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Secret life of NFL scouts: The grunt who keeps tabs on all the players, schools

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel spent nearly a year entrenched with NFL scouts in preparation for the 2018 draft. This is the seventh story of a 10-part series.

Secret life of NFL scouts

Part 1: How the Dolphins’ draft came together
Part 2: How GM, coaches work together in picking players
Part 3: Examining the player and the person
Part 4: What scouts look for at practices
Part 5: ‘We don’t want a team of exceptions’
Part 6: Why ‘workout wonders’ can become draft busts
Part 7: One grunt keeps tabs on all players, schools
Part 8: Memorable ‘Olympic marathon’ debate over Jordy Nelson
Part 9: Why scouts love visiting Nick Saban and Alabama
Part 10: The calm of Miami Dolphins draft night
Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted

DAVIE, Fla. – Minh Luu enters his windowless office at 5:45 on Monday mornings in football season, equipped with a coffee that’s half Starbucks regular and half French vanilla, and proceeds to flip on and position the seven screens in front of him. There’s a computer for email, another for game film and three additional monitors used to watch film, view the Dolphins’ college remote system and to read reports. There’s also Luu’s cell phone and a flat-screen television on the wall that flashes the NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” on mute. A blue Post-It, sticky with irony, reads: “Complacency is the cousin of death.”

Luu, 27, keeps the lights off, sets his Spotify to pump out 90s R&B music and proceeds with his job as the anonymous internal engine of the Dolphin scouting machine. The glow of all those screens flickers a kaleidoscope of light through the room. Luu prints out the dozens of reports that came in over the weekend, reads them and begins compiling spreadsheets, organizing information and generally acting as the department’s nerve center.

“I’m the information guy,” Luu says with an easy smile sitting at his desk a few days before Christmas. “I make them aware of what they need to be aware of.”

The Dolphins grade schools by an A-B-C-D classification. UTEP guard Will Hernandez earned a high enough grade that it bumped the school from a B to an A. (AP)

Luu’s title at the time was college scouting assistant, a grunt position that’s so low-level he wasn’t even listed on the Dolphins website. But it’s a crucial job behind the scenes and one that Luu is giddy to have. It’s unspoken that the scouting assistant job – or some evolution of it over the years – has evolved into a proven incubator for current Dolphin scouts Adam Engroff, Matt Winston and Chase Leshin.

At this point in December, Luu has ushered more than 1,300 players through the system, processed more than 3,000 reports and relished every second of the opportunity to learn and soak in the collective knowledge from all of the veteran scouts. (Collectively, the 10 Dolphin college scouts have combined for 129 years in the business).

Amid Luu’s glowing screens and reams of spreadsheets, there’s a convergence of the essence of what the Dolphins’ scouting staff is looking for. For someone attempting to embark on a career in the NFL, every report and player doubles as a cheat sheet into how the scouting process works.

“The scouts become experts on the prospects as people,” he said. “I thought [before I got this job] that it’s just film, but the most important part of the job is background.”
Luu’s office décor offers a window into his own background. It includes an autographed picture of WWE wrestler The Big Show (a big Dolphins fan), and an Orlando Predators helmet, a nod to his start in the Arena Football League. Luu’s self-scout of his own career as a receiver and defensive back at Westminster High School in California is unsparing.

“I wasn’t any good,” he says. “I got hurt my junior year, I broke my bone in my knee and was in a wheelchair all season.”

But the lack of on-field success didn’t diminish his love for the game, as he attended UCF in Orlando, interned with the Predators – everything from equipment to scouting to video – and quickly got hooked on football. “I fell in love with it,” he says, “being a part of a camaraderie.”

Luu helped sign a player with the Predators, lineman Xavier Proctor from North Carolina Central, that ended up reaching the NFL with the Detroit Lions.

“When he went to the NFL,” Luu says, “I was like, ‘This is awesome!’”

Minh Luu (Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins)

Luu ended up catching his own break with the Lions, interning in their video department in 2015 before returning to the Predators. He caught on with the Dolphins as an operations intern, a job that included managing the office supply budget, putting together playbooks, filling refrigerators with water and shagging balls in practice. He later got moved into the scouting assistant role, where he’s a facilitator, eager learner and grateful for the chance to learn one report at a time.  (He recently got promoted to player personnel coordinator, a sign of the respect for him around the Dolphins’ facility.) 

An average of 15 reports come in a day, and Luu takes the “one-liners” from the reports and compiles all of them for an email for Dolphins executives Chris Grier and Mike Tannenbaum. The one-liners are the total findings of the Dolphins scout on each player crystallized into one sentence.

The early read on Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage, Miami’s fourth-round draft pick: “Is a big, linear athlete that has good size and is a very good athlete, can be a mismatch as a route runner in the pass game, good straight-line speed and vision. Is a good kid and is very smart. Needs to develop more consistency as a player.”

With Grier and Tannenbaum locked into the day-to-day operations of the franchise and managing the 53-man roster with coach Adam Gase, the emails offer a pithily distilled summary of what their scouts have found on the trail. It allows them to stay informed on the draft all season, without being locked in on it.

Luu’s other job is to flag reports for alerts on a variety of issues. Everything from age to injury history to character questions and learning ability get noted. When the Dolphins eventually make cards for prospects for their draft board – which later become the player’s pro card – the yellow dots regarding all those initial scouting concerns remain noted.

The draft is a logistical continuum, which means that information that flows in may change operational aspects of what the Dolphins are doing. The Dolphins break up schools by an A-B-C system, which determines how many scouts or executives go visit them. Luu’s job is to tabulate the grades as the reports come in and alert the Dolphins brass of information that may change how a school is viewed.  

There’s no finite rules for what makes a school an “A, B or C” school, but basically an A school will have multiple draftable guys or a high-end prospect. (Engroff attempts to see all of the A schools in person, if possible).

When West Coast scout Lenny McGill went through UTEP this fall, he gave guard Will Hernandez a high enough grade that it bumped the school from a B to an A. That meant that Grant Wallace, a young player personnel scout who played at Yale, trekked to El Paso to give Miami a second set of eyes on Hernandez.

Both Southern Miss, because of the emergence of three prospects, and Humboldt State, because of a strong grade by McGill on guard Alex Cappa, also got bumped from B schools to A schools. Dolphins director of college scouting Adam Engroff went through Southern Miss after Winston’s initial reports upgraded the school, and the scouts watched extra film on Cappa to be sure they knew him.

Luu, like those in the position before him, have used their job as a daily primer on how to someday become a scout. The Dolphins staff have given him a few dozen players to scout himself to get reps, which he’s thankful for. Toledo receiver Cody Thompson was one, for example, although he returned for a fifth year after an injury in 2017. He also has a social media project following the country’s Top 150 players on Twitter and Instagram and flags anything concerning that arises.

But mostly, he’s learning through the osmosis of the Dolphins’ senior scouts, as he’s constantly peppering them with questions about how they acquired certain nuggets of information, mostly on family and background to learn their process. He references Winston’s reports as exemplary, as he can paint a vivid word picture from snap to whistle.

“The [good reports] are detailed in the background,” he says. “They’re formulated in the same way. It has a deep dive on how they are off the field, how they treat the training staff, the interns, things like that. When it’s easy to read and has all those details, that’s a good report.”

Amid the glow of all his screens, Luu ascertained the essence of the evolution of the Dolphins’ scouting process.

“We’re going to hopefully get the talent right,” he says. “If you can play football, we’re going to figure it out. But it’s about culture, if we want a guy here.”

Next: Memorable ‘Olympic marathon’ debate over Jordy Nelson

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