By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) —Grunts and primal screams echo in college football weightrooms when it comes to testing time. Some guys can’t wait to hit the bench and explode, show everyone what they can do.
Justin Pugh stood silent. He drifted to the back of the line that first day of testing at Syracuse. Guys were pushing 225 pounds a total of 20, 25 reps on the bench. When the weightroom went silent, when Pugh made sure everyone had left—and thought no one was looking, that’s when he got on. But the probable high-round offensive tackle out of Council Rock South High School, by way of the Orangemen, got caught anyway.
“It was bad, guys were doing 25 reps and I did five,” says Pugh now, laughing. “It was embarrassing. I was the last one to go that day. I made sure everyone left the weightroom, and I was like, ‘Okay coach, I’m going to go real quick, don’t tell anybody.’”
Little did he know.
“Of course, as soon as they tested, they posted the numbers right in the locker room and all the offensive linemen were coming up to me and saying, ‘You did five, how are you expecting to play at this level?’” Pugh recalled. “My work ethic is something I definitely take a lot of pride in now. That jolted me. I had to get my strength up where it needed to be. But I never heard the end of it. My nickname was Pugh-ney at Syracuse for the first few years. I mean they still call me that, but it’s more of a joke now than reality.”
Pugh could have gone in two different directions. He could have curled up and done nothing to improve, beat down by the ridicule, or took the initiative to get bigger and better. Pugh got better. Much better.
He’s projected to go anywhere from possibly the late first round to somewhere early or in the middle of the second round. The babyfaced 6-foot-4, 310-pound Pugh has great range and terrific feet for someone his size. He’s also exhibited great balance and he brings the unique versatility of playing every position on the offensive line.
After Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher, Pugh is projected in the next grouping of offensive tackles, in the class with Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson, Florida State’s Menelik Watson and Alabama’s D.J. Fluker.
Pugh’s trajectory skyrocketed his junior year, when he took on USC’s Nick Perry, the 28th overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Green Bay Packers, and was exceptional. He then handled West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin, the 15th overall pick by the Seattle Seahawks. Not to mention practicing against Orangemen defensive end Chandler Jones, the 21st overall selection in the 2012 draft selected by the New England Patriots.
That’s three number-one draft choices in one year. Pugh followed with a stellar senior season in which he was named first-team all-Big East. He was the cornerstone of an offensive line that enabled Syracuse to set school records for total offense (6,188 yards), total offense per game (476.0), most plays (1,028), passing yards (3,757), completions (295), passing yards per game (289.0) and touchdown passes (26).
“I never played offensive tackle before in my life; I never played it in high school, never played it when I was growing up at all,” Pugh said. “It’s the way things worked out. We ran the triple-option at Council Rock South and I figured the most athletic guys played guard, because they could get to the linebackers. When I got to Syracuse, the left tackle was the premier offensive line position.”
Regardless of finding himself, buying into himself to become a high NFL draft pick, there are still the slights that pique at him.
“I still hear things like my arms are too short, but at the end of the day, you have to go out there and prove yourself on the field and play football,” Pugh said. “You have to line up against the guy and play him one-on-one, and it’s something I’ve always prided myself on. I’m hearing I could go from the end of the first round to the early second round. I think I helped myself at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.”
Pugh, who graduated with a degree in finance, doesn’t have to wait for everyone to leave the weightroom these days. He’s able to bench 225 pounds 25-to-30 times now.
“It’s been a crazy ride and my family and friends have been very supportive throughout,” Pugh said. “I got my hard-work mentally through my stepdad, Frank Gavaghan, who stepped into my life and showed me what hard work is all about. This is also for my mother, Carolyn. It’s a little tough for her because she hears the draft pundits talking about what I can’t do. This is someone who watched me throughout college and she would tear up, hoping it would never end. This is great for her, because she can still watch me play.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.