Iowa State players turn heads at Pro Day


Owen Aanestad

Xavier Hutchinson runs routes during pro day, Bergstrom Football Complex, Mar. 21, 2023.

Christian Royston, Sports Editor

AMES — Eight Iowa State players participated in Iowa State’s Pro Day in hopes of improving their draft stock one last time before the NFL Draft comes in April.

A majority of NFL teams showed up to evaluate Cyclones at various positions. With the recent success former Iowa State players saw in the NFL, more teams are keen to look at Iowa State as a good school to pick from.

“When you got more guys coming out of a school, scouts are more prone to come and see,” safety Anthony Johnson said. “Like oh, they got something cooking up there.”

Two stars that arose out of the last draft were Breece Hall and Brock Purdy. Hall was leading the pack among offensive rookies before an ACL injury cut his rookie season short. Purdy saw success later in the season, as injuries to the quarterbacks in front of him cleared a path for a miracle run deep into the playoffs.

Other former Cyclones have grown into their own over the years, with Allen Lazard seeing success with the Green Bay Packers – before signing with the New York Jets, joining Hall – and David Montgomery becoming a bell-cow running back on the Chicago Bears.

Hutchinson earns the spotlight

It’s clear former Cyclones helped influence the teams that decided to show up to Pro Day. The team that seemed the most interested happened to be the Pittsburgh Steelers, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was in attendance.

Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin watches ISU players during pro day, Bergstrom Football Complex, March 21. (Owen Aanestad)

With the added set of eyes, especially from an NFL head coach, the Cyclones players had to be more alert than ever.

“Makes you stay on your toes,” wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson said. “You have to be sharp. You want to impress them. That’s why you’re out here.”

Hutchinson caught the eye of Tomlin when he was running drills. As Hutchinson was making grab after grab, Tomlin was right there to chat with him and let him know how he was doing.

Hutchinson already has the production and the tape, he just needed to show scouts that his hands were great in person. He did just that by not dropping a single ball thrown his way.

Another big question surrounding Hutchinson’s game was if he could excel in the deep game, as most of his film shows his success on shorter routes. With quarterback Hunter Dekkers heaving him throws, Hutchinson was able to show off how dangerous he can be down the stretch.

“I wanted to show my deep balls,” Hutchinson said. “I feel like my film shows me running short to intermediate routes. I feel like that’s what I’m best at. So I just want to come out here and show I can catch deep balls. I had a lot of opportunities out there, and I capitalized on every single one of them.”

Being as close to the draft as he currently is was a long time coming. Hutchinson has dreamed of making it to the NFL since he was five years old, and now he is just one month away from that dream becoming a reality.

When asked what his five-year-old self would think about being close to the NFL, Hutchinson said there was no way he would believe it.

“I think he wouldn’t believe it,” Hutchinson said. “I think he wouldn’t be able to grasp it. Even at times I can’t even grasp it now.”

Will McDonald cements his spot

McDonald entered Pro Day as the clear-cut leader of the pack in the eyes of the football world.

Ever since his dominating outing in the Senior Bowl, McDonald’s hype has been unreal. He has even been projected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, which would end a 50-year drought for the Cyclones.

“Will is continuing to grow as a person and on the field, and I think he’s gonna get into that first round,” Johnson said. “He’s one of one.”

McDonald knows he’s different. He knows there is no other Will McDonald. He is the only one.

However, McDonald isn’t going through the pre-draft process in hopes of going off the board in the first round. McDonald said that he’s not concerned at all about where people are predicting him to go or what any critics have to say.

“When I step on the field, it’s me and you,” McDonald said. “That’s my mindset.”

McDonald had a strong showing at the NFL Combine and had another strong showing at Pro Day. He showed off his elite speed and movement, along with his flexibility and explosiveness.

He excelled at everything he was asked to do. Now it’s up to NFL teams to unpack everything McDonald put on display over his Iowa State career and the pre-draft process.

McDonald said that whatever team he ends up on is “guaranteed a playmaker.”

Old dogs show off new tricks

The two players who saw the most change over their collegiate careers, and even since the end of the 2022 season, were Anthony Johnson and O’Rien Vance.

For Johnson, the one thing he wanted to showcase at Pro Day was his versatility.

Johnson started his Iowa State career as a cornerback before switching to safety for his final year. He excelled as a safety, showing that he can play anywhere on defense without any issues.

That versatility is something that NFL teams value highly, as defensive backs are asked to do a lot at the next level.

“It’s something that they’re looking for,” Johnson said. “Especially in today’s game.”

The other long-time Cyclone who showed off his versatility at Pro Day was Vance.

The biggest change in Vance wasn’t as much on the field as it was in his appearance. As Vance stepped out on the field, he looked significantly thinner than when he was leading the defense to success in the 2022 season.

“I lost 20 pounds,” Vance said. “I feel great. I feel phenomenal. For me, it was just more so mobility. Just to show that I can drop weight and move well and also keep my strength.”

Although Vance was down 20 pounds, he looked healthier than ever, while not losing any strength. He first demonstrated that strength on the bench press, as he moved the weight with ease.

Vance wanted to work on his quickness, showing off his quick cuts on the shuttle drill. With the draft approaching, Vance looks to be new and improved just in time to turn the heads of some NFL teams.