"You need to talk to Matthew Albright," one of the prospects said. "I heard he had a tough interview with Toronto."
"Yeah, I heard that too," another chimed in. "Toronto's tough."
The CFL combine, like other athletic combines, involves tests of strength, speed and agility, but more often than not, it is the test that takes place in the interview rooms that players say challenges them the most.
"I've been training since December for the exercises- bench press and jumps- that's nothing for us" said University of Ottawa receiver Simon Le Marquand. "You try to get ready for the interviews but there's always a question that you didn't think about. It makes me more nervous than running my 40."
The interviews officially became part of the CFL Combine in 2008. This year's interviews were spread over two nights and involved prospects sitting down with interested teams for 15 minutes at a time, often sporting a shirt and tie, clutching a water bottle and doing their best to present themselves as confident yet humble, capable yet willing to learn.
Aside from the duration, though, little else about the rooms was consistent. Some teams opted for the adversarial boardroom look, others for much more comfortable living room décor. Some packed upwards of 10 coaches in, others involved just one or two. Some forced the prospects to draw up plays and analyze schemes, others encouraged them to casually sit and chat.
The questions asked also varied. "Would you rather be a cat or a dog?" got tossed around as often as "Why should we draft you?" "Why do you take plays off?" "What's your pass rush repertoire?" "What motivates you?" and "What will you do if an NFL team gives you a look?"
Whether goofy or thoughtful, the questions were all designed with a purpose - to better understand the human being under the helmet.
"Really you want to get a window into the individual's heart, soul and mind," said BC Lions head coach Mike Benevides. "Let's talk football- do you know what football is? Do you know schematics? Let's take a look into your heart- how much does this matter to you? How much do you want this? …It's a tremendous opportunity to get to know them."
Calgary Stampeders head coach and general manager, John Hufnagel, agrees.
"What you try to do is find out how important the game is to that young man and what he is willing to sacrifice to be a member of your football team," he said. "The bottom line is what type of person is he – is he going to be a great teammate and put himself in a position to do whatever he can to make the football team?"
The Toronto Argonauts have developed a reputation among prospects for being particularly intense, both this year and in years past.
"It was the toughest room," said Edmonton Eskimos wide receiver Shamawd Chambers, the sixth overall draft pick in 2012. "Everyone that came out of that room was flustered. I'm sure some people couldn't get a read on them."
Matthew Albright certainly couldn't. The aforementioned offensive lineman from Saint Mary's University left the Argos interview at this year's combine unsure of how he'd fared, but was well aware of what he was walking into thanks to warnings from players who'd already been through it.
"They told me it was a pressure cooker. I would go in there and instantly feel uncomfortable and that's kind of what it was." he said. "There were probably 15 people in the room, sitting all around me. …Half their names I couldn't remember. I didn't even get introduced to all of them and it was just rapid fire questions, just grilling me the whole time. The more I talked the more I felt like an idiot with 15 of them staring at me."
Toronto Argonauts General Manager, Jim Barker, chuckles when told about his team's reputation among prospects, but admits their aggressive interview style is largely due to the work of his scouting staff who thoroughly researches each prospect ahead of the interviews.
"Our coaches do a great job of knowing what's good and what's maybe not so good about a player. …Anything negative that comes out- we hit them with it," he said. "There's a lot to be said for putting a guy in an uncomfortable situation and seeing how he reacts because in the locker room you come up [against] uncomfortable situations- you're a rookie and you have a veteran come up and ask you to do something- how are you going to react to that?"
Barker admits that while the interviews are extremely valuable, so too is the knowledge gained from watching game film and assessing combine performance, something Albright is very pleased to hear.
"You hope your play will speak for itself rather than you speaking for yourself."