By the time he finally got to play football, 8-year-old Roy Lopez had outgrown most of his peers. So the third-grader played with the eighth-graders.
“He was a big boy,” Lopez’s father, also named Roy, said with a laugh.
At 23, the younger Lopez remains larger than the average human being. The defensive tackle will check in at about 6 feet 2 inches and 305 pounds at the Arizona Wildcats’ pro day Wednesday.
But aside from a handful of exceptions, the size differential dissipates the more you advance in the sport. There are a ton of 6-2, 305-pound — or bigger — defensive tackles on NFL rosters.
The question then becomes: How do you separate yourself?
That’s where Lopez’s profile should appeal to NFL suitors.
He has all the prerequisites, including strong college production for a defensive tackle: 154 tackles and 23.5 stops for losses in 44 games at New Mexico State and Arizona. He’s also a coach’s son, a two-time state wrestling champion and a high-character player who has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches.
“He’s a doer,” said his dad, a longtime high school coach who recently took over the program at Mesa Desert Ridge. “He’s not flashy, even though he’s got the flash hair. He’s gonna get (stuff) done.”
Those aren’t just the words of a proud papa. Lopez’s agent, Evan Brennan, had his 2021 draft class take the MindVue psychometric assessment. Per MindVue’s website, the 120-question exam “measures whether a person is feeling self-motivated, disciplined and gritty, capable of adjusting to change and bouncing back from adversity – all while doing so with high levels of integrity.”
Mindful of the possibility that the NFL offseason again would be impacted by COVID-19, potentially limiting opportunities for rookies, Brennan sought a way to quantify his clients’ resiliency and adaptability. Lopez scored in the 93rd percentile, Brennan said.
The right time
As he explained during his one and only season in Tucson, it was the pandemic that led Lopez to transfer to Arizona. Independent New Mexico State’s schedule was in flux, prompting Lopez to seek a more stable situation. As it turned out, the Aggies didn’t play at all in 2020.
Lopez didn’t get the full experience at the UA. The Wildcats played only five games, and fans weren’t allowed to attend any of them. But Lopez proved he could compete against Power Five competition on a weekly basis.
Lopez recorded 18 tackles, including four TFLs. Pro Football Focus gave him the second-highest grade among interior defensive linemen in the Pac-12.
Lopez could have come back for a sixth collegiate season, but he decided the time was right to pursue a lifelong dream. His age — Lopez will be 24 in August — was among several determining factors.
“It was tough because I felt like I had created some good relationships,” Lopez said. “I didn’t get to play in front of fans. I didn’t get the real, Arizona, full-stadium atmosphere like the other two guys that declared with me did. But I felt like I was ready.”
Lopez will return to Arizona Stadium on Wednesday to put his skills on display for NFL scouts. He’ll be joined by tailback Gary Brightwell and cornerback Lorenzo Burns. Two former Wildcats who lost their 2020 pro day to the pandemic, receiver Cedric Peterson and safety Tristan Cooper, also are scheduled to participate.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Lopez, who has been training with other draft prospects at EXOS in Phoenix. “I’ve got a lot of people that pushed me toward this. It’s my day, but it’s also everybody else’s that’s put in time and effort to get me here.”
No one has played a bigger role in Lopez’s development than the man who shares his name.
Raised on football
Roy Lopez Jr. has coached his son since Roy III could crawl. First came wrestling, then football. To this day, the two talk ball constantly.
“I pretty much call him every day,” the younger Lopez said. “If not, he calls me.”
“He loves the game,” said Lopez’s father, who will attend pro day along with Roy’s mother, Veronica Gomez, a Phoenix police officer. “It’s really in his blood. He understands the game much more than I did at his age.”
The elder Lopez played nose guard and center, concluding his college career at New Mexico Highlands. He then became a high school coach and special-education teacher, spending over a decade at Tempe Marcos de Niza and three years at Sunnyside, among other spots.
Roy III, who has two older sisters, Arianna and Alexa, grew up around the game.
“The poor kid was in diapers running around the fields of Marcos de Niza,” the elder Lopez said.
Although he missed out on watching cartoons and other activities his friends engaged in, the younger Lopez found joy in attending football practice. The sense of camaraderie — “being able to create relationships and celebrate together,” as he put it — still appeals to him today.
Lopez also received a graduate-level education in the sport. He played multiple positions along the defensive line in college and can effortlessly explain the difference between playing nose tackle and 3-technique.
“That’s something that’s been instilled in me since I was young,” he said. “If you ask my sisters, they probably know it too.”
If an NFL club puts Lopez “on the board,” he’ll have no trouble breaking down a play or scheme.
“He’ll blow that part away,” Lopez’s father said. “I don’t want him to get into coaching, but he could coordinate a defense and be very effective at it.”
You’re probably wondering at this point why Lopez wasn’t a Wildcat from the get-go. He prepped at Gilbert Mesquite, played a position that’s been a perpetual need at Arizona and earned all-state recognition.
Long story short: There wasn’t consensus among then-UA coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff that Lopez was worthy of a scholarship. Lopez never doubted himself, though. He excelled at New Mexico State and ended up where he probably should have been all along.
“I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything,” Lopez said. “I got to see the perspective from a small school, be a big name there. I also got to see the perspective of Power Five. The journey I’ve taken is something not a lot of people get to do. It was fun.”