They all had the same dream, at different points in their lives, with varying degrees of confidence.
The dream was to play in the NFL, and this week they’re taking a critical step toward turning that dream into a reality.
Three Arizona Wildcats are participating in college all-star games Saturday. Offensive lineman Jacob Alsadek and defensive back Dane Cruikshank are playing in the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida. Offensive tackle Gerhard de Beer is playing in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, California.
The three represent Arizona’s next best chance to gain some traction in the NFL draft. During former coach Rich Rodriguez’s tenure, no Wildcats were selected in the odd-numbered years: 2013, ’15 and ’17.
In the past five drafts, only five UA players were picked — down from 15 over the previous five years.
But here’s the funny thing about that: Arizona’s top three prospects for the 2018 draft say they wouldn’t be in this position without the guidance of Rodriguez and his staff.
“I give them a lot of credit,” said Cruikshank, the lone Wildcat invited to this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. “I was super-blessed to be coached by him (Rodriguez). He gave me a second chance to showcase my talents. There’s nothing I could say negative about Coach Rod.”
Bear in mind, Cruikshank was on the receiving end of one of Rodriguez’s all-time tirades. Cruikshank taunted an opposing player en route to the end zone against Oregon last season, drawing an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty and negating a touchdown. Rodriguez, rightfully, lit into Cruikshank on the sideline.
“He just wanted the best for you,” Cruikshank said. “He wanted you to be the best version of yourself. He never meant it in a negative way.”
Alsadek said Rodriguez’s tough love changed his outlook toward football. It was only after Alsadek got to Tucson that he really took the sport seriously.
“Coach Rod taught me how to balance my life,” Alsadek said. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices socially in order to make your career.”
Former UA offensive line coach Jim Michalczik — who left Arizona to join the Oregon State staff about a month before Rodriguez was let go — taught Alsadek lessons about line play and life. Michalczik emphasized working hard and persevering through tough times.
None of his pupils had a more unique background than de Beer, who never had played football before coming to Arizona from halfway across the globe.
“I’m just a kid from South Africa who wanted an opportunity,” de Beer said. “I will be forever grateful to him (Rodriguez) and Coach M for investing their time in me. It’s been invaluable.”
De Beer didn’t dream of playing in the NFL until the past few years, when, with help from Michalczik and others, he transformed himself into a legitimate football player. De Beer started with minimal knowledge of the sport; he was unfamiliar with even the most basic concepts, from how to put on pads to what running a post route meant.
Now the 6-foot-6-inch, 319-pound right tackle has 22 college starts on his résumé, including 18 the past two seasons. He learned a new set of plays in a day during NFLPA Collegiate Bowl practices. And he’s being coached by Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater.
“Getting to learn from him is an amazing experience,” de Beer said. “He’s extremely intense in the way he teaches things, and I absolutely love that about him. I’m trying to absorb as much information from him as I can.”
De Beer writes down everything Slater says. That’s the sort of diligence an NFL team would get if it took a chance on de Beer, who acknowledges that he isn’t as polished as most other prospects.
“I understand my raw talent needs to be developed,” de Beer said. “More than anything, I’m willing to work for it. I’ll give it all I got.”
De Beer played alongside Alsadek, who started 46 games and became the bearded face of UA football over the past four years.
Alsadek first fell for the sport while watching Super Bowl XXXVII between the Buccaneers and Raiders. (It took place in Alsadek’s hometown of San Diego, but he watched the game on TV.)
Alsadek didn’t start playing until his freshman year of high school; he was always too big for youth football. Even as he became a prospect – first as a three-star recruit, now as a seasoned, draft-eligible lineman – Alsadek never envisioned the possibility of an NFL career.
“I never thought I would reach this point,” he said. “I wasn’t heavily recruited. I was never given anything.”
Rodriguez once described Alsadek as a self-made player. Asked by NFL scouts this week what he would do to separate himself from other players, Alsadek offered this simple response: “I will do whatever it takes to better the team.”
Alsadek, who also checked in at 6-6, 319, played right guard for most of his UA career. He has played guard most of the time during East-West Shrine Game practices while also getting some looks at right tackle.
Versatility could be Cruikshank’s ticket to the pros. Cruikshank started at cornerback for Arizona in 2016 before shifting to safety last year. He thrived in that role, accumulating 75 tackles, 5.5 stops for losses, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Cruikshank — who has good size at 6-1, 204 – is playing corner in the East-West Shrine Game. The ability to play multiple spots and cover different types of receivers is invaluable in the NFL, where only 45 players per team dress each Sunday.
Cruikshank first dreamed of playing in the NFL when he was 6 of 7 years old. His career didn’t follow the precise path he envisioned, including a detour in junior college and a redshirt year at Arizona in 2015. Now he’s where he always thought he’d be.
“It’s always been my dream,” Cruikshank said. “I never pictured myself doing anything else.”