When Mitchell Van Dyk showed up for organized team activities with the St. Louis Rams last month, the Paso Robles High product and seventh-round draft pick out of Portland State found a familiar face just across the hall.
Cal Poly linebacker Johnny Millard is trying to make the Rams as an undrafted free agent, and the former Big Sky Conference rivals were happy to bond a little bit over pizza, country music and San Luis Obispo County weather.
“It was definitely good getting away from football and making a friendship down there,” said Van Dyk, a 6-foot-9, 320-pound right tackle, “because it can be really stressful playing, not only physically but mentally.
“The physical part is the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but mentally, balancing everything with family, football, friends, the playbook, it’s a full-time job, and a lot of people don’t understand that it’s a lot of mental work. I know we’re working out there in 115-degree temperature, but that’s easy compared to what we do in the classroom.”
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In the midst of a month-long break between OTAs and the start of Rams training camp July 25, each player is gearing up for the uphill battle of making the team as an unheralded rookie.
“I really haven’t been taking any time off,” Millard said. “I’ve been training every day, getting into my playbook and watching a lot of film.”
Getting prepared is a team effort for Millard.
He’s felt a smooth transition to the pro game largely because of tutelage from his father Keith, a former star defensive tackle who also spent most of the past decade coaching in the NFL.
Johnny Millard said he was blessed to have a familiarity and comfort with the environment thanks to Keith’s career in the sport, but he’s happy to take all the help he can get in pursuit of a roster spot.
Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh doled out some quality advice, Millard said. During OTAs, Millard also latched on to Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a seven-year veteran who broke into the league as an undrafted free agent.
Even Millard’s girlfriend, former Cal Poly women’s soccer player Cristina Farrington, is pitching in, taking Millard on regular conditioning runs.
The help definitely has him ready. The rest is up to Millard.
“I’ll definitely get my opportunities,” Millard said. “It’s just going to be what I do with my opportunities. It doesn’t matter how many reps I get. I’ve just got to make the most of them.”
Van Dyk didn’t grow up around the NFL, but he found the locker room to be a helpful and welcoming place for rookies.
He said he bugged starting right tackle Joe Barksdale every chance he could to ask questions about footwork, technique and running plays properly.
The competition for jobs is intense, but everyone understands that good competition, Van Dyk said, makes everyone better. Come late August, the opening-week roster will be set — with or without the two local standouts.
“Just going in with the mindset that you’re taking a grown man’s spot who has a family and probably kids, it’s a business,” he said. “You can’t hold anything back. You’re literally taking someone’s job, and it might suck, but you have to do it. It’s probably going to be the hardest month of my life in camp, but it’s probably going to pay off if I do what I need to do.”