Proehl's game shaped by hard work and a valuable mentor

Posted May 8, 2018

Bills seventh-round pick Austin Proehl has always been self-motivated. His approach to the game combined with the guidance of his father, former NFL receiver and coach Ricky Proehl, has him in position to earn a roster spot with the Buffalo Bills.

There were a lot of things working against NFL draft prospect Austin Proehl. The North Carolina receiver was seen as undersized at 5-9 and 182 pounds. His senior season for the Tar Heels was cut short by injury, suffered in the third game of the season. And there was a common perception that he was more quick than fast.

Proehl overcame all of it, thanks in large part to the two critical factors working in his favor.

A relentless drive and a father in former NFL receiver and coach Ricky Proehl, who served as his personal coach from the time his senior season ended until day three of the NFL draft, when the Buffalo Bills made him the penultimate pick at 255 overall.

Having NFL bloodlines is often viewed as a plus by college talent evaluators. The fact that Proehl’s dad had a 17-year NFL career as a receiver that included four Super Bowl appearances and two titles certainly doesn’t hurt. Add in Proehl’s six-year coaching career with the Carolina Panthers and what Austin Proehl soaked up by osmosis alone would be enough for an NFL club to put faith in him.

But Proehl’s son never took any part of his football playing career for granted. He witnessed what an unrelenting work ethic did for his father’s career and resolved to take the same approach.

“He’s worked his tail off to this point and I think the biggest thing is when the lights come on it’s not too big for him,” said Proehl’s father. “It’s been his life-long dream. I think he may not be the eye candy coming off the bus because he’s not 6-2 and 215 pounds, but I went through some of that when I was playing. You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

After a successful high school career, Austin Proehl earned a scholarship offer from North Carolina, where he had a breakout junior season playing with Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky. His dad was still coaching receivers with the Panthers alongside defensive coordinator Sean McDermott before he was eventually named Bills head coach the following offseason.

It was then that his father had a troubling realization.

“I woke up one day and said, ‘He’s going to be a senior and I had only seen him play three times,’” said Ricky Proehl. “I wanted to be able to watch him play and not wake up and regret not seeing his college career. We don’t know how far his career is going to go. You don’t know if college is the last time he’ll be able to play. He was having success at North Carolina so I wanted to be there to share in his success and let him know how proud I was of him.”

Proehl knew he was taking a risk stepping away from an NFL coaching job, but being there to witness his son play the game and position they shared was worth it.

Little did he know his newfound availability would prove critical.

Three games into his senior season, Austin Proehl would break his collarbone on a 50-yard post pattern against Duke.

“I think the best thing about it was when Austin came out of surgery, I was there,” said Proehl.

Not only was Proehl there for his son, he in many ways became his rehabilitation trainer.

Austin, who was devastated by the injury, was determined to get back on the field before his senior season was over.

“I told my surgeon I wanted to come back and play and he kind of looked at me like I was crazy,” Austin said. “It was definitely hard to deal with… football is everything to me. I’ve been around it my whole life ever since I was born, but it’s something that God put me through and it made me realize how much I love this game.”

Five and a half weeks after a plate and six screws were put in his collar bone, Proehl suited up for the Tar Heels in their last two games. He also played in the pre-draft showcase NFLPA Bowl game.

“The whole process of getting him back to healthy from his broken collarbone and walking him through those steps and building his confidence and getting him ready to play those last two games went well,” said Ricky Proehl. “We wanted to erase any doubt that he wasn’t healthy, by pro scouts and coaches. I feel like we were able to do that.”

Proehl and his father then attacked the pre-draft process by sharpening Austin’s skills. Proehl was already a solid route runner, but he was a bit rusty after the time he had missed. They committed to tightening everything up.

“Any time your kid wants you to train him, it’s a privilege,” said Proehl’s dad. “It was a lot of fun. He worked hard.”

The top of the routes was the primary focus for the Proehls. 

“When you come from college, where the game has changed, a lot of these guys with the read-pass options that they’re running, the receivers aren’t running NFL type routes,” said Proehl’s father. “Whether it’s comebacks, or a dig route, the post-corner route… so a lot of what we worked on was coming out of breaks at sharp angles. He’s always been good at that, so we just had to go back to the basics and work on that stuff on the top end. It didn’t take long. That’s his strength, being a good route runner.”

The other hurdle to clear was convincing NFL talent evaluators that he had a lot more speed to offer. Proehl did some reconnaissance to see where NFL clubs thought his son would clock in on a 40 time. 

“They had projected him at 4.5 or even 4.6 off tape,” said Proehl. “I knew he was faster. Coming out of high school he ran a 4.48. So our goal was for him now that he was bigger and stronger to run a mid-4.4.”

Austin wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, but he would get an opportunity to run at the regional combine in Tampa Bay.

Proehl put in a solid workout and when it came to the all-important 40-time, he clocked a 4.45 on the electronic timer and some low 4.4s on hand timers.

“He’s going to open some eyes by how fast he plays and how quick he gets off the ball,” said Proehl’s dad. “A lot of people question his speed, but because he’s so smooth it doesn’t look like he’s moving fast and then all of a sudden, he’s behind you. He’s got a long stride for a small build, but he’s going to open up some eyes by how he attacks the ball and catches and how hard he works.”

Despite how well the pre-draft process went, both Ricky and Austin Proehl knew many receivers who had the measurables in terms of height and weight were going to come off the board before him. Ricky Proehl and his wife, Kelly, flew back from a conference in Phoenix to be with Austin on day three of the draft.

“He was anxious and it was a long three days for him because he had spoken to so many teams,” said Proehl. “I know how the process works and how the teams call and prepare for possibly drafting him, but also laying the ground work for free agency so they create that relationship so if he doesn’t get drafted they’re in the mix for free agency.”

When the Bills took him with the 255th pick, it not only brought relief, but a sense of familiarity for both Austin and his father.

“I’ve had a pre-existing relationship with them,” said Austin of Bills GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott. “Coach McDermott’s a great coach first and foremost. [Brandon] Beane, obviously a great GM and they’re both guys I respect in the highest honor and I can’t wait to play for them. I can’t wait to uphold the Buffalo Bills standard that they play with coming off the great year they’ve already had.”

“I’ve known him since he was eight, so I’ve known him for a long time,” said Beane of the former Carolina Panther ball boy. “He’s had a good career. He’s a great, young man. Sean and I both worked with his dad. I knew his dad as a player. So I know what kind of person and hard worker he is. He’s a really polished route runner, refined. He was schooled up by a guy who played 17 years in the league, so he’ll be a good fit.”

Beane said after the draft that Proehl will begin by working as a slot receiver in Buffalo’s offense. A role that seems tailor made to his skill set.

“He’s got tremendous quickness. He’s a student of the game. His details in route running is going to make him a quarterback’s best friend,” said Ricky Proehl. “He’s going to be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there. It’s going to be an adjustment at the pro level because those guys are quicker and faster. He’s going to have to read defenses, but that’s part of being a rookie is figuring that out. I think it’s just a matter of making adjustments on the fly learning the pro game and what he needs to do.”

“To be able to play slot is going to be fun,” Proehl said. “I love running slot routes and have really perfected that in my training this spring. I’m eager to get to work with the quarterbacks and other receivers.”

Of course, the message from father to son now is to expect nothing and do everything possible to earn a roster spot.

“Nothing is guaranteed and he knows that going to Buffalo,” said Proehl’s dad. “He’s got to earn it and work his tail off, but when you know the people and the culture they’re building in Buffalo, that’s all you want. You want to be put in situations where you’ve got a chance. He’s in a situation where they’re going to play their best players. That’s not always the case.”

Ricky Proehl now trains other prospective college receivers and NFL hopefuls at his Proehlific Park in Greensboro, North Carolina. His other son, Blake, will be a redshirt freshman at East Carolina. At 6-2 and 215 pounds he likely won’t face as many naysayers as his older brother. 

Austin will still use his dad for counsel. He’s been a part of depth chart shuffles, unexpected business decisions and roster cutdowns. In his 17 NFL seasons Ricky Proehl has truly seen it all.

Though Austin now has the opportunity he’s waited for the better part of his 22 years, it doesn’t mean he’ll stop leaning on his dad to help point the way.

“He’s been a huge influence,” said Proehl of his dad. “[He] just continued to stay with me, stay hard on me, have that coach and dad relationship that we have. It’s huge, just being able to look to him in certain situations: look to him when I need it and look to him in ways that he pushes me. It’s just an unbelievable resource for me.

“He’s been able to teach me things and give me advice that I could’ve never got from anyone else in this world. I’m so thankful for him. God blessed me with a great opportunity to have him as a dad and a coach. Having him was everything through this process.”