Undrafted Kentucky players preparing intently for end of NFL lockout

Lockout has undrafted rookies working out, hoping for chance

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2011 

Every day, Chris Matthews rises at 7 a.m. and gets ready to go to work.

The former University of Kentucky wide receiver goes through this daily ritual even though he doesn't have an employer or a job to go to.

Thanks to the NFL lockout — which is now nearing its fourth month — there are hundreds of rookies like Matthews who are undrafted and in limbo, waiting to see whether they'll get a shot to live out their dreams and make a team.

"I've been looking forward to playing in the NFL since I was a little kid watching Jerry Rice play," Matthews said last week. "Every day, I've just tried to do something to get myself better so I can play at the next level."

Matthews and many of his former UK teammates are doing everything they can to prepare for their opportunity to make a roster when the lockout finally comes to an end, whenever that might be.

"As soon as this thing is over with, they're expecting everyone to come in ready to go," he said. "They're not giving nobody no breaks."

Matthews and DeQuin Evans, a former UK defensive end, train together in the mornings lifting weights and working out with a personal trainer.

In the evenings, Matthews hones his particular skill sets, working on running routes, performing catching and footwork drills. Then he sprints up hills or stairs, whatever he can find to offer his body a new challenge.

In the afternoons, he is taking summer school classes at UK trying to finish his undergraduate degree.

If Matthews thinks about the situation too much, he might get discouraged, so he tries to see the bright side.

He's trying to embrace the lockout as a chance to get better as a player.

"At the end of the day, even if we got drafted, we'd have to still be putting in the work," Matthews said. "My mindset has been, keep on working, keep on working."

That's been Derrick Locke's mindset, too.

The former Kentucky running back also went undrafted. One NFL analyst lists the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder as the sixth-best undrafted player available when teams can start bulking up their rosters again, noting Locke's speed and that he "lit up the first half of the Senior Bowl game."

Locke declined to discuss his preparations this summer except to say via a Facebook message that "all I do is train. ... I'm patiently waiting for a team to explode on."

Normally, undrafted free agents would have been contacted by teams soon after the draft ended.

Normally, those teams would sign the players to free-agent contracts.

Normally, undrafted rookies like Locke, Matthews and Evans would be preparing for mini-camps and memorizing playbooks.

But this year is anything but normal, if you weren't drafted.

"The people who got drafted have a chance to communicate with other players and get workouts with their teammates," Matthews said. "Unfortunately, people like me and DeQuin and other free agents, we don't have that luxury.

"Basically, we're out of a job before we even had a chance to get one."

Masthay at the ready

It wasn't too long ago that punter Tim Masthay was in the same position as guys like Matthews.

"I feel for those guys big-time," said Masthay, who is now in the middle of a three-year deal with the defending champion Green Bay Packers. "I've been in that spot. I'm only a year removed from being a free agent."

He asked aloud the questions that are plaguing all rookies, drafted or not.

"How do I prepare and get ready for a season when I have to be working an hourly job at the same time to keep myself afloat?" Masthay said.

Masthay said there's no doubt this year's rookies have it the hardest. Even the draft picks don't have contracts or signing bonuses in place yet.

Making a team this season is going to be even more difficult because new players don't have the playbooks to start memorizing. And they don't have the benefit of organized team activities or mini-camps.

But even for players who are solidly under contract like Masthay, the lockout has made this off-season much more complicated.

Masthay had to join his wife's gym in Green Bay to lift weights and cross train. He has no access to the team weight or training rooms.

He and his Packers teammates can't study film or meet with their coaches.

"It's very odd," Masthay said. "You're used to being in a very highly structured environment with every resource you'd need as a football player."

It's also meant many a frequent-flier mile for the punter.

He spent a few weeks this summer in California working out at high schools and small colleges with former NFL kicker John Carney as well as Jets punter Steve Weatherford and kicker Nick Novak.

On the side, Masthay did yoga and cross training.

For about six weeks, Masthay and Packers kicker Mason Crosby got together to work out regularly.

Two weeks ago, Masthay was back at UK training with current members of the Cats' special teams unit. One of those days, he punted to Randall Cobb, who was drafted by the Packers in the second round in April.

Masthay was in Arkansas last week visiting Packers long snapper Brett Goode to get in a few days of work.

"As football players, we'd much prefer the routine and being with our teammates and coaches and being in an environment that has all the resources to be the best that you can," Masthay said. "That would be preferable by far.

"I've just been trying to do the best I can do with it and be as prepared as possible whenever this thing gets lifted."

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