As Billy Devaney walked into the conference room, it didn’t appear he had been crying.
His eyes were not bloodshot. The hand holding his coffee was not shaking.
For one of the few times since 1979, Devaney was going without Christmas morning.
The NFL draft is Christmas for the men and women in the front offices who spend their year boarding airplanes, watching tape, scouting players, devouring analytics and debating potential and then rolling the dice.
For 33 of the past 36 years, first as a scout, then a player personnel director and then a general manager behind the big desk, Devaney had lived the never-ending addiction that is building a Super Bowl champion.
That all ended this winter when he agreed to bring his scouting eye to Nebraska, to help an old friend, Mike Riley.
It was an outside-the-box move for both Riley and Devaney. And plenty of folks on both sides of the field, NFL and college, are watching to see how it plays out.
Meanwhile, Christmas Day has been moved to national signing day, and the goal is now building a national champion. But a lot of similarities exist.
Devaney took time out Thursday — the first day of the NFL draft — to talk about his new life as the NFL guy on campus, how he can help, how he recruits and whether he wants to head back to the NFL one day.
Q: What exactly do you do? Has your job been defined yet?
A: It’s pretty defined. The fun part for me is, it will change during the course of different seasons. All of my concentration has been on our team, getting as familiar as I can with our players, top to bottom, every player on the roster, where we need to concentrate on the next couple years in recruiting.
Devaney spent the last couple of weeks sitting in meetings Riley is having with each Nebraska player. But he’s also meeting with each assistant coach to make sure they “speak the same language” when watching film of recruits.
“Keith Williams, what three or four things do you want in a receiver?” Devaney said. “If I ask John Parrella, ‘What do you think of a guy?’ and he says he’s good, I want to make sure I know what that means. Is that good enough?
“I need to get familiar with what the coaches are looking for, come up with a common description and characteristics for each position.”
Q: Once that happens, where will you be in the decision-making process on offers?
A: Gundy (Ryan Gunderson, player personnel director) will bring me a couple of guys a day to look at, and he’ll say, ‘We’re kind of split on this. One guy likes him, one guy doesn’t. When you get a second, can you look at this guy?’ That’s the fun part. It’s like being on an NFL team.
I don’t want to screw these guys up, because you can tell, they’re pretty darned good at what they do. I’m jumping on board here. I need to learn what they do. For me to come in and say I have a whole different way of doing it, that would be crazy.
Q: Can you already tell if there are similarities to how NFL scouts and college recruiters evaluate players?
A: Sure. You’re looking at whether a guy can run. Tough guys. That never changes on any level.
I can already tell, the toughest part is just the projection. I’ve been looking at a lot of offensive tackles, high school level. A lot of these guys are 6-4, 6-5, 230, 250 pounds. They’re punching guys, knocking them to the ground, going to the second level, punching guys. They’re (small guys) they’re knocking over.
So you say, ‘Holy Cow, this guy is awesome.’ Then you look at who they’re going against and it’s, ‘Ah, maybe not.’
Evaluating one game against top competition is worth seven games against lousy competition. That’s the hardest thing here now. You don’t know who they are playing against. He may be going against a sophomore in his first varsity game.
So projecting them three or four years down the road is hard.
Devaney said the best NFL teams have a system set up, in which everyone from the scouts to the coaches are on the same page about what fits the system. He used the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers as examples of teams that know what they want year in and year out.
“The best teams are the teams with the most stability,” Devaney said. “You’re not changing coaches or schemes every year. The scouts, when they go on the road, know exactly what they’re going to run and what type of player the coaches want.
“Gundy and the coaches, they run this thing really nice. It’s like that here.”
Q: Will you take some of the load of watching recruiting film off the coaches?
A: I don’t know if it will be less. They might come to me and say, ‘I’ve only watched one film of this guy. If you think I should watch more, tell me. Tell me what you think.’
Time is of the essence here. Oh my gosh, there’s not a lot of time to look at kids. So if I can help save them time, whether it’s eliminating (players) or whatever, they’re better off.
Devaney said he has met with some recruits during their visits. He compares it to selling a place to free agents in the NFL.
Q: Has your experience as an NFL general manager come up? Are you selling that to kids?
A: That has come up once or twice. I’ve been with Parrella when he’s talking to kids on the phone, and John gets pretty passionate. He says to them, ‘We have a guy who has been to three Super Bowls. If you care about winning, why wouldn’t you want to be part of this if this guy can help you?’
Q: Do you get on the phone and talk to the kids?
A: No. I don’t think I can. That’s the thing. I’m so paranoid. I thought the collective bargaining agreement was detailed. Oh, my God, this NCAA manual. I don’t do anything without running it by Gundy.
Q: What do you say to recruits? Do you sell them on your being able to help them get to the NFL one day?
A: It doesn’t come up, but it’s there. Have I had one person ask me, ‘Can you get me to the NFL?’ No. But they know I worked there all those years. They’re smart enough to realize that.
Q: Your being here seems to fit into today’s college football world, where more coaches seem to be pushing the envelope, a la Jim Harbaugh and satellite camps. Is that where you fit in?
A: It’s so competitive, it’s awesome. I love guys that think outside the box, doing it different ways, the right way but in different ways. I love watching what (Harbaugh) does.
Q: Is Riley that way, too?
A: Yes, but he does it in his own way. It’s not as flashy and headline-grabbing. Just the fact that when Shawn (Eichorst) came up with this idea, Mike embraced it fully.
I think there are more and more schools hiring this type of role. I think you’ll see more NFL people be willing to do this.
Q: Why do you say that? Have you heard from your friends in the NFL?
A: I got phone calls, a lot of friends in the league, scouts who came through this spring to look at players. To a man, they said, ‘You lucky son of a gun.’ First, because this place is awesome. The other is, to be involved in the evaluation process, these guys look at this role as being able to organize. It’s phenomenal.
And the NFL is awesome. People are nuts when they start dogging the NFL. For all its warts, I won’t ever say anything bad about the NFL. But by the same token, this job is as good as any I had in the NFL.
Q: Explain what you mean there.
A: I’ve said this before. I’d much rather be in a situation where you’re around good people and you love going to work every day. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction. To be in that position and have the power to turn in that card on draft day, there’s good parts to that. But if you’re not happy, if you don’t really feel like you have a chance to win, you’re beating your head against the wall, that’s not a great feeling.
Q: In the NFL, you were a general manager. You were in charge. And you selected players. What’s it like to have that role reversed?
A: I was talking to Mike about a couple of players and I said, ‘Why don’t we go after this guy? He’s rated a little bit higher,’ And Mike said, ‘We know we can get this guy right now. Remember, they’re picking us, we’re not drafting these guys. They don’t have to come here. It’s different.’
I could push like crazy for a player, but Parrella can tell me, ‘He’s 100 percent for that school and we have no chance to get him.’ And you know what? He’s right. I’ll learn that part of it.
Q: Do you think you’ll miss that part of it in the NFL and want to go back one day? Are you just trying this out?
A: I talked to someone in the NFL today and they asked me, ‘Has it changed? Every day you couldn’t wait to get to work.’ I said, ‘No, it’s the same. I can’t get wait to get here.’
The thing that really gets me is the commitment to winning here. That’s what is refreshing. You come to work here, the commitment starts at the top, everyone is on the same page. Every day, it’s like, what can we do? How can we help you win?
You don’t know how refreshing that is. That’s not always the case in the NFL.
Q: How have the meetings with the players been going?
A: I’ve never seen anything like it. For every player to come in and talk about where they are academically, where they see themselves, where they think they should be. ... Toward the end of the first day I said, ‘Mike, please, can one jerk come in here, just to break up the monotony?’
Every kid, they have their act together. The overwhelming majority are smart, classy kids, great heads on their shoulders. It’s unbelievable. Their long-term plans, they have things mapped out. I’m thinking, ‘I must have been a real (jerk), because all I was thinking about was where am I going this weekend.’
Q: Is this different from interviews you have with players you are going to draft?
A: All that time you’re spending with the kid at the combine, you’re really trying to find out if that kid likes football. You can figure out the football part of it, but the person, what does it mean to them? You have to find out, what exactly are we buying here?
Devaney said he will counsel Husker seniors on preparing for the combine and draft, pro days, etc. He didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk about the NU players entering the draft this year.
Also, while we were talking, the news broke about satellite camps being reopened. Asked for his opinion on the topic, Devaney said, “I never attended one. I don’t know its true value. I’m not educated enough to talk about it.”
Q: Do you feel any pangs this weekend? Does the draft make you wish you were back this weekend?
A: I miss people. All those years, you build up relationships, and that’s what it becomes. As far as missing it, I’ve been so busy here. I’m curious about guys I scouted and where they’re going. But I have been too busy to think about that.
I may tape (the draft). We are finishing those players meetings. I feel like I’m behind in watching high school tape. There’s always more tape to watch.
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