Vince Mayle's slam dunks must have been a sight to behold.
The first was a two-handed windmill, with Mayle leaping from just in front of the foul line. The second was even flashier. "I did an off-the-glass dunk," he said. "Caught it with one hand, put it down with two." He won the regional slam dunk contest five years ago going away. "There was one other guy who was my competition," he said. "I ended up beating him because mine were the crowd favorites."
Mayle wasn't a dunker by trade, but when he stepped onto the hard court, he was doing what he thought he did best. Mayle was a guard for Shasta College, a little JUCO outside the city of Redding in Northern California. He had NBA dreams. But for a community college slam dunk champion, the NBA can be a faraway dream.
Even farther away is the NFL, especially when that hasn't yet even become a dream.
Mayle had been a two-way high school football player, but basketball was his primary sport. "I wasn't too seriously into football at the time," he said.
Five years later, here we are; the farthest-away dream about to become a reality. Mayle won't be entering the NBA draft, but he will be drafted into the NFL next week. And he will make a roster. The guy who "wasn't too seriously into football" has become a safe bet to be playing on Sundays in 2015.
Playing football is neither rocket science nor performing in the Bolshoi Ballet. There are concepts to be learned and techniques to be refined and mastered, to be sure, but a big, strong, fast and nimble athlete can pick up enough of the football basics to be pretty good pretty quickly, even at a high level of competition—and become very good after a year or two of on-the-job training.
This fact flies in the face of the molecular scouting that becomes popular the week before the draft: This 310-pound behemoth keeps his arms three inches too high when engaging an opponent, so dock him 74 slots on your draft board. At the college level, athletes change positions and even sports all the time, and pro coaches are willing to let top talents grow into their techniques.
This year's prospect class is full of intriguing players with minimal experience. Quinten Rollins spent several seasons starting at point guard for Miami of Ohio. Rollins changed majors late in his collegiate career and will be drafted as a cornerback next week after just 12 career football games.
The 49ers signed Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne last month. BYU rugby star Paul Lasike, who was considered for New Zealand's prestigious All Blacks team, is also drawing NFL interest after playing some fullback for the Cougars. The NFL is full of tight ends who saw themselves as small forwards in college, not to mention foreign-born players like Margus Hunt who came to football by way of sports like shot-putting and Raiders lineman Menelik Watson, who played soccer and basketball before being introduced to football in 2010.
By the standards of someone like Rollins, Mayle is an experienced football player. He played two seasons at Washington State, catching 106 passes last year. He also played a year of JUCO football at Sierra College. Mayle is unique because of the sudden right turn he took on the road from basketball to football, and how quickly he rose from fieldhouse dunk hero to NFL prospect.
Pinching and Pulling
It's revealing that when Mayle describes his on-court style, he starts by talking about his defense. "I would get in your face, try to get you mad, disrupt you, make sure you can't get involved."
On offense, Mayle entered Shasta College as a slasher who tried to run over defenders in the lane like they were cornerbacks after a screen pass. Over time, he developed a pick-and-roll game. But he always had a defensive mentality. "I did some pinching and pulling shorts down," he said.
Mayle's offensive style was never going to translate to the NBA, especially with so many competition levels in between.
"In the new day and age, playing point guard is all John Wall, Derrick Rose, those types of guys," he said. "I'm not that type of guy.
"Being Andre Johnson is more my body type."
Mayle left Shasta for family health reasons. While he was home, he spoke to high school coaches who admitted that they had played Mayle out of position. Mayle was an all-purpose running back and linebacker in high school. As a senior, he scored 14 touchdowns on offense and recorded a league-high 12 sacks on defense, so "out of position" is a relative concept. But coaches told Mayle that wide receiver was his natural position.
Mayle decided to switch sports and switch schools. He also became more serious about academics; an indifferent attitude toward schoolwork had relegated him to the JUCO ranks. He transferred to Sierra College outside of Sacramento and joined the football team.
Jeff Tisdel, a highly successful coach at the junior college level, knew he had a special player on his hands. "At our level, he looked like a man against boys," Tisdel said.
Mayle also looked like a linebacker among receivers. He focused so heavily on studying, taking 22 credits to square away his academics, that he let his conditioning lapse. Mayle bulked up to 235 pounds. But he was more beefy than out of shape, and he was not as raw as you would expect a linebacker/running back/swing guard to be at wide receiver.
"He's such a phenomenal athlete that the transition was very smooth," Tisdel said. "When he made that transition off the hardwood to the grass, it took a little time with the pattern running."
There was also still some growing up to do. Mayle's attention would drift in practice, and he dropped passes as a result. Tisdel benched his star transfer to straighten him out.
"He had such God-given ability that there was no excuse," Tisdel said. "A point needed to be made. It was, his focus got better and he was an All-American by the end of the year."
Soon after a four-drop practice and a brief benching, Mayle produced a four-touchdown game.
Mayle caught 16 touchdown passes for Sierra in 2012, then accepted a scholarship offer to Washington State. He was still 240 pounds when he arrived on campus, reigniting speculation that Mayle might play defensive end or tight end instead of wide receiver, but in Mike Leach's offense, keeping weight on was a bigger issue than shedding it.
"In practice, I ran over 10,000 yards per day," he said. "Our offense was all route-running. I started on special teams, so I was still running there. We weren't that deep at wideout this year, so I was running with the 1's and the 2's.
"We kind of ran a basketball game with our offense."
Mayle—whose weight now hovers around 220 pounds, perfect for his 6'2" frame—quickly became a starter. He proved that he could change sports, change positions, level up from community college and thrive in the Pac-12. He must clear other hurdles to make an NFL roster, but Mayle's defensive mentality gives him an edge over many of the big, fast, productive receivers vying for NFL jobs.
"No TV Timeout"
The NFL shrugs at 106-catch collegiate seasons. Lots of guys can catch tons of passes in a wide-open system like the Mike Leach Air Raid. Only an Amari Cooper-level prospect—and Mayle is not that—is going to make a roster as a rookie—unless he can contribute on special teams.
Mayle, the high school sack monster, the JUCO instigator of the backcourt, can play special teams. Watch his cut-ups, and it's not unusual to see Mayle catch a touchdown pass, or make the big play that leads to a touchdown, then slam into the wedge on the ensuing kickoff, tackling the returner or blowing up the blocking scheme.
"That's been helping me a lot, because that's something teams notice," Mayle said. "There are times I scored, then there's no TV timeout because I'm right back out there on kickoffs. They like that a lot."
Mayle volunteered for kick-coverage duties as a senior, something few receivers of his caliber do. The Cougars had been gashed on returns a few times early in the season. "We had a lot of holes, and I don't like losing," he said. He stayed on the coverage units until opponents started trap-blocking him; coaches did not want to risk losing their star receiver because he was covering a kickoff.
Mayle has had publicized visits with the Colts, Falcons, Dolphins, Jets, Giants, Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks, according to SB Nation's Visit Tracker. (Note in the link that Mayle is sometimes mistakenly listed as a fullback. The positional confusion continues.) He participated in the Senior Bowl and the combine. He has answered many questions, but he has been asked many more.
Mayle ran just a 4.67 40-yard dash at the combine. A broken thumb contributed to the slow time—Mayle changed his stance at the start of the sprint so the injured hand was not on the ground—but a slow sprint can drop a receiver below many teams' minimum benchmarks at the position. Mayle doesn't have ideal quickness off the line for an NFL receiver.
He also faces questions about his ability to absorb an NFL offense, though he feels that he proved himself when he learned NFL terminology at the Senior Bowl, and his route-running. Despite Tisdel's tutelage, he entered Washington State as a very undisciplined route-runner and did not really begin to master his craft until spring practice last year.
"I realized that I couldn't outrun everybody like I did at junior college," Mayle said. "So I had to set up my routes, make everything look the same. My junior year, I was tipping my routes off. My senior year, I barely tipped off my routes."
Mike Leach's Air Raid offense can produce ridiculous numbers for wide receivers, but it also teaches the finer points of route precision. Mayle knows his routes need work, but he made major improvements last year. Still, there are many cards stacked against him: not fast enough, not sharp enough on routes, a JUCO guy who racked up silly stats in a pass-happy offense.
That's why Mayle's special-teams performance matters so much. On kick coverage, the defensive mentality that served him in basketball kicks in. Versatility can keep Mayle in the NFL while coaches determine if his route-running and schematic knowledge catch up to his size, toughness and eagerness to run over defenders after the catch.
Mayle still faces a long road. But it is not nearly as long as it was four years ago, when he was a small-town slam dunk champion less interested in the NFL than the NFL was in him. After working his way across sports, positions and levels of competition, the journey from the bottom of the roster to the starting huddle should be a snap.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.