INDIANAPOLIS –Will Hernandez technically is the only member of the University of Texas-El Paso football team attending this week’s NFL Scouting Combine.
Yet, you probably wouldn’t know based on the influx of texts messages blowing up Hernandez’s phone from former Miner and current Packers running back Aaron Jones.
“He actually just texted me about 30 minutes ago,” said Hernandez, who at 6-foot-2, 327 pounds is considered by many the second-best guard prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft behind Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson.
“I’ve been talking to him ever since I even got here. He gave me some tips, let me know what the process is going to be like a little bit, the mistakes he made and helping me out through the combine process. I’ve had contact with him ever since he left UTEP. I should probably reply to him after this.”
One year ago, Jones was in the same spot Hernandez finds himself in today – proving to hundreds of NFL personnel executives and scouts what small schools outside of the power-five conferences have to offer.
Running behind Hernandez for three years, Jones amassed a school-best 4,114 rushing yards and snapped a 28-year-old record with 1,773 yards during his redshirt junior year.
Jones’ success translated to the NFL. A fifth-round pick in last year’s draft, the 5-foot-9, 208-pound running back rushed for 448 yards and four touchdowns on 81 carries. His 5.5-yard rushing average was second in the NFL to only Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara among backs with at least 75 carries.
A two-time NFL rookie of the week, Jones jumped onto the national radar when he rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ Week 5 win over Dallas. None of Jones’ success came as a surprise to Hernandez or anyone else back on campus.
“Not at all,” Hernandez said. “We all knew at UTEP what he was capable of. We were just waiting for everyone to see it.”
While Jones gained traction in Green Bay’s backfield, the Miners’ first season without their star running back was turbulent. UTEP was the only Division I-A team to go winless, resulting in head coach Sean Kugler stepping down midway through the season.
Kugler, a UTEP alumnus himself, was a central figure in the lives of both Jones and Hernandez. He was the coach who gave Hernandez a chance in 2013 when every major program in the country passed on him over concerns about his grades.
Hernandez became academically eligible before his senior year at Chaparral (Nev.) High School was over and jumped at the opportunity to play Division I football. He proceeded to start the next 49 games at left guard for the Miners, becoming the first UTEP offensive lineman to ever earn first-team all-conference honors in consecutive seasons.
Even when things went south this past year, Hernandez didn’t quit.
“It was never an option for me to just throw in the towel or just give up on the season because we were losing games,” Hernandez said. “Even though it was the worst feeling ever, I could never live with myself knowing I just gave up. If you’re going to do that, you might as well not even be there.”
Hernandez had an impressive day Thursday at the combine, doing 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Comparatively, Nelson – who could turn out to be a top-10 pick – did 35.
Hernandez said he expects to stay in contact with Jones in the lead-up to the draft. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering Jones practically simulcast Hernandez’s Thursday news conference on Twitter, while praising his former teammate.
After Jones became the first Miner to get drafted since 2008, Hernandez is excited to follow his former college teammate into the pro ranks. Regardless of where he lands on draft day, Hernandez’s three seasons taught him what it’s like to block for an NFL-caliber running back.
“Aaron is a great, great running back,” Hernandez said. “He definitely made my job a lot easier. I value him now, especially after he left, it was a little different because now I had to hold the holes a little bit longer and make them a little wider, or stay on my guy for a little bit longer. It did make me a better player, but I for sure miss blocking for that guy.”