Johnny Millard came to Cal Poly with every intention of playing in the NFL.
Sure, having a dad who starred with the Minnesota Vikings and still has a job coaching in the league makes the dream a lot more tangible, but Millard was also confident he could get professional opportunities playing for the FCS-level Mustangs.
The path had been well worn. Former linebacker Kyle Shotwell, Cal Poly’s broadcast analyst who also spent a season coaching Millard as a freshman, got his NFL opportunity as an undrafted free agent in 2007.
Before him, defensive end Chris Gocong and linebacker Jordan Beck were third-round draft picks.
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All three won the Buck Buchanan Award in consecutive seasons as the top defensive player in the FCS. Cornerbacks Courtney Brown and Asa Jackson were also drafted in recent years.
Now five years since they arrived on campus, Millard and Mustangs All-America defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz each walked in graduation ceremonies this quarter and will spend the next few months training in anticipation of May’s NFL Draft.
Millard has the extra benefit of striking up a friendship with Beck, a like-sized former linebacker who has been offering invaluable advice on the scouting process.
“I heard of Johnny through Kyle Shotwell, who I still am best friends with,” said Beck, a real estate investor who made his nest egg playing three-plus seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos, “and when he coached him, he was telling me about Johnny and how he thought he had a chance to go pro. That was when Johnny was the annoying freshman who wanted to do so much extra work to learn his position and do extra drills.”
A converted safety, Millard eventually reached out to Beck himself, asking for the former Cal Poly great to return to campus for the first time since he was drafted 90th overall by the Falcons in 2005.
When Beck attended a game this season, he broke down Millard’s performance. He’s watched film online so he can offer advice and has given Millard a good idea of what to expect at the Medal of Honor all-star game next month and throughout the scouting process, becoming a valued mentor to the Pleasanton Foothill High product.
Millard said Beck’s input even rivals that of his dad, Keith Millard, a Tennessee Titans assistant coach who set the NFL record for sacks by a defensive tackle with 18 for the Vikings in 1989.
“People kind of assume it’s my dad, and my dad is my freaking hero, and he always has been a hero for me,” Johnny Millard said, “but my dad went to Washington State, and it’s a little different coming out of Cal Poly.
“Jordan was kind of there to get someone to see eye to eye with.”
A 6-foot-2, 233-pound linebacker, Beck led the Mustangs in tackles all four seasons he played, setting program records for single-game, single-season and career tackles along the way.
Millard is slightly bigger at 6-3, 240 pounds and was also a tackle machine at Cal Poly. He led the team with 82 tackles as a sophomore and peaked this season with 108, seven for loss, with four pass deflections, three quarterback hurries and one interception.
Grosz might be the bigger prospect both literally and figuratively. Named to The Sports Network’s and Associated Press All-America first teams Wednesday, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Big Sky Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year is being recognized universally as one of the top FCS players in the country.
Grosz led the Mustangs with 8.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries and ranked fifth with 71 total tackles.
The Fresno San Joaquin Memorial High product is aiming to get a call for the NFL Scouting Combine, where testing drills are heavily weighted.
“About half of the NFL teams had come in during the season,” Grosz said, “so my agent was calling those teams as well as the teams that haven’t come in, saying, ‘You have to see this guy.’ There’s a little bit of buzz in the league about ‘Have you seen the D-lineman from Cal Poly?’
“Just coming from Cal Poly, people are going to have their doubts and stuff, but for me, I have to test well, and I think I will.”