KANSAS CITY, Mo. – More than 300 draft prospects converge on Indianapolis beginning Tuesday, Feb. 17 for the NFL Scouting Combine, an annual week-long draft evaluation process.
A majority of invitees come with awards as evidence of decorated college careers, and all participants hope to impress NFL teams for a shot at playing at the next level.
But Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller finds himself in a familiar setting on the outside looking in. While Mueller has the credentials as a 2014 first-team All-Big 12 selection as voted by coaches, he didn’t receive a Combine invite.
The former Wildcat walk-on from Leawood, Kan., wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s just kind of been my life story as I’ve played this game,” Mueller said in a telephone interview. “Nothing has ever been handed to me from a starting position to a scholarship. Honestly, I kind of like it. I just like it when people set the bar for me, and then I go get it.”
Mueller started 26 games in his final two seasons at K-State, finishing tied for fifth place in school history with 20 ½ sacks. He totaled 119 tackles (96 solo), 15 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries on his career.
The 6-2, 245-pound Mueller is often regarded as undersized for a defensive lineman, lacking ideal height and length. But those areas didn’t prevent him from emerging in his junior season with 11 ½ sacks and 62 tackles (53 solo) and four forced fumbles.
The production in 2013 earned Mueller numerous postseason accolades, including Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, first-team All-Big 12 by The Associated Press and an honorable mention All-America by Sports Illustrated.
Mueller’s numbers slipped in 2014 during his senior season where he posted 5 ½ sacks, 40 tackles (29 solo) and a forced fumble, and he didn’t receive an invite to the Senior Bowl and Combine.
“I certainly feel that there’s a lot a guys at the Combine if you put my numbers up against them, they’d be very comparable if not in my favor over the last two years,” Mueller said. “I feel like I’m certainly capable, athletic enough to go there and show what I’m capable of doing. But, you know, put it on the mirror for when you wake up in the morning, and put it on the list and serves as a reminder that, again, people doubt you and people don’t think you’re good enough.”
Mueller said he was disappointed, but not surprised by the lack of the invitations. For Mueller, this is another opportunity to once again prove doubters wrong before the NFL Draft.
Dane Brugler, a senior draft analyst for CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com, agreed.
“He’s a good football player,” Brugler said in a telephone interview. “He’s limited in some areas, there’s no question about that, but he’s just an all-around good football player. He might get drafted, he might not, but he’ll get an invite to a camp. He’s the type of player you don’t bet against.”
Picking against Mueller isn’t a good idea given his history.
He has shown going back to his high school days he can set long-term goals, and then do what it takes to achieve them.
Mueller captured that mentality in a tweet when the Combine invite list was announced on Feb. 6: “No combine invite wouldn’t be the first time I was denied from playing this game,” Mueller tweeted. “Back at the bottom time to climb… Go!”
Mueller chose to attend K-State without a scholarship offer on the table over attending a smaller college, despite his parents’ willingness to pay for his education at Villanova where his sister, Katheryn, attended.
“I knew graduating high school I wanted to play Division I ball,” Mueller said. “I wanted to play big-time Big 12 or Pac-12 or SEC ball. I wanted to play at the highest level I possibly could.”
The decision, however, came at a personal price the first two years at K-State.
Mueller said he didn’t receive financial assistance from his parents to attend K-State, but his proper planning had initial expenses covered.
“I started a landscape business when I was 13 years old and kept it all the way until my senior year of high school,” he said. “And then I ended up selling all my clients, not my equipment, just my clients on a piece of paper to someone. That helped foot some of the bills at Kansas State.”
He then found a part-time job cutting grass in Manhattan, Kan., for extra money until K-State extended a scholarship going into his redshirt sophomore year.
Mueller’s determination proved an attribute that stands out to Olathe East High School assistant football coach Mike Thomas.
Thomas previously served as Mueller’s head football coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School and recalled with fondness the focus Mueller displayed as a young prep star.
“He is dedicated and when he has his mind set on something to do, he’s going to do it,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “He’s organized enough and he’s realistic enough to set a schedule to say if I want to get here, this is what I have to do.”
Mueller also impressed Thomas on the football field, culminating in a high school senior season where Mueller was recognized as the Kansas City Metro Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
Still, nothing came easy for Mueller, who started his junior season on the second team before the starter suffered a broken collarbone.
But Thomas immediately knew there was no turning back once Mueller cracked the starting lineup.
“He wasn’t that big, but he worked hard all the time,” Thomas said. “The kid in front of him was pretty good. The injury opened it up and he got on the field, and he energized our entire defense. He just kind of brought them all along, and they stepped right in line and followed right along with him.”
The high school success only added more fuel to Mueller’s fire after Division I schools overlooked him.
“I ended up walking away from my senior year of football being the Kansas City Defensive Player of the Year, and left with no scholarship offers on the table,” he said. “There were kids in my league that got scholarship offers, and I would just look at that, and again, motivated.”
Mueller is accustomed to the hard path, a good thing considering he will embark on yet another arduous journey to the NFL without the benefit of showing teams what he can do in Indianapolis.
“All the guys who got Combine invitations are no doubt deserving,” Mueller said. “So hopefully that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. They certainly had to work hard, too, and I’m obviously going to have to work a little bit harder.”
This path, however, comes with an adjustment: Mueller is changing positions from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Mueller said the decision was made after the Medal of Honor Bowl, a Jan. 10 college all-star game where he produced three tackles, including one for a loss, as a defensive end.
“From the NFL teams I spoke to,” Mueller said, “people are interested in me standing up on my feet and rushing the passer, and being able to drop back into coverage comes along with that role.”
Brugler points out the former Wildcat could do well at linebacker based on what he has studied of Mueller.
The CBS Sports draft analyst said some of Mueller’s biggest strengths are the abilities to understand leverage and play angles to defend against the run, and discipline.
“He plays very controlled,” Brugler said. “A lot of players can play fast, but not every player can play controlled. I think he does that. He just has that motor, he doesn’t quit. His pursuit is relentless. He’s a former walk-on, so you have to have that fire.”
Mueller, who is currently working out at the D1 Sports Training facility in Franklin, Tenn., said rushing the passer comes naturally, but the other areas expected of a linebacker are his focus.
He is training under the watchful eye of former NFL linebacker Ryan Fowler, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans and New York Jets during a six-year career.
Mueller said he has also worked out with former K-State linebacker Mark Simoneau, who played for the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs during a nine-year NFL career. Simoneau was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Meanwhile, Fowler said in a telephone interview he puts Mueller through a battery of drills to improve backward, forward and lateral movement in “different planes of motion,” and the early returns are promising.
“He looks like a linebacker,” Fowler said. “He’s the right size in everything in a linebacker, and initially he felt awkward when we started the drills. I was actually a little surprised because I haven’t spent much time working on transitioning a player from down to up like that. But in a matter of a couple of weeks, he looks very natural now. We still have a few weeks to work, so he’ll just get better.”
Like Brugler, Fowler believes Mueller is better suited as a linebacker in the NFL, pointing out the lack of arm length expected of defensive ends.
Mueller already possesses the other attributes.
“He is smart, he is instinctive, he has a great engine,” Fowler said. “It seems to me he would be a really good linebacker. In fact, I really think he’d be a good inside linebacker based on just those qualities.”
Mueller’s training is now focused on K-State’s Pro Day on March 10 where he hopes to show NFL scouts his athleticism in whatever drills he is asked to accomplish.
Brugler points out 32 players not invited to the 2014 Combine were selected in the draft, and Mueller could make a case with a good showing at his Pro Day.
“It’s going to be real interesting to see how Ryan does during drills when he’s standing up,” Brugler said. “He’ll only be playing the linebacker position for a month, month and a half or almost two months, but it will be a big test for him. The Pro Day will really be big for him.”
Fowler said Mueller’s work ethic and progress should make believers that day.
“I don’t think there will be a lot of doubt in scouts’ minds after they see him move whether or not he can play linebacker,” Fowler said. “It will be pretty obvious he can.”
Of course, there is a good chance Mueller will see plenty of NFL personnel converging on Manhattan when considering the presence of two high-profile K-State draft prospects.
Wide receiver Tyler Lockett and center B.J. Finney, both of whom will attend the Combine, are expected to participate in K-State’s Pro Day.
“I probably need to take out Tyler and B.J., and just say, ‘It’s just going to Ryan Mueller at Pro Day,’ and hopefully it will give all the attention to me,” Mueller jokingly said with a hearty laugh. “I’m certainly surrounded by a lot of good athletes, people that are going to make me better. B.J. Finney and Tyler Lockett certainly have left an indelible mark on me over the last five years and have not only made me a better football player, but also a better person.”
The Combine absence is a minor bump in the road for Mueller, who has his sights firmly set on the NFL.
Mueller possesses the work ethic and motivation to achieve the dream, and he has received mentorship from a player who has been there.
“He gets what it’s about,” Fowler said. “He doesn’t have any sort of weird misconceptions that his 40 time is going to get him drafted or that he’s going to be given a position because he was the Defensive Lineman of the Year two years ago. It doesn’t matter. I told him all he has to do is do what he’s always done as best as he can, and if he’s given the opportunity, then he’ll do well with it.”
While Mueller’s goal is to land on any NFL team willing to give him a chance, he admits he wouldn’t mind playing for the Kansas City Chiefs if the occasion presented itself.
He already has some insight on the Chiefs’ head coach from his sister, Katheryn.
“Kansas City would be awesome,” Mueller said. “It would be a dream. My sister was a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader. She was actually with the Eagles at the same time as Andy Reid and he’s a first class coach. She has nothing but good things to say about Andy Reid, the program and how he runs things.”
In the meantime, Mueller understands he will have to show scouts before the NFL Draft he can successfully transition from defensive end to linebacker.
And Fowler believes Mueller already has one big area covered.
“It’s a big cliché to say, but football players can play football,” Fowler said. “Based on what I know of him, worked film and watched with him, and also watching him work out, he is that. He is a football player.”
Mueller’s former high school football coach agreed, adding Mueller’s proven track record of fulfilling goals will have a role in the journey.
“I will say this: NFL, you better watch out,” Thomas said. “If he’s saying he’s going to get to the NFL, I have a feeling Ryan will somehow make that happen.”