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Shaquem Griffin has become the most intriguing player in the NFL draft

Eric Adelson
Columnist

ORLANDO, Fla. — The fieldhouse had the feel of a Baptist church, so crowded that men wiped sweat from their brows and women fanned themselves with folded pieces of paper. Scouts clutched their notepads and their iPads. Reporters held up cameras behind a metal barrier. There was even a broadcast duo, live-streaming a glorified workout. UCF’s pro day, normally just another overlooked line on the packed draft calendar, had turned into an event.

This is the Shaquem Griffin effect.

Make no mistake, the Knights have more to brag about than one player. There is talent in this program – most notably defensive back Mike Hughes, who is a projected first-rounder. But this was something much more than a display of athletic potential. A day before at the University of Florida, with its Tim Tebow statue and its bushels of NFL alums, the Gators pro day was serene by comparison. It felt rote, normal. This did not. There were 31 teams present at UCF, and 70 scouts.

Griffin speaks to people, because of his sweet smile and because of his stirring story. He is an NFL-caliber player with one hand, and he is as charismatic as any athlete you’ll find. He is the most intriguing player in this year’s draft, and you can bet he will be a top jersey seller almost immediately after some team picks him.

Just ask Hughes, who ran through coverage drills with Griffin on Thursday. Hughes dropped the first ball thrown his way, which he figured was nerves, and then he watched Griffin pick off a throw easily, with one hand and one arm swallowing the ball. Hughes found himself inspired, and started catching everything in sight. “It motivated me to calm down and do what comes naturally,” Hughes said. “He can motivate people in a lot of ways.”

That is the Shaquem Griffin effect.

Central Florida’s Shaquem Griffin runs a drill during UCF football pro day, Thursday, March 29, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Only a few months ago, he was a very good player on a very good American Conference team. Locals knew about him and his twin brother, Shaquill, who played here and went to the Seahawks. Fans knew Shaquem was born with amniotic band syndrome, which kept the fingers on his left hand from fully developing. He had surgery as a little boy and, when he saw his mom after, asked when he could play football again. He grew up playing on the same teams as Shaquill, all the way through college, but he was always considered a little bit behind his brother.

Then a series of events vaulted him to the spreadsheets of scouts and the hearts of fans everywhere.

The Knights ran the table in 2017 and then beat Auburn on New Year’s Day. Viewers across the country watched UCF and couldn’t help but notice Griffin flying around the field and making tackles as if nothing was missing. Some of those viewers surely did web searches and found stats: 44 solo tackles and seven sacks in his final season. They found highlights of him wreaking havoc, breaking up passes and even making an interception. There was one play where he scooped up a fumble with his right hand as if he was a shortstop. “He made plays that I’ve never seen before,” Hughes says.

A great story, sure. But an NFL player?

He originally wasn’t invited to the scouting combine. He said he was disappointed and he posted about it on social media. Then there was an avalanche of anger from supporters. Why wasn’t he given a chance? “I had an entire nation behind me,” Griffin says. He really did.

He got his invite late and he wrested all the headlines from the bumper crop of quarterbacks present. He tore through the bench press with a prosthetic hand, putting 225 pounds up 20 times, and then he ran a blistering 4.38 40 the next day. Those were sick numbers for any linebacker, let alone one who was kicking down walls like Jack Bauer in a climactic scene of “24.” This was no longer just some saccharine, sepia-toned tale. Griffin was putting people on notice. “He’s very athletic,” says Hughes. “He can put anybody on the ground.”

Now there was a real debate: how high should he go in the draft? In terms of game film and stats and character, he was up there at the top. Did the missing hand mean all that much?

“Griffin’s physical limitation should be discussed,” says his NFL.com profile, “as it pertains to areas like tackle disengagement and consistency of finishing, but his instincts, play speed and technique have all been major factors in helping him thrive at his position.”

Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin (18) celebrates a sack on Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) during the second half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP)

You can’t help but cheer for him – even the biggest fans of hated rival USF love him – but you can’t help but wonder: Where will he land? What position should he play?

That’s part of what made Thursday so interesting. He said teams have looked at him as a WILL – weak inside linebacker – and he’s been asked if he can cover in space. He said spinning is his favorite pass-rush move. “I spin like three times a play,” he joked. He’s a hybrid and a wild card.

By one reporter’s count, there were 12 balls thrown at Griffin in drills. He caught eight. There were a couple of throws that were relatively easy, and he dropped them. There were a couple of passes that were quite difficult, and he caught them. The top moment of the day was when he leapt high in the air and snatched a pass as he came to the ground out of bounds. That was an NFL play. But missed tackles, for any reason, are killers at the next level. No amount of sold jerseys will make up for a defender who streaks in alone on a corner blitz and whiffs on a quarterback.

Now, less than two months after being left off the combine invite list, Griffin has been invited to the NFL draft. That’s quite a feat, even if he won’t be picked on Day 1. But it makes sense: who’s more fascinating? Griffin will be watchable at the draft, at his first day of rookie camp, at his first day of training camp, in his first preseason game, and in his first NFL game. His story does not get old, and his personality does not get old either.

After he went through all his workouts and all his interviews, Griffin met with two young fans with 3-D printed arms. One was named Wyatt and one was named Annika. They both got their limbs from a non-profit run by engineers at UCF. The kids were both in awe and familiar, gawking and nodding knowingly. It’s easy to imagine their joy replicated by hundreds or even thousands of fans in some NFL city by year’s end. It’s going to happen, no matter what draft round, no matter what rank on the roster.

That is the Shaquem Griffin effect.

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