Try as they might — and pro scouts have tried, boys and girls — Cole Toner refuses to fit neatly or comfortably into a box, and not just because he happens to be 6-5, 306 pounds.
He’s an Indiana kid with a Harvard pedigree, Midwestern nice with an East Coast assurance. He’s versed in the finer points of Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keys, and all the cool unlockable stages inside the world of Super Smash Bros.
His arms are 33 1/8 inches long, his hands 9 ¾-inches across, and his idea of unwinding is pounding on a drum kit until the shells cry out for mercy. Toner is the rare NFL Draft prospect who can quote Neil Peart and Henry Kissinger with equal aplomb, a fan of progressive-metal giants Rush who’s pursuing an academic concentration in government.
“I’ve always had an interest in public policy,” the former Crimson offensive tackle explained. “It’s a very flexible major to have. I took economics as a minor — we call it a ‘secondary’ here — because the economy pretty much runs everything.
“Do I want to run for office? I don’t know … I suppose that might interest me someday. But, as of now, football is my interest. I need some work experience and life experience first.”
Today’s Tom Sawyer bench-pressed 225 pounds 24 times during his pro day earlier in the month — and says that was his personal floor, that the ceiling’s just waiting to be untapped.
“I think the one thing I need to most improve is strength, at this point,” Toner said. “And that’ll come, once I get into an NFL weight program and am able to train.”
A deep thinker with an on-field mean streak, Toner is one of those fascinating prospects with all kinds of tools, just looking for the right belt. Years of basketball have helped to hone quick feet and good balance, and the frame is a hoops frame — tall, rangy and the sort you can add more weight to and still move at a pretty good clip.
Big men who can motor tend to make personnel types a little weak in the knees. Which explains why Toner and Harvard tight end Ben Braunecker — his 6-4, 240-pound roommate — became the first pair of Ivy Leaguers ever invited to the same NFL Scouting Combine in the same winter. And a reported 26 teams turned up for the Crimson’s Pro Day on March 10.
“I think we broke a record for scouts at our pro day,” Toner said. “Right now, it’s a cool thing to be a part of.”
Hopeful yet discontent, Toner went back home over Harvard’s winter break to smooth over rough edges at Indianapolis’ St. Vincent Sports Performance — training twice a day, six days a week. In January, he was tapped for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., which finally gave the stopwatch posse a chance to see the all-Ivy League lineman lock horns with talent from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC).
“It was huge for me,” Toner said. “I didn’t have the best week of anyone, but I think I proved that I deserved to be there, for sure. And definitely proved to myself that anyone is blockable.”
NFL DraftScout.com projects Toner as a fourth-round selection, at worst, potentially the first or second non-Football Bowl Subdivision tackle to get plucked off the board. Braunecker, who got a chance to showcase his wares at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl is slotted as a possible fifth-rounder.
“We have great film,” Toner said. “The knock on it is that it’s against what other people consider (to be) lesser competition. I think both of us proved we could play against ‘better’ competition at the Senior Bowl and the NFLPA Bowl.”
While six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk is the gold standard for the fraternity of ex-Crimson blockers, there hasn’t been a Harvard lineman drafted as a tackle since Roger Caron was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in 1985.
Scouts see Toner as right tackle material at the next level, but he’s made it work on either side of the line so far. He also practiced against speed-rushing demon Zack Hodges for three years, which gave him a pretty fair idea of what the cats in the pros were bringing to the party every day.
“I know I can play against one of the best (rushers) in the country — I practiced against him every day,” Toner said. “That was really good preparation. I guess the other thing is that yeah, people such as Matt Birk have been there and done it before. And there are five guys in the league right now that I’ve played with (in college). I’ve talked to those guys, too. All those guys are really valuable to the little lineage to the NFL (we’ve got) here at Harvard. It’s special to be a part of that.”
One of those former teammates, Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk, has helped to walk the big lug through the pre-draft rigmarole. Another trusted confidant: ex-Crimson linemate Nick Easton, a center who bounced from the Ravens to the San Francisco 49ers to the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie last fall.
“One thing that Kyle stressed about it is that it’s a marathon,” Toner said. “It’s a long, long job interview for three or four months. But keep the goals in mind — you’re going to end up somewhere. Just do what you’ve always done in the end and be a good football player. Always have in the back of your mind what they’re looking for.”
To play the game, you’ve got to play the game first.
Oh, and take the Wonderlic.
“I think I crushed that, actually,” Toner said. “I got through all 50 (questions) and I think missed some, but I don’t think I missed too many.”
You know what he did miss? Strange questions. Goofy questions. Probing questions. The less scouts knew what to make of the genial giant, the more they played it — well, safe.
“Honestly, as far as questions from scouts, I was disappointed because I didn’t get any weird questions,” Toner chuckled. “I guess they asked (them) of the guys who had tougher paths or character issues. I was disappointed because I really wanted funny, weird questions. I got one where (they wondered), ‘Are you more of a square or a triangle sort of person?’”
And you said …
“I didn’t know.”
Which is fine. Actually, at this point, it’s practically academic.
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Above: Harvard’s Cole Toner, lining up against Penn last season, might not fit scouts’ preconceptions of an NFL prospect. But he projects as a fit for the NFL. (Courtesy Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications)