COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The vagaries of college football schedules this season may make it tricky for NFL scouts to accurately evaluate the current crop of rookie prospects.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson leapt from little known to first-round candidate thanks to, one, his outstanding performance in 2020, but also because he was able to perform through a near full allotment of 12 games as the independent program was able to add games to its schedule during the season.
Air Force left guard Nolan Laufenberg, meanwhile, dealt with the more common limits of a six-game schedule as multiple games were canceled this season by COVID concerns.
“You had to keep your nose down. You couldn’t get too distracted with all the stuff that was going on,’’ Laufenberg said in an interview with 9NEWS this week.
“Control what you can is what I lived by. I couldn’t control who got COVID on our team, or who got it on other teams, or whether the games got played or not. When I got to go on the field I tried to play the best I could. And when we couldn’t, I just focused on practice and staying healthy. It was definitely a roller-coaster season but I tried to keep it positive and control what I could.”
A product of a highly athletic family, the town of Castle Rock and Castle View High School, Laufenberg was a preseason All American who finished with his second consecutive Midwest Conference first team honor. His admirable mindset – and unique athleticism for his monstrous size (6-foot-4, 330 pounds) -- helped Laufenberg take full advantage of a limited schedule
As a junior in 2019, Laufenberg was part of an experienced offensive line that creased open so many running lanes the Falcons finished second in the nation with 299 rushing yards per game.
Even after so many of his blocking cohorts graduated from an 11-2 team that was the Academy’s best in 21 years, Laufenberg and the Falcons finished No. 1 in the nation this year with 305.7 rushing yards per game. Take that Navy.
An NFL talent evaluator should not be as skeptical of superior run blocking from a military academy school as he might have been in years past. Yes, Air Force runs variances of a triple-option that is primarily a rushing attack. But have you seen what the NFL is doing on Sundays now? Lamar Jackson’s Ravens, Kyler Murray’s Cardinals, Josh Allen’s Bills and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks are all running read-option offenses. Yes, they can be pass-heavy, but the blocking concepts, and those used by the Gary Kubiak-trained schemes in Minnesota and Cleveland, are similar to what coach Troy Calhoun employs at Air Force.
“From my perspective, it looks like we might see some more run-offense in the NFL,’’ Laufenberg said. “Look at the Tennessee Titans running the way they are and the Ravens’ type of offenses. The read option. So I don’t know if it’s such a terrible thing to come from a run-heavy, service-academy type. I think also we showed this year and the last couple years that, while we’re not a huge pass offense, we threw the ball a couple times so I think that’ll translate over.’’
Still only 21, Laufenberg is preparing for the NFL Draft process by training with Nick Vinson of Elite Speed Performance in Centennial. Again, COVID has created serious obstacles to the draft-prep season. Laufenberg hopes to get invited to the NFL Combine in late-February, but the event’s status is in limbo. The East West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Rose Bowl, scheduled to be played on the same day of January 23, have been canceled because of virus concerns.
The Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama is still on as scheduled for January 25 (Vic Fangio and the Broncos’ coaching staff could potentially coach one of the teams) but as this is now the only All Star game for college-turned pro prospects, roster spots figure to go to the Power 5 programs first.
Despite these showcase limitations, Laufenberg should be a legitimate late-round draft prospect providing NFL teams do their homework.
“Obviously, there’s going to have to be some work to do to get to that point as far as showing what I can do in the next two months,’’ he said. “Not sure what kind of opportunities I’ll get but make sure I get the best out of those.’’
Laufenberg’s life has been sports since the crib. His dad, Doug, was a defensive end for Hayden Fry’s Iowa Hawkeyes in the early 1990s. His mom, Staci, played volleyball at Iowa in the mid-1990s. And older sister Madison was a top hitter/blocker volleyball player for North Carolina (2015-18). Growing up in such an athletic environment, Laufenberg’s childhood dreams may have reached for the NFL but he was always able to keep his feet on the ground.
He started training with Vinson since he was 9 or 10 years old, but he was also dedicated to his schoolwork and community.
“My parents gave me the option to go Valor (Christian High School) because it would help your college scholarship chances because they’re more nationally known,’’ he said. “But I wanted to stay true to the local neighborhood.”
From Castle View, Laufenberg had scholarship offers from Air Force and NCAA Division I North Dakota and several FBS programs besides the Academy invited him as a preferred walk-on. But Calhoun and the Falcons won out.
“I wanted to be a scholarship player so I ended up choosing Air Force,’’ he said. “And it ended up working pretty well, they gave me a great opportunity. Then throughout the process when I was getting recruited there, the whole aspect of being in the military and having a split-service commitment after college, I thought was pretty cool, too.”
When Ben Garland came out of Air Force in 2010, there was a two-year service commitment that delayed his start to the NFL. He didn’t make his NFL debut until 2014 with the Broncos but he has since carved out a lengthy career with stops in Atlanta and San Francisco. He was the 49ers’ starting center in the Super Bowl last year and was starting again this season until suffering a season-ending injury.
“I’ve talked to him a couple of times,’’ Laufenberg said of Garland. “I actually had a chance to talk to him even before I had a shot at playing (in the NFL). He’s a really good dude and I talked to him about a couple things like training. Definitely follow him as he plays.”
NFL scouts should know that since Garland’s time, the military academies have made it a little easier for players like Laufenberg to break into the league. He has maintained high grades at the Academy and is on track to graduate in late-May with a degree in business management. If all goes well, he should be ready to join his NFL team without military commitment restrictions.
“There’s a process I would have to go through to go into the NFL right after I graduate,’’ he said. “However, I still have to get approved through the channels that I think goes all the way up to the Secretary of Defense. So, I’m working through that process right now. Pending that approval I should be able to go right after graduation. Then serve my commitment at the backend of playing, unless I play more than 5 years, then I would have to pay back the money to the Academy.’’
Laufenberg can offer an NFL team the military-raised intangibles of leadership, humility, maturity and work ethic. He also brings the physical aspects of strength, agility and enough speed to help on special teams. Whether it’s from his true junior film of 2019, or shortened, interrupted-season senior tape of 2020 -- or a series of 15-minute Zoom interviews in the NFL draft-prep season of COVID -- Laufenberg is a guard prospect worth evaluating.
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