The months between the final game of their respective collegiate careers and the annual NFL Draft are some of the toughest, most rigorous times in the lives of every professional hopeful football athlete across the country.
It can be even more so for the non-Power Five athletes who are looking to make a bigger name for themselves on a national level – such as Tarleton standouts like QB Ben Holmes, WR Zimari Manning, CB Prince Robinson and DB Jai Edwards.
Those four Texans, along with other professional hopefuls such as RB Daniel McCants, TE Brant Bailey, WR Cam Lewis, DL B.J. Jefferson and other seniors, are coming off some of the greatest football careers the Texan faithful have ever seen in the history of the purple and white. The senior class has led Tarleton to back-to-back Lone Star Conference Championships and undefeated regular seasons with an overall record of 23-2 over the last two seasons (Tarleton’s last in NCAA Division II).
Tarleton has boasted 16 NCAA Division II All-America players over that two-year span, including Manning who was named to five different NCAA All-America teams last year after leading the nation in receiving touchdowns. Manning finished third in the Harlon Hill voting, which is the highest finish by a receiver since 1991.
On the offensive side of the ball, with Holmes and Manning leading the air attack, Tarleton has averaged 45.0 points per game in each of the last two seasons for a top-five scoring offense in the nation. Defensively, the hard-hitting secondary unit with Edwards and Robinson at its heart have wreaked havoc on opposing offenses by boasting back-to-back seasons of top-20 nationally-ranked defensive seasons which has put them in a position to make a run at the professional level.
This offseason, however, has proven to be even more challenging for “small school” prospects as the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the former Texan all-stars from seeing NFL scouts in person to showcase their skills.
“Obviously it stinks for the guys looking to make a name for themselves as undrafted free agents and small-school guys,” said Holmes. “I’m fortunate that I was able to participate in [University of Buffalo’s] pro day, but I’d be willing to bet that 80-percent – maybe higher – of seniors across the nation weren’t able to do an in-person pro day.
“Personally speaking, it hurts even more because the Broncos, Lions, Bears and Packers all wanted to bring me in for private workouts but now it’s been moved to virtual meetings,” Holmes added.
The foursome of Holmes, Manning, Edwards and Robinson have all taken different directions in their draft preparation journeys during this national pandemic with hopes of all landing at the same destination.
Ben Holmes • Quarterback
Holmes ended his career as one of the best signal callers in Tarleton history last fall. His 23-2 record as a starting QB is the best in program history. He finished his career with the fifth-most passing yards (5,997), the most passing yards per game (262.3) and the second-most passing touchdowns (62) in program history. All of which were program bests by a QB with only two seasons of competition.
Following the final snap of his illustrious career, Holmes began the search for quarterback-specific training and an agent he “could trust”. After signing on with an agent, his search for training led him to the state of Michigan.
“I went up to QB University in Michigan and started training with Donovan Dooley. Jim Kielbaso has also played a big part in my nutrition and strength training. I was up there in January and spent two full months training and getting my body in even better shape. I ended up staying three extra weeks because a great host family, the Trainors, let me stay with them in their home.
After his training in Michigan, Holmes made his way back home to New York to take part in the University of Buffalo’s Pro Day event – which, as it turned out, would be a blessing in disguise in more ways than one for the Texan quarterback.
“In hindsight, going to UB’s Pro Day was huge for me because a lot of other ones ended up getting cancelled,” said Holmes. “I was still planning to do Tarleton and Baylor’s Pro Day, but those opportunities didn’t make.
“At UB, I did really well,” he continued. “I ran a 4.79 (40-yard dash), jumped a 30-inch vertical and threw the ball really well. I had conversations with the Broncos, Packers, Browns, Seahawks, Vikings and Lions.”
Holmes also got some motivational feedback from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The guy from Tampa Bay said if I was 6-2 or 6-3, I’d be a first-round draft pick, which kind of pissed me off,” said Holmes. “I measured at 5-11. That’s what I am. When I started throwing, the Broncos took immediate notice. Obviously, my height was the biggest factor. I got a lot of comparison to [former Missouri QB] Chase Daniel.
“I was really nervous. Who wouldn’t be? But to hear them say you have an NFL arm was really cool to hear,” he continued. “They talked about accuracy and were impressed when I was able to take snaps under center. They asked me how much work I did under center in college and – I think every Tarleton fan knows the answer to that – I said zero.”
In addition to the NFL feedback, Holmes learned of an additional surprise during his time at UB.
“When I was at the pro day, I found out I was on the [Canadian Football League] Toronto Argonauts’ Neg. List [Negotiation List],” said Holmes. “An agent from Montreal reached out and let me know that Toronto holds my rights if things don’t work out in the NFL. They haven’t offered a contract yet because their season was supposed to start in June and they aren’t sure when their season would even begin.”
Since the coronavirus shutdown, Holmes has been working out at his home in Stephenville and doing virtual meetings with teams as draft weekend approaches.
“I filmed about an hour and a half of me throwing and my agent is working hard to get them to all the scouts,” said Holmes. “[Former Texans] Baxter [Kirven] and Del’Michael [High] have come out and caught some passes for me. I’m just trying to keep the blood pumping.
“I’m excited for whatever opportunity comes my way, but I probably won’t even watch the draft,” he added. “Hopefully, I can be on a golf course somewhere and will get that call to change my life.”
Zimari Manning • Wide Receiver
Prior to coming to Tarleton, Manning wondered if his career had finished following a two-year career at Golden West College. Then a twitter message from assistant coach Tate Whitten changed his life forever and offered him a chance in Stephenville.
Manning took advantage by rewriting the Tarleton record books and becoming one the nation’s elite receivers.
The Long Beach, California native caught 112 passes for 2,409 yards and 34 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He now holds the Tarleton receiving records for touchdowns and 100-yard receiving performances (12). After his senior season, Manning was named to five different All-America teams, he was the Super Region IV Offensive Player of the Year by two different organizations and finished third in the Harlon Hill voting.
All from a season hobbled by injury.
“I actually hurt my foot during the home opener against Doane,” said Manning. “I played on it all season. So, when the season was over, I spent a lot of time focusing on healing my foot.”
Manning made his way to Westin, Florida to train at Bommarito Performance where he trained and took advantage of the medical facility to get his foot back to 100-percent. He declined offers to participate in several all-star games, including the Hula Bowl, in order to make sure he was fully healthy.
“It was a decision I made with my family and my agent,” said Manning. “We talked about it and decided that the best thing for me was to get my foot healthy.”
With the injury limiting his winter workouts, Manning let his game tape do his talking while he was rehabbing. Manning says his foot feels great now and he’s ready to prove himself at the next level.
“I haven’t gotten a whole lot of feedback because I was preparing for some of these spring pro days and private workouts, but obviously that planned has been changed,” said Manning. “The biggest thing has been about my speed. I ran a 4.49 in Florida after my foot was ready to go. I also believe game-speed is a lot different, but being able to go to Florida, train, and open up my body has really improved things a lot.
“I’m sharing my highlight tapes with all of the teams and letting my agent handle those things,” he said. “Right now, I’m in California and everything is completely shut down. I’m still working on a lot of speed training, trying to be faster. I’ve been kicked off a lot of fields and I’m just trying to get it in where I can. I hope my name gets called. I’m confident in my game and ready to go to work.”
Jai Edwards • Defensive Back
Edwards came to Tarleton prior to 2018 and quickly established himself as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the country at the NCAA Division II level.
Defensive coordinator Marcus Patton had performed quite the impressive turnaround on the Tarleton defense over his first two seasons on the Texan sidelines. In 2016, Patton inherited a defense that was ranked last in the nation in total defense the previous season and improved each of the next two seasons before the 2018 class turned the Tarleton defense into one of the nation’s most-feared units.
A 6-0 safety from Atascocita High School and Blinn College, Edwards would enjoy an All-American junior campaign from the safety position. In his career, Edwards played 24 games and made 164 total tackles, including 105 solo. The hard-hitter from Houston made 14.5 tackles for a loss and four interceptions while roaming the gridiron.
Following his final season, Edwards returned home to Houston for training.
“I’ve been working out in Houston. I’m really focusing on improving my hips, my back pedal and my speed,” he said. “If I can be faster, I really feel like I can compete at the next level.”
Like most senior athletes, Edwards didn’t get the chance to perform at pro day events like he had originally planned, but he and his agent have been working diligently by sending game tape across the country.
“I’ve been able to get into a few facilities that let me get my work in a little bit,” said Edwards. “So, the shutdown hasn’t really affected me as much as other people around the country as far as my ability to workout, it’s just hurt my chance to be seen.
“Last time I was clocked, I was around a 4.45 [40-yard dash] time and I’m hoping to keep improving on that,” he added. “I have a really good agent. Hopefully he’s going to get me in front of some people. We’ve had a few teams interested, but I’ll just leave it at that.”
One potential benefit for Edwards is having a brother in professional sports, Boston Celtics Guard Carsen Edwards.
“I don’t know how much that helps. I hope it does,” said Edwards with a laugh. “But I think a lot will come from my agent. I feel confident in my game tape and that my agent will help and get me a chance.
“Whatever happens, I’m just praying for a chance to make a team,” he added. “I want to show what I can do. I just want a chance.”
Prince Robinson • Cornerback
Robinson came to Tarleton alongside Edwards in 2018 and played a pivotal role in turning the Texan defense into an elite defensive unit.
The former receiver now turned corner stepped into Patton’s defense as the complimentary cornerback on the opposite side of two-year starter Devin Hafford and made his presence felt immediately in his debut against Delta State on August 30, 2018. Robinson made seven tackles and returned his first career interception 36 yards for a touchdown as the Texans thrashed the Statesmen 44-13.
From then on, Robinson and Hafford formed one of the fiercest cornerback duos in the country with a top-10 scoring defense and a top-five passing efficiency defense in 2018. As a senior, Robinson stepped into the lead role as the top cornerback in the Lone Star Conference following a season-ending injury to Hafford and did not miss a beat. Robinson was named the 2019 LSC Defensive Back of the Year.
In his All-American career, he played 25 games for Tarleton and made 118 tackles, including 81 solo. He had nine career interceptions and took four back for defensive touchdowns. He also shined as an elite returner in the special teams, where he scored three more touchdowns and garnered two special teams player of the week awards.
Robinson prepared for the next phase of his career in a similar fashion to his teammates. He moved to Trophy Club for training, where he spent seven weeks before making his return to Stephenville just before the COVID-19 shutdown.
While he didn’t get the opportunity to shine in a pro day setting, Robinson did manage some face time with pro scouts at the Gridiron Showcase All-Star game in Fort Worth.
“I did ok. I always think I can do better,” said Robinson. “Basically, it wasn’t like a traditional all-star game. It was a couple of team practices and then a final scrimmage. I did the first two practices and wasn’t able to stay for the third scrimmage.”
Robinson said that there were several teams in attendance during his Gridiron workouts, including the Chiefs, Raiders, Jets, Falcons, Rams, Giants, 49ers, Bills, Jaguars, Bears, Texans, Cowboys and Colts – where former Texan E.J. Speed is currently on roster. Robinson said the Rams “liked [him] a lot” and the Texans “asked for his number.”
“Honestly, I’m just blessed to be in this position. Even if I don’t get a call [on draft day], I’m confident that I’ll get a shot as a free agent pick up.”
Even with the prospects of a professional football career on the horizon, it all took a backseat for Robinson, however, with the birth of his son, Prince Jr, on March 16.
“Obviously the virus took away our pro day and an opportunity to be seen, but for me, it was perfect timing,” said Robinson. “I get the chance to spend some time with my son. For me, not growing up with a father, I want to do my best and show him the best I can be. Hopefully that’s in the NFL because who doesn’t want a dad in the NFL?”
The NFL Draft was originally scheduled to take place in Las Vegas but will now be held virtually from April 23-25. Round 1 will begin Thursday, April 23 with rounds 2-3 scheduled for Friday evening. The final rounds (4-7) will take place Saturday, April 25 and undrafted free agent signings will begin following the draft.