Why the Big 12 is hosting a conference pro day for the first time

BYU tackle Kingsley Suamataia will be among the participants.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia (78) as BYU hosts Texas Tech, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.

Brett Yormark brought the idea up in his job interview. The Big 12 was seeking a commissioner with a bold vision in summer 2022. Though he lacked the traditional background of a college athletics lifer, three decades in pro sports afforded him fresh perspective: Yormark looked into the Big 12 and noticed all the things it wasn’t doing.

Why do schools host pro days on campus? Why not make it a showcase event?

Three months into the job, Yormark hired Scott Draper from the AAC as his VP for football. This project was put on his plate from day one. What did he think when he first heard about it?

“Candidly, it was: I can’t believe no one’s ever done this before,” Draper said. “It’s a great idea. Let’s go.”

After 16 months of working closely with the NFL to turn it into a reality, it’s time to find out whether conference pro days just might be the future.

The first Big 12 Pro Day, an event bringing the conference’s draft-eligible talent together for a four-day showcase at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas, kicks off Wednesday. It’s an unprecedented attempt to give 137 Big 12 players an improved opportunity to prove they belong in pro football.

The objective from the start was replicating the NFL combine experience on a conference basis. The setup inside the Dallas Cowboys’ Ford Center will look just like the one used in Indianapolis, with testing and position drills beginning Thursday with quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, running backs and defensive backs. NoBull is providing the apparel. Zebra is bringing its player-tracking technology. NFL Network will be on-site to televise the event. For Big 12 players who weren’t invited to Indy, it’ll be as authentic of a combine experience as possible.

And most importantly, they will get to work out in front of and interview with more than 130 NFL scouts and staffers representing all 32 NFL organizations plus scouts from the UFL and CFL.

“I’m thrilled about it,” Yormark said. “I think it’s a big opportunity for us to showcase our football brand and how we do things and obviously provide a great platform for our student-athletes.”

All players who were on Big 12 rosters in 2023 were eligible to participate. SEC-bound members Oklahoma and Texas opted out of participating and hosted on-campus pro days earlier this month. The Longhorns held theirs on the same day as USC, Alabama and Ohio State. NFL coaches, GMs and scouts have long had to make tough decisions about which campuses to visit. The Big 12 is hoping to help fix that with its one-stop shopping experience.

Twenty-six of the Big 12 Pro Day participants went to the NFL combine, including seven players on Dane Brugler’s most recent top-100 big board: West Virginia center Zach Frazier (No. 36), BYU tackle Kingsley Suamataia (38), Kansas State guard Cooper Beebe (47), Houston tackle Patrick Paul (55), Iowa State cornerback T.J. Tampa (59), Kansas guard Dominick Puni (67) and Kansas edge Austin Booker (95).

Can a brighter spotlight help turn under-the-radar Big 12 prospects into late-round draft picks? Former Cincinnati linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. became not just a starter for the Vikings, but also a PFWA All-Rookie Team selection. Oklahoma State alum Jaylen Warren put up more than 1,100 yards in his second year with the Steelers. Both made it into the league as undrafted free agents.

Last year, Kansas State defensive back Josh Hayes was one of 35 players who did not get invited to Indianapolis but still got drafted. Hayes didn’t go to a major all-star game, either. But he did run a 4.44 40-yard dash at K-State’s pro day. The sixth-round pick made the Buccaneers’ roster and led all NFL rookies with 13 tackles on special teams.

Who has a shot to make that list this year? Among the most intriguing combine snubs coming to Frisco are defensive backs Kenny Logan Jr. (Kansas), Beanie Bishop Jr. (West Virginia) and Mark Perry (TCU), as well as tight end Mason Fairchild (Kansas), offensive lineman Doug Nester (West Virginia) and defensive lineman Jowon Briggs (Cincinnati). Three QBs are scheduled to attend: UCF’s John Rhys Plumlee, Kansas’ Jason Bean and Cincinnati’s Emory Jones.

“I think anytime those guys get to be side-by-side and you have a chance to compare them directly to the guys who did get invited to the combine, it’s a great opportunity for them,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said.

Over the past five years, the Big 12 has produced 124 NFL Draft picks. More than one-third of those selections came from Oklahoma (29) or Texas (15). The four schools the conference has already added — BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — have produced 50 draft picks during the past five years. Incoming Pac-12 members Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah have had a combined 34 picks during that time.

But 52 percent of all NFL Draft picks from 2019 to 2023 came from schools that will be SEC or Big Ten members this year. If that trend holds true — that two conferences produce more than half of the draft picks, their players twice as likely to get selected as Big 12 players — it will inevitably have an impact on perception among recruits and players.

“The Big 12 needs to sell the Big 12,” Dykes said. “I think we’ve got a great story to tell. I think it’s a lot better product than people think. The way this stuff has gone with some of these conferences, it’s been interesting because I don’t think there’s always a real strong sense of reality when it comes to the way people perceive conferences in some ways. I think Brett’s the guy to be able to get that message out. You’ve gotta be good at telling your story and not only telling it but making sure people listen and pay attention. I think Brett’s the guy that can do that.”

Yormark knows they need to confront that challenge by doing things as a conference that nobody else is doing.

“How do we execute at a high level and differentiate ourselves from other conferences?” Yormark said. “I do think this is a big one, and hopefully our coaches can leverage it. I think that’s a critically important part of this whole thing.”

For Yormark, the goal is putting on a “world-class” event that sets players up for success regardless of what’s next for them after Big 12 Pro Day. Players will also attend sessions on mental health and brand building and a networking dinner with executives to build connections for their post-football careers.

It’s all common sense to Yormark but uncommon for the draft process. Proving that a conference pro day is a positive, practical improvement requires winning over many stakeholders. Scouts value the access they get during spring campus visits. Players like working out on their home turf. Agents and trainers need optimal conditions for their clients. Big 12 coaches can’t attend if they’re tied up in spring practice.

Draper comes from a football operations background and ran pro days during his 19 years at Michigan. He’s been on the phone nonstop with all of them in the weeks leading up to the event, knowing success is defined by everybody getting what they need out of the experience.

“The NFL has brought their resources, their expertise and their support in getting the clubs to understand this is new and different,” Draper said, “and providing guidance on the club side so the GMs and scouting groups are comfortable that what we’re doing is what they would be getting on campus – but it’s better and more organized.”

The Big 12 is aiming to make its conference pro day an annual event, and next year’s combine ought to be an even bigger deal based on who stayed in school. Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders is aiming to be the first quarterback selected in the 2025 draft. His two-way superstar teammate Travis Hunter will be draft eligible, too, and Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II is the reigning Doak Walker Award winner. Draper said the league’s four incoming members are “all in” on participating next spring.

Their time to impress will come later. This week is about the hundred-plus Big 12 players getting their hard-earned and potentially life-changing audition.

“If this just gets them a little more exposure and gets them into a camp that then launches their career,” Draper said, “that’s what this is all about.”

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.