NC players stand out, boost draft stock at NFL Combine

Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith and Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Duggar were among the under-the-radar players who made an impression in Indianapolis

Charlotte defensive lineman Alex Highsmith runs the 40-yard dash during the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday in Indianapolis. (Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo)

The NFL Scouting Combine, sometimes referred to as the “Underwear Olympics,” is an event top prospects often avoid to protect their high draft status.

Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, the potential No. 1 overall pick, along with quarterbacks Joe Burrow of LSU and Tua Tagovailoa from Alabama are the most notable to skip this year’s workouts.

For players whose draft projections aren’t as certain or promising, the combine is an opportunity to showcase skills and ability that don’t always translate onto game tape.

Several players from North Carolina schools took full advantage of their opportunities during the weeklong evaluation camp in Indianapolis last week — which also included medical and psychological testing, as well as meetings with NFL teams and sessions with the media.

NC State’s James Smith-Williams and Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, both defensive ends projected to be mid- to late-round picks at best, were the two biggest winners among a state contingent of 13 players from six schools (Appalachian State, Charlotte, Lenoir-Rhyne, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest).

Smith-Williams didn’t challenge the all-time combine record time of 4.40 for defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash, set in 2006 by another former Wolfpack end, Manny Lawson. But his 4.61 time was still the best of all defensive linemen that tested.

It was a significant accomplishment for Smith-Williams since many — including ESPN draft analyst Jerry Nagy — predicted he would have the fastest time among players between 250-275 pounds.

“Yeah, everyone’s guessing that I’ll have the fastest 40 in my weight class,” Smith-Williams said Thursday, before taking to the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I think there’s pressure, but it’s good pressure to me. I am enjoying the fact that I have that spotlight on me.”

Smith-Williams needed the time in the spotlight since his senior season was limited to seven games because of a series of injuries that severely cut down on his productivity.

Though his durability could still be an issue that affects his draft stock come April, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Raleigh native didn’t hurt his chances by also posting top-10 showings in the broad jump (fourth at 10 feet, 3 inches), the three-cone run (eighth in 7.35 seconds) and 10th in the vertical jump (10th at 32.0 inches) while Smith also recording 4.52 second time in the 20-yard shuttle run.

Highsmith, meanwhile, showed off his agility by placing first among the defensive linemen in the 20-yard shuttle run with a time of 4.31. He was also a top performer in the broad jump, placing second at 10 feet, 5 inches. He was fourth in both the three-cone drill (7.32) and the 40 (4.7), and sixth in the vertical jump (33.0 inches).

Now that he’s begun to open some eyes, Highsmith had a message for those who allowed him to fly under the radar during his college career.

“I’ll just tell them to pull up my tape from the best teams we played against this past season,” he told USA Today at the combine. “I felt like two of my best games came against Clemson and App State. They were some of the top teams in the nation. I really showed that I could prove myself at that level.

“I showed up against the big guys. Look at my game against Tennessee from the year before. That was one of my breakout games. I think my film against our best opponents answers that question.”

Highsmith was just one of three 49ers at the combine, all looking to build on the momentum fostered over the past three years by NFL draft picks Larry Ogunjobi (2017 third round, Browns) and Nate Davis (2019 third round, Titans).

Running back Benny LeMay finished third among the running backs by bench pressing 24 reps of 225 pounds, while offensive lineman Cameron Clark was a top performer in the bench press and 40-yard dash.

Other North Carolina standouts included Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans, who placed among the top 10 of running backs in the 40 (second at 4.41) and bench press (ninth at 20 reps), vertical jump (10th at 37.0 inches); Wake Forest offensive tackle Justin Herron, fifth in the vertical jump at 33 inches and eighth in the bench press at 27 reps; Wake cornerback Essang Bassey, third in the vertical jump at 39.5 inches, third in the 20-yard shuttle run at 4.13, sixth in the three-cone drill at 6.95 and seventh in the broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches, and 10th in the 40 at 4.71; UNC offensive guard Charlie Heck, ninth in the broad jump at 9 feet, 4 inches; and Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Duggar, who made a positive impression by placing first among his position group with a vertical jump of 42 inches. He also placed in the top 10 in the broad jump (second at 11 feet, 2 inches) and the 40 (sixth at 4.49).