By hiking in California, learning guitar and hog hunting in Oklahoma, Dillon Radunz made the most of his forced break from football. The left tackle played just one game at North Dakota State last fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ahead of this week's NFL draft, potential employers have wanted to know how he spent his time away.
Tracking boar, naturally, piqued interest from the football world.
"Oh yeah," Radunz said. "I've talked to a few coaches about the experience."
Feeling out the hog mollies from lower-level schools like Radunz, a 6-5, 304-pound tackle from Becker, Minn., has been challenging for NFL teams this offseason as the pandemic shortened, or eliminated, college seasons and forced the closure of tentpole events like the scouting combine and many all-star games.
Radunz started 32 straight games for NDSU, but only one since 2019, putting him among many wild cards in this draft with less game tape than FBS counterparts. Teams could vary "wildly" on how they rank these players, said former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, an NFL Media draft analyst. Fewer in-person events also limited interactions between teams.
"Groupthink is a real thing," Jeremiah said. "In some ways, it's better because you get individual evaluations. But I can't remember more variance just talking to buddies around the league about specific players. The orders are so wildly different."
Radunz is one of the many tall, promising offensive tackles in what's considered a loaded draft class at the position. He could be taken as early as the late first round, as projected by Pro Football Focus, or be waiting until Friday's second or third rounds.
A strong showing at the Senior Bowl in January, when Radunz was named the practice player of the week while competing against FBS prospects, likely helped.
"You go into it a little nervous, not having played much in the past year," Radunz said. "But after about the first half of the first practice, the nerves kind of fade away. This is fun, this is what I love to do."
The Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., was one of the only college all-star games to happen this offseason.
It was also Elerson Smith's first football in 14 months after Northern Iowa didn't play any games last fall. The defensive end, who said he'll watch this week's draft from his childhood home in south Minneapolis, also drew positive reviews as he tried to prove his mettle against upper-level competition.
"I wouldn't say pressure," Smith said, "but it was a lot more important for me to perform at the Senior Bowl, because I didn't have senior year tape versus other guys who did."
The last time Smith, who is 6-7 and now nearly 260 pounds, played for Northern Iowa, he was 20 pounds lighter. He spent time away focused on furthering his physical transformation from a 190-pound tight end at Minneapolis South to an NFL edge rusher.
Working out on a squat rack in his teammate's garage at the beginning of the pandemic eventually turned into specialized training in Minneapolis, where Smith said he tried to add "good weight" without sacrificing athleticism. He may need to add even more weight to compete at the NFL level.
Playing less has Smith and Radunz physically feeling well, which is another key question for NFL teams because medical evaluations were limited this year. Radunz was among 150 prospects who traveled to Indianapolis this month for a "medical combine," where team trainers gathered to look at top prospects. Athletic measurements had to be done regionally at school pro days.
NFL evaluators also did psychological and physical testing over videoconferences. Radunz said he had one interaction in which a coach wanted to test his flexibility and mental edge. Before the scheduled meeting, Radunz received video of a coach squatting and instructing Radunz to "try to get lower than me and compete."
"We did all that before we even met," he said, "but it was cool to be a part of, to see the ways they get the competitiveness out of you."