Philadelphia Eagles News

Locker Room Of Hopefuls At Rookie Camp

Amid the hoopla of Carson Wentz and his first snaps in an Eagles camp that ESPN felt so strongly about that the network broadcast the warmup period of Friday's practice live, there is a locker room full of stories -- draft picks and hopefuls -- trying to make it big in Philadelphia.

The Wentz story is huge and deserved and understandable, and the No. 2 overall pick in the first round of the April 28 draft was again impressive in his press conference and in the limited time the media watched practice and saw him, one leg at a time, run up and down the field and drop back in the pocket and work on the mechanics of the quarterback position under the watchful eye of coach John DeFilippo. Great stuff. Really fun, with a large, large media contingent on hand and with ESPN broadcasting it live from the indoor facility of the NovaCare Complex with Sal Paolantonio. Merrill Reese has no reason to sweat his day job, but Sal did his best and it was entertaining and a first for an Eagles opening-day Rookie Camp.

So the world was ogling Wentz. Meanwhile, another 54 players with great stories and dreams of their own stepped on the field looking to impress the coaches over the course of three days of meetings and practices. There was quarterback Everett Golson, a former star at Notre Dame who ran into academic problems and transferred to Florida State for his final year of eligibility in 2015. There was James Kelly, a hulking 6-feet-8, 259-pound tight end who just a month ago was tackling his NBA dreams in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament after averaging 20.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game at Marshall. There were rookie free agents like wide receiver Xavier Rush, who had 99 receptions in his career at Tulane before suffering a knee injury and missing a chance to get drafted or sign an NFL contract in 2015. There were a handful of players like offensive guard Malcolm Bunche, who spent last season on the practice squad with the Eagles after signing a rookie contract following the draft.

And there were the draft picks, all eight of them, led by Wentz. The first-round pick gained most of the attention, but all of them felt the same way: It was time to show they belong in the NFL.

"That's what I'm here to do, win a job and stay here," said defensive end Alex McCalister, a seventh-round pick from Florida. "Draft weekend had me kind of upset about where I was taken. I felt that I was better than that, so I've got a chip on my shoulder. I need to prove I belong here."

McCalister, listed as 6-6 and 239 pounds -- he has plenty of room to grow and fill out his long body -- had an up-and-down career at Florida and the off-the-field issues likely knocked down his draft stock. McCalister was suspended for Florida's 2015 season opener -- "I was immature and I've grown from that," he said -- but he disputes a report that he was kicked off the team prior to the Gators' Citrus Bowl game against Michigan, instead saying that he was recovering from a foot injury that KO'd him from the final three games of the regular season.

"All of that is in the past for me," said McCalister, who, along with the other draft picks who signed shortly after the draft, has been at the NovaCare Complex for four days before the Rookie Camp opened. "I think this defense is perfect for me. My 'get off' is why I got drafted. I have that burst, and in this defense the coaches want us to get up the field. That's what I do best."

Another seventh-round draft pick, defensive back Jalen Mills, called draft weekend "long, drastic" and ultimately rewarding enough to make him cry tears of joy. Mills is learning every part of the defensive secondary -- safety, nickel and cornerback, with an emphasis on cornerback -- so he's got a lot on his plate.

He's also got a lot to prove, because seventh-round draft picks are no sure things to make the 53-man roster.

"I'm waking up early and instead of going to class, I'm going to work and doing something that I love," Mills said. "Everything is so different at this level -- the meetings, how you study, how you lift weights, everything. I'm trying to learn the system and everything that goes on here. The athletes here are elite, way greater than it is in college. It's a great challenge. I want to win the coaches over in this camp and then in Training Camp I want to win my teammates over so they feel they can trust me on the field. I don't want them to think of me as a rookie."

And the nerves? Oh, yeah, there are some of those, too.

"I would say 'anxious' is the word," Mills said. "I want this so much. This is what I've worked so hard for. I walk into this locker room and I see my nameplate and I get the chills."

Sixth-round draft pick Blake Countess watched every bit of the draft. Every pick. He had an idea that he would be a late-round pick, but that didn't make the time go by any faster. When his name came across the scroller -- sixth round, 196th overall -- a few minutes after the Eagles called to notify him of the selection, Countess felt relief and happiness and the understanding that life was changing in an instant.

"It's about going out and earning your keep every single day," he said. "It has all been exciting to this point, because you grow up watching the game and dreaming of this moment and now that I'm here I understand that people aren't going to give you a thing. We've spent a week lifting, and doing position drills and studying the playbook. Getting out on the field and playing some ball is exciting.

"The days are long and when I go back to the hotel, I get in my playbook and get my rest. There is no celebration. There is no downtime. It's a job and I intend to win it."

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