NFL Bound Nik Needham: ‘I’ve Been an Underdog My Whole Career’
Tucked away in the corner of West Texas sits the UTEP football program, which historically isn't a winning program. Recently though, the football players that have been given chances to play at the next level have exceeded expectations.
They come from UTEP and are known as diamonds in the rough, whether it be Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones or New York Giants lineman Will Hernandez.
The 2019 NFL Draft class proves to be the same for the former Miners that are NFL hopefuls. Ex-Miners like fullback Winston Dimel, linebacker AJ Hotchkins, defensive back Kahani Smith, tight end David Lucero and offensive lineman Jerrod Brooks have proven that they each are to land a spot on a team or make a training camp in the NFL.
But one former Miner is climbing up draft boards as the draft approaches this weekend.
Despite not having been invited to any postseason college football All-Star games or the NFL Combine, Nik Needham has captured the attention of NFL scouts across the league as an overlooked cornerback prospect. Some have him being drafted as high as the fourth round, while others have him going in the sixth or seventh round.
"I've been an underdog my whole career," Needham told 600 ESPN on Sportstalk yesterday. "UTEP was my only offer and I appreciate them for that. I always felt overlooked though and always had a chip on my shoulder. Just implemented that into my game and that's what has helped me be successful."
The California native finished his college career as UTEP's all-time pass-breakup leader (33) and was a four-year starter for the Miners. Needham called the feat a "great accomplishment" for himself but always credited the team and coaching staff for helping him achieve success.
"I felt like UTEP has always been the underdog school," he said. "People try to overlook us but there's definitely some great players. I feel that we can go out there and compete with the best at the next level as well."
The journey for Needham didn't come easy, especially since the Miners were 10-38 through his time with the program. He registered 11 pass breakups as a sophomore, which he credits as his breakout season.
"My redshirt sophomore year, coach Derrius Bell helped me a lot in my game," he said. "[He] taught me to be a lot more physical and handle what needs to be done. He knows a lot of people in the NFL so he introduced them to me and showed us what it's like. He helped me mature into a man as well."
Through his junior and senior seasons, Needham says he rarely saw passes come his way and saw that as the opposing team respecting his abilities to defend the pass.
"I didn't have passes thrown my way and it's not annoying but it gets you more antsy because you are always trying to make a play and bring more to the team. I felt like that was also a respect thing from the other team as well," he added.
In December, Needham graduated with a Bachelor's degree in organizational communication and immediately got to work on pre-draft workouts in California. NFL trainer Dwight Ross based in Huntington, CA, worked with Needham on his skills six days per week, twice per day.
"Just trying to lock in and focus," Needham said regarding his training. "Don't want to lose a step on my competition. So it was just getting out there, grinding every day."
Then came UTEP's pro day this spring, where winds were a factor for most players out there.
"I felt like I did pretty well in my pro day," Needham said. "It was crazy wind, 40-50 mile per hour wind. There was times where we would line up and the wind would blow everyone off balance. It was really crazy and I've never really seen that weather in El Paso before. But you got to do that in the game of football anyway. Doesn't matter the weather, you have to go out and give it your best."
It all led up to this week, where he was selected by the NFLPA to attend pre-draft activities in Nashville leading up to the draft itself. Needham has spoken to almost 20 NFL teams, including talking with his former coaches Sean Kugler and Brian Natkin from the Cardinals as well as Robert Rodriguez from the Vikings, among others.
"I've been hearing all kind of different stuff but this process is crazy," he said. "It's a business so you have an idea. I have an idea of what can happen but I'm gonna wait for that day and wait for that opportunity."
Leading up to the draft, Needham wanted to thank the city of El Paso for the experience and love he received during his four years here.
"I appreciate the love and support throughout the years," Needham said. "Through the tough and hard times, you all were out there supporting us at every game and that means a lot to the players. I love this city and appreciate the opportunity that the school, the coaching staff gave me. I wouldn't have traded it for anything and I wouldn't want to ever go to another school."