Isaac Nauta finished his last stride of the 40-yard dash at Lucas Oil Stadium and began doubting his performance at the NFL combine. The clock read 4.91 seconds, which was the second-highest time of all participants.
Nauta couldn’t give a reasoning for it. Maybe it was a lack of sleep in Indianapolis. Maybe it was fatigue from the strenuous demands of the combine. Regardless of what it was, a cycle of thoughts instantly ran through the former Georgia tight end’s head: Why did this happen to me on this day?
“I was crushed about it,” said Nauta, who was one of many Georgia players who opted to leave the program after their junior season. “I had worked so hard up until that point. It’s tough when you grind. You’re ready for that moment, but it doesn’t happen like you thought it would.”
Nauta took a gamble on his abilities at that very moment. He played only three seasons at Georgia and led the position group for his last, but decided it was time to attempt a professional career. His draft grade report recommended the 6-foot-3 prospect to return to school — although the only other options were a first or second round selection.
There was a brief moment of letdown for Nauta, because he knew a lot rode on his combine performance. In today’s NFL landscape, there’s a lot of emphasis on the numbers and testing results. But he received a load of encouragement from his trainers, former teammates and those he engaged in the pre-draft process with.
That even included teams who could potentially draft Nauta, who grades in many mock drafts as a mid-round selection. A message from scouts was direct: “Your film doesn’t match the time.”
“A lot of people may put too much emphasis on the testing side of it rather than looking at the person as a football player,” Nauta said. “You see it all the time: guys go out there, run fast and don’t amount to anything. There’s something about having good tape.”
As the combine ended, Nauta put stock in that. He had a strong junior season, although it wasn’t full of shining moments. His final days as a Bulldog included 430 receiving yards, a touchdown and a rushing score to add to that tally on the strangest fumble recovery against Tennessee.
“I remember him being a freshman and him making my head ring a little bit,” former Georgia outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “I have always thought he has potential and he’s never been scared. He turned out how he’s supposed to be, and I’m excited for him.”
His main gripe, though, was that Nauta knew his capabilities were better than the 4.91 that many people base a performance off of. Nauta’s other combine results included a 28-inch vertical jump, 19 repetitions on bench press, 7.45 seconds on the 3-cone drill and 4.43 seconds on the 20-yard shuttle. He received a prospect grade of 5.50 by the NFL, which translates to a “chance to become an NFL starter.”
But once more, Nauta was directed to keep his visions clear and not remain hung up on one set of results.
“He couldn’t get overwhelmed with one moment or become disappointed,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said, who previously had a stint with the Miami Dolphins. “He has a lot of tape out there, and I know from working in the league that there’s a lot more than just the combine. Those are his strong points, and you can’t put a lot of weight just on numbers.”
Nauta got his chance at Georgia’s pro day on March 20, and redeemed himself. Each franchise was represented, New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick was on hand and so was Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line coach Jess Simpson — Nauta’s high school coach at Buford who saw the tight end shine and emerge into a five-star recruiting prospect.
As many eyes re-focused on Nauta and his 40-yard dash time, it was much improved. He was clocked in a range of 4.59 to 4.80 seconds by the time he made his final stride. He came into the event with the hopes of falling between a high 4.6 and a low 4.7.
Back in Athens and in his comfort zone, Nauta went from concerned to confident. He displayed his abilities and hopes its a step closer to hearing his name called on draft night.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Nauta said. “Nobody has higher expectations for me than myself. I go out, go to work and bounce back like I did.”