Block the players rushing down the field from the opposite side.
The coach’s instructions to Will Hernandez on his role on the kickoff return team in his first football practice as a freshman at Chaparral High sounded easy enough — except they weren’t. Not to a 13 year old who had never played football before and had barely ever watched it on television.
“At that point, the only thing I knew about football was you’re supposed to tackle the guy with the ball,” he explained. “I went backwards, and tackled my own returner.”
The next several seconds felt like an eternity to Hernandez, who remained confused as he noticed he had crashed the practice to a halt.
Teammates were besides themselves laughing. Some of the coaches, too. The rest of the coaching staff, Hernandez remembered, were speechless with their jaws dropped.
None of them realized it was merely the first of many times Hernandez would make himself the center of attention on the football field from a typically inconspicuous position.
He consoled himself after the embarrassment, vowed to improve and has never stopped fulfilling that goal nine years later. After earning All-American recognition as a guard the last two seasons at the University of Texas-El Paso, Hernandez is expected to be picked in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, which begins next Thursday evening in Arlington, Texas.
Some projections place Hernandez as a first-round pick, despite only 10 guards having ever been picked that early since 2000.
“It kind of hit me recently while in the midst of getting ready for the NFL Draft that this is everything I’ve been working for since I started playing football,” Hernandez said. “The fact that it’s slowly becoming a reality is truly amazing. I’m ready to go, ready to get to work.”
Not that he hasn’t been working. On the contrary, Hernandez prepared for March’s NFL Draft Combine at Proactive Sports in Orange County, Calif., and improved both his strength and speed.
He boosted his stock at the combine by beating every other offensive lineman in the bench press, putting up 37 reps at 225 pounds. He supplemented the performance with a 40-yard dash time of 5.15 seconds, an eye-opener for a player who measured out at 6-foot-2, 348 pounds.
Hernandez has traveled to visit with teams almost ever since then, meeting with the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens. He also worked out privately for Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Dallas.
“This has been one of the best times in my life because I don’t have any responsibilities,” Hernandez said. “All you have to worry about, and everything you do is related to football. I don’t have to go to school, don’t have to work, don’t have to do this or that. It’s all football, and that’s what I really want to do.”
It wasn’t always that way. Hernandez was initially hesitant to try out football, because he was worried about telling his father.
Robert Hernandez was once a professional soccer player in Mexico, and passed his love of the sport down to Will by coaching all of his youth teams. But Will was getting too big by the end of the middle school, and thought football might be a better fit after catching glimpses of games.
“My dad was so passionate about soccer and so passionate about me being good in soccer, but he was 100 percent supportive when I told him I didn’t really like the sport anymore and I wanted to try football,” Will said. “He said, ‘That’s fine, but if you’re going to switch sports, you’re going to give everything you’ve got in that sport.’”
Hernandez abided by that creed for his first two years of high school, but it wasn’t until his junior year that his career really accelerated. Chaparral brought in new coach Bill Froman, whom Hernandez said told him he would play in the NFL within the first week of practice.
“I thought he was crazy,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to play in the NFL, but I didn’t even know about college. I had no idea you could earn a scholarship and go play in college, but he came to me and educated me on that whole process and I knew I wanted to do it 100 percent.”
Football came naturally, but Froman, who called Hernandez, “the best I've ever been around,” had to also emphasize academics to his star lineman. Hernandez had fallen behind in the classroom, and despite his best efforts, couldn’t fully catch up in time to cash in on a couple scholarship chances to Pac-12 Conference schools.
He was likely headed to a junior college until getting a late offer from UTEP, where Hernandez flashed immediate potential as a redshirt freshman to get another set of coaches telling him he could play professionally. He again had his doubts.
“I knew I could play but it was a smaller school with less media attention,” Hernandez said. “I could be out here screaming that I’m good but I thought if the media didn’t see me, my chances were slim. I didn’t really believe it until after my junior year when the buzz started happening. That’s when I figured out that scouts would look at you and teams would look at you if you were at a small school or not.”
The Miners went 0-12 last season, but a steady stream of scouts still showed up at their games to get a look at the bulldozing interior blocker. Hernandez has gotten used to it.
He’s turned heads to places where they usually don’t go since his first day of football practice.
“I’m very thankful for Chaparral because they’re the ones that turned me into the player that I am,” Hernandez said. “That’s where it all started for me. The first time I ever played football in my life was there, so it means a lot to me.”