By CHARLES ODUM
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — The fear of the unknown pushed running back Elijah Holyfield into the NFL draft instead of returning for his senior season at Georgia.
His slow 40-yard times make that decision look like a risky gamble in this week’s draft.
Holyfield was timed at 4.78 seconds in the 40 at the NFL combine. He needed to improve that time at Georgia’s pro day last month but instead was even slower at 4.81 seconds.
Holyfield hopes the traits he inherited from his father, former four-time boxing champion Evander Holyfield — toughness, great balance, off-the-charts work ethic — will overcome the big negative that now overshadows his draft outlook.
The 40 times were so slow that some draft projections say Holyfield’s best hope may be to be picked in the sixth or seven rounds or be invited to camp as a free agent.
“I try not to worry about it,” Holyfield said after the pro day workout. “I have confidence in myself. I can play football. I might not carry the fastest 40 in the world but I can play football better than a lot of people.”
Holyfield described the criticisms about his workouts off the field as “extra talk.”
“I’m a guy who likes to play football, not all the other stuff that comes with it,” he said.
Holyfield (5-10, 217) overcame his lack of speed with his strong, punishing running style last season. He ran for 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Georgia’s other top back, super-quick D’Andre Swift , had almost identical statistics, averaging 6.4 yards per carry while running for 1,049 yards.
Holyfield broke free for a career-long 66-yarder against Middle Tennessee State but didn’t score on the play. After the game, he said the advice from his father was “trust your speed.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Holyfield will be successful on Sundays.
“Elijah is going to be a great pro,” Smart said. “Elijah brings a lot to a team. He brings toughness, he brings a demeanor about him. He loves the work. He was the last guy off the field every day here. He wanted to catch extra balls. He’s done a tremendous job in our program and he’s going to do the same thing in that organization.”
Holyfield said it wasn’t an easy decision to enter the draft . Ultimately, he would have faced the same questions about his lack of speed if he had waited until after his senior season.
“It was very close,” Holyfield said of his decision, adding he was swayed by “not knowing things that can happen next season as far as injuries and doing better than I did this past season. I thought it would be a better decision for me to go to the NFL.”
Just as his dad was difficult to bring down in a boxing ring, Holyfield is tough to tackle because of his balance. He is not shifty like Swift but can spin off would-be tacklers. He lost only one fumble in his three seasons.
Will those strengths persuade a general manager to overlook the slow 40 time? LSU’s Nick Brossette (4.72) was the only other back to run the 40 in more than 4.7 seconds at the combine. Another question is Holyfield’s potential as a receiver out of the backfield — he had only five catches last season.
The Atlanta Falcons need help at running back , so general manager Thomas Dimitroff had good reason to examine Holyfield closely at the combine and Georgia’s pro day.
“Of course it’s a concern and it depends on an organization and how high you determine that to be sort of a guiding light,” Dimitroff said when asked about the 40. “Obviously he’s a good football player. So you know we have to keep an eye on that. He’s a good football player and knows how to play this game.”
Smart said Holyfield would be a good pick for an NFL team.
“The stripes of a player don’t change when he goes to the next level,” Smart said. “I know he’s going to convert what he’s done well here into the same thing there.”