Despite a high level of productivity in college, including some record-setting numbers in his program and conference, Devonnsha Maxwell knew questions would persist about his professional potential as the NFL draft approached.
The former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defensive lineman has been in a similar spot before — that of a football prospect trying to convince teams of his capability to carry his skills over to the next level of the game.
In 2016, he put up quality numbers as a high school senior, totaling 69 tackles (10 for loss), 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery that season and capping it by helping traditional Georgia power Valdosta to the GHSA Class AAAAAA title, the program's 24th state championship but first since 1998.
And yet he received little interest from college programs. Maxwell found his way to UTC because of a connection to Demarcus Covington, who was a new Mocs assistant at the time but had recruited Maxwell while at Eastern Illinois prior to briefly joining Tom Arth's first staff in Chattanooga.
Maxwell sat out his first college season, redshirting while observing the Mocs limp to a 3-8 record in 2017 with a solid defense but an offense that didn't do its part. That's tough: wanting to help but not quite being able to. But then he got his chance, and over the next five seasons "help" may have been an understatement.
The 6-foot-3, 296-pounder put together one of the best careers in UTC football history: four-time All-Southern Conference first-team selection; three-time All-American (twice as a first-team selection); 2021 SoCon defensive player of the year; 2018 Freshman All-American; 2019 Sophomore All-American. He did that while compiling 37.5 career sacks to set a UTC and SoCon record, and he also helped the Mocs to a seven-win season and two six-win seasons during his time on the playing field — one of the best four-year stretches in the history of a school that has been average at best in football.
Despite that productivity, questions remain. Does he have the right energy to be consistent? Does he take plays off?
That's why, when UTC held its pro day two weeks ago, Maxwell did what he could to erase any doubt, attacking the event with the same focus that had been questioned along the way by crushing 30 reps on the bench press. That total would have ranked second among defensive linemen and seventh out of everyone who took part in that drill at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month.
"A lot of teams have questions about my motor, and why some of my reps aren't as good as other reps," Maxwell said. "Sometimes I look like I can be an All-Pro and sometimes I look like, 'Why are they even looking at me as a prospect?'
"I just wanted to come out and show why they need to look at me as a prospect, getting in these drills and giving my all, no matter what. I'm tired? Still giving my all. That's every day at practice, just coming out here leaving no doubt for these guys, letting them know what they see is what they're going to get."
In his last two seasons at UTC, Maxwell started playing more as a tackle in addition to his primary responsibilities at defensive end, which fueled some of those questions about his motor. Maxwell admitted there were times that he was "tired" but attempted to play through it, which may have led to some reps that are less than desirable on game footage.
"A lot of teams don't want to hear that," Maxwell said. "They don't care how many plays you play, it's a blessing to play football every play like it's your first play, same burst, same pop, same energy, so sometimes it's a slap in the face, but I've grown to understand that if I was that tired, get out of the game. Other people are on scholarship as well, but also on the other hand of that is, I felt like in order to win, we need our best players on the field, tired or not, because at the end of the day, tired or not, they give us the best chance to win.
"I look at myself as one of those players, so while it stung, it's a learning experience."
Next is still an unknown. Maybe he gets drafted, maybe he doesn't.
But what Maxwell does expect is to make his way into an NFL training camp in some capacity, and perhaps not getting drafted is better because it gives him a chance to pick what he deems the best situation. That worked for former Mocs defensive lineman Isaiah Mack, who is of similar size (6-1, 299) and did not get drafted yet is set to enter his fifth season in the league, currently with the New York Jets. The two have worked out together recently, and Maxwell has peppered Mack with questions about the next level.
UTC has churned out players in the trenches on both sides of the ball over the past decade: Corey Levin and Cole Strange — the latter a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots just last season — on offense; Davis Tull, Keionta Davis and Mack on defense. It's certainly a comfort for UTC guys such as Maxwell and offensive lineman McClendon Curtis, another possible pick this year when the draft is held April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri.
"Oh, it's great. It's a blessing," Maxwell said. "I can only imagine somebody who's out of school, first going through this process with nobody to talk to. The amount of questions I ask Isaiah, he's probably tired of me asking questions over and over, but he's got it and he wanted to give it to me, and if I've got to get it from somebody, I would rather get it from somebody who's already been through it instead of somebody telling me who thinks they know what is going on.
"So it's just a blessing to have people like that around and build those relationships with people. I just want to build relationships with people, and you'll end up having help like me and McClendon."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.