Next step: Anthony Winbush's journey to the NFL Combine, beyond
Coming into the 2018 National Football League combine, Anthony Winbush had quite a bit of attention on him.
And for good reason, the former Warren Central and Ball State defensive lineman grew up mere minutes away from Lucas Oil Stadium. Being a local led to him being surrounded by a decently large group of reporters when it came time for his press interview in the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Being in the same group as top prospects like North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, Washington’s Vita Vea and Arden Key from Louisiana State, to name a few, it’s easy to see how the Mid-American Conference star could blend into the 52 defensive linemen invited.
That prompted a question from one of the reporters.
“You’re here with some big names in this d-line group, some guys who’ve really gotten some A-list national attention. Do you feel like you’re playing behind a little bit coming from a MAC school?”
With a smile, Winbush delivered a confident response.
“Naw, it’s all good,” he said. “I feel like everybody’s got to be seen one day, if not sooner than later.”
That moment defined Winbush’s demeanor throughout the combine. He wasn’t fazed by the numerous interviews, physiological and physical tests or interviews conducted by coaches, owners and general managers of numerous NFL teams.
His calm, collected mentality could've come from the fact that he’s comfortable in his hometown of Indianapolis, but he says the enhanced attention is nothing different than what he's already dealt with.
“Everything is the same really,” Winbush said. “I don’t get nervous under pressure like that.”
While the media spectacle that is the NFL Combine has officially come to an end, it marked another important step for the 6-foot-1, 249-pound defensive end chasing an NFL dream.
That's the way Winbush has dealt with his career, as a series of steps, never looking too far ahead of the next practice, game or play on the field.
The attention from NFL scouts came early in Winbush’s senior season at Ball State. But he wasn't focused on that, he was focused on the next steps and, at the time, he was only focused on finishing his senior season in Muncie.
With scouts coming by every week and Winbush chasing the all-time sack record, there were plenty of distractions available for Winbush.
His attention, however, never shifted from the next game.
“We really didn’t have a ton of conversations about the NFL or sack record,” defensive line coach Keith McKenzie said. "I think his teammates brought it up more than he did."
It wasn't until after the final game of the season when Winbush said he seriously thought about a possible future in the NFL.
"It started becoming a reality after I graduated because I wanted to play every season my hardest no matter what," Winbush said. "After the season ended, then I started focusing on 'OK, what's the next step?'"
Following his December graduation, Winbush went onto his next step, spending several months in Georgia, training with sports performance trainer Ryan Goldin and defensive lineman skill trainer Chuck Smith. For Winbush, working out post-graduation has been easier because there are no outside distraction of class or schoolwork. The only focus is football.
His months of training came to a head when he got word in late January that he was invited to the NFL Combine. A moment that took a few weeks to set in.
"It was surreal when I first started thinking about it," Winbush said. "Then I started thinking, 'I deserve this, working hard and proving everybody wrong.'
"I've still got to continue to do that."
Keith McKenzie stood in the hallways of the Ball State's Venderly football complex in 2016 when he first met Winbush.
The former Cardinal was interviewing for a job as the defensive line coach under the new leadership of Mike Neu. McKenzie shook the upcoming junior's hand as he came out of the weight room and they began to chat. As they spoke, McKenzie mentioned that he had the Ball State sack record set in 1996.
At the time, Winbush had just five career sacks, but that didn't stop him from discussing his career goal to the man who would soon be his defensive line coach.
"Well, I want to break your record," Winbush said.
"Well, if I get this job and put in the work I tell you to do, you can break my record," McKenzie responded.
That next season, Winbush had 8.5 sacks, getting just past the halfway mark to the record. As a junior, the defensive end weighed just over 220 pounds, but during the offseason, working with strength coach Ben Armer to put on extra weight.
That was the next step, getting bigger in weight room for his last season at Ball State. By the beginning of his senior year, Winbush weighed over 240 pounds and hadn't lost a step.
"That was awesome for him to see the benefits of adding that kind of weight," Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. "He looked fantastic when he started the season with that muscle, height and weight."
In Ball State's first game of the 2017-18 campaign, Winbush recorded three sacks against Illinois, rushing around Big Ten offensive linemen and earning nearly immediate national attention as a pass rusher. His season total was up to seven after the first four games of the season.
“His early season success last year was turning head and scouts were taking notice,” Neu said. “We had a lot of scouts stopping through here and it was because of the early season production. Those guys talk too and I think word got out quickly and they started telling each other ‘You’ve got to take a look at this Winbush kid from Ball State.’”
That's about the same time when teams started to adjust to the guy repping No. 98 in a Cardinal uniform.
McKenzie told Winbush that double-teams were going to happen as teams attempted to neutralize the pass blocker. But until it happened, McKenzie admitted that Winbush didn't really grasp the concept.
"He expected it, but he kind of didn't," McKenzie said. "I told him because during our spring, nobody on our team could block him. ... He heard me, he listened, but until it happened, he didn't really understand it."
As the year went along, McKenzie put pressure on the other defensive linemen to win their individual battles because so much of their opponents' attention was put on blocking Winbush. While the redshirt senior's sack numbers went down during conference play, he still found a way to get to opposing teams quarterbacks.
And against Buffalo in the second-to-last game of the season, he became a step away from reaching McKenzie's record.
Down 14 points in the fourth quarter, Ball State's defense held Buffalo to a three-and-out, capped off by Winbush's 25th career sack. One that tied the program's all-time career record.
"When it happened, I didn't even realize, I was trying to get up and get to the next play," Winbush said as his name started to be chanted within Schuemann Stadium. "I was like, 'OK, it's just a sack, let's go.'
"Then I realized I did tie it, it was pretty nice."
In the Ball State record books, Winbush's name sits next to McKenzie's, a nod to two of the best pass rushers in the program's history.
While Winbush never broke the record, he finished with 20 total sacks in his last two seasons alone while working with McKenzie.
"I just wish I could've been here a lot sooner and maybe I could've helped him really destroy the record and put it out of touch," McKenzie said.
For now, the record will stay in place. But that was the last step. The two are focused on the next step for Winbush — chasing a life-long dream to play football in the NFL.
Most of the pair's conversations over the past few months have been simply, talking about life, guys on the team and what not to do as an NFL prospect. McKenzie knows a few things about life as an NFL hopeful. After all, he played in the league for eight years with Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Green Bay.
While both McKenzie and Neu think Winbush has the necessary tangibles to make an NFL roster, it's up to the scouts who think he will be a good fit, either as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or a defensive lineman — both of which Winbush is interested in.
"I knew he had the skill set to play in the NFL," McKenzie said. "I don't know when it dawned on him. ... Being an NFL player, you don't really know until those guys come in and make those decisions."
Winbush forwent running the 40-yard dash at the combine but put up 25 reps on the bench and had a 110'' broad jump.
But that step is over, as for the next one? Ball State's pro day on April 1, where Winbush will participate in drills with his former teammates to once again impress NFL scouts.