompson’s strengths are his closing speed and pursuit, but there are concerns about whether he’s big enough to handle the rigors of playing linebacker.
“I’m an outside linebacker in a 4-3 (scheme) or an inside backer (in the 3-4),” Thompson said. “I’m comfortable at linebacker. People say I may not be big enough, but I’m fast, and I have heart.”
New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese told reporters covering his team that Thompson is “a good football player. He’s versatile. He’s played a lot of different positions. He’s played linebacker, obviously some safety. He’s played some running back. He’s a Swiss Army Knife kind of guy.”
Thompson is that way at home, too. Patty Thompson said when the youngest of her four sons came home recently, he volunteered to vacuum. She declined, telling him to enjoy family and friends. He first went to the refrigerator in a bit of a role reversal.
“He pulls stuff out, conscious of the bad-health food in there, and says he’s going to replace it, and he’s not playing around,” Patty Thompson said. “He’s looking out after me. He wants more fruits and veggies in there, and water. He keeps me on point. Yep, he’s a man now. He’s ready for the world.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.
MEET THE PLAYERS
Age: 21 (born Nov. 15, 1993)
Height/weight: 6-foot-8, 290 pounds
Position: Defensive lineman
High school: Pleasant Grove (graduated 2012)
College: Oregon (2012-14)
Age: 21 (born April 21, 1994)
Height/weight: 6-2, 228
High school: Grant (graduated 2012)
College: Washington (2012-14)
Round 1: Thursday, 5 p.m., ESPN, NFL Network
Rounds 2-3: Friday, 4 p.m., ESPN, NFL Network
Rounds 4-7: Saturday, 9 a.m., ESPN, NFL Network
No. 1 pick: Tampa Bay
Raiders: No. 4 in first round
49ers: No. 15 in first round
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT ORDER
1. Tampa Bay
6. N.Y. Jets
9. N.Y. Giants
10. St. Louis
13. New Orleans
17. San Diego
18. Kansas City
30. Green Bay
31. New Orleans
32. New England