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 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 as the school begins its journey into the NCAA Division I ranks from 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."
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, and undrafted free agent signings will begin following the draft.
QB BEN HOLMES
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.
After signing on with an agent, his search for training led him to the state of Michigan. After training at QB University in Michigan, Holmes made his way back home to New York to take part in the University of Buffalo's Pro Day event.
"In hindsight, going to UB's Pro Day was huge for me because a lot of other ones ended up getting canceled," 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. 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."
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."
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'm excited for whatever opportunity comes my way, but I probably won't even watch the draft," Holmes added. "Hopefully, I can be on a golf course somewhere and will get that call to change my life."
WR ZIMARI MANNING
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.
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.
"The biggest thing has been about my speed," he said. "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."
DB JAI EDWARDS
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-America 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 intercepted four passes.
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.
"Last time I was clocked, I was around a 4.45 (40-yard dash) time and I'm hoping to keep improving on that," Edwards said. "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.
"Whatever happens, I'm just praying for a chance to make a team. I want to show what I can do. I just want a chance."
CB PRINCE ROBINSON
Robinson came to Tarleton along with Edwards in 2018 and played a pivotal role in turning the Texan defense into an elite defensive unit.
The former receiver now turned cornerback 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 Aug. 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. He did not miss a beat, earning recognition as the 2019 LSC Defensive Back of the Year.
In his All-America career, he played 25 games for Tarleton and made 118 tackles, including 81 solo. Robinson 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.
Robinson said that there were several teams in attendance during his Gridiron workouts, and said that 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?"