Draft bets, noise complaints, and fast 40s: How NFL hopefuls Jelani Woods, Charlie Kolar became best pals while training for their dream jobs

Virginia's Jelani Woods and Iowa State's Charlie Kolar forged a bond while training for the 2022 NFL Draft in California.

Jelani Woods and Charlie Kolar want the same thing. The two tight ends are competitors, and as Day 2 of the NFL Draft arrives Friday, they are hoping to be among the first players selected at their position.

The pair have spent the past three months training and competing. But as their competition has picked up steam, so has their friendship.

“That’s how it works with football, usually,” Kolar told Pro Football Network. “You spend time together with football, and then you spend time together off the field and just get closer.”

“I was kind of aware of him anyway,” Woods said. “And being able to train together, it’s been pretty awesome.”

Jelani Woods and Charlie Kolar: A bond formed through competition

Kolar and Woods formally met at the start of their pre-draft training in January at California Strength in Los Gatos. Both knew of one another from their time in the Big 12 Conference, and Woods actually played with Kolar’s old brother, John, at Oklahoma State.

John Kolar was a backup QB when Woods — a three-star recruit at the same position — joined the Cowboys program. Woods’ time at QB was short-lived, and he quickly transitioned to Oklahoma State’s H-back/tight end position.

While the younger Kolar was also recruited to Oklahoma State, he chose to play tight end at Iowa State because he’d be more involved in the passing offense. Woods, who mainly served as an inline blocker for the Cowboys, eventually sought a more significant role in the passing game and transferred to the University of Virginia last season. The decision was a smart one. He capped his college career with a breakout campaign.

And now, Kolar and Woods have ended up together during the draft process. Both tight ends are represented by Caric Sports Management, an agency that represents some of the best players at their position, including Zach Ertz of the Arizona Cardinals, Austin Hooper of the Tennessee Titans, and Dalton Schultz of the Dallas Cowboys.

That connection led to Kolar and Woods training together in California, and it’s forged a bond between the two that could last an NFL lifetime or longer. With both prospects projected to be mid-round selections, on the eve of their potential entry into the league, each is not only hopeful for themselves but also for each other.

Oct 9, 2021; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Virginia Cavaliers tight end Jelani Woods (0) runs the ball against the Louisville Cardinals during the second half at Cardinal Stadium. Virginia defeated Louisville 34-33. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Jelani Woods: A point to prove

When Woods stepped foot on the Oklahoma State campus in Stillwater, Okla., he was preparing to battle for the backup QB job with John Kolar. The older Kolar showed Woods the ropes within the QB room, but Woods would eventually be moved to tight end, a position he would thrive in with relative ease due to his size and athleticism.

In Oklahoma State’s offense, the Cowboys prioritized the running game, and Woods was asked to block for standout backs like Chuba Hubbard and Justice Hill throughout his time with the program. In the passing game, Woods was a low man on the passing-target totem pole. He finished his four-year stint at Oklahoma State with 31 catches for 361 yards and 4 touchdowns.

“I remember watching Jelani, and I’d always ask myself, ‘Why aren’t they throwing him the ball more?’” Kolar said.

Woods’ lack of offensive opportunities forced him to seek action elsewhere, eventually settling on Virginia after entering the transfer portal. The move turned out to be a game-changer. He produced 44 catches for 598 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2021, nearly doubling his yardage and scores from his four years with the Cowboys.

During the draft process, Woods’ seamless transition between programs and his breakout 2021 campaign have been popular topics in team interviews.

“That’s what most teams ask me about,” Woods said. “They ask me about that [transfer] process and how I went about that process. For me, I tell them, of course, it was smooth. That’s why I was able to put up the numbers I had this [past] year. I told them I learned the playbook in a month and a half. I gained the locker room’s trust really early, so I had a good connection with everybody, including the quarterback.”

After his standout final college season, Woods was invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas. Eric Galko, the Shrine Bowl’s director of football operations, said the 6-foot-7, 259-pound tight end was able to add another feather to his cap during the pre-draft process because of his week of work at the all-star.

“The growth as a route runner,” Galko said. “Often times, I think we overrate the draft process. Jelani didn’t go from obscurity to being [a potential] second-round pick. He was always that good on film, but I think what he’s shown from Week 1 at Virginia to Week 8 at Virginia to the Shrine Bowl was a consistent improvement as a route runner.”

Woods produced 3 catches for 30 yards and a touchdown during the Shrine Bowl, an event he says was important for his evaluation process.

“The main thing that I wanted to show was that I was 100% healthy,” Woods said. “And two, just my abilities. I didn’t feel like I showed everything throughout the year because I had a high-ankle sprain pretty much the whole year. I wasn’t really able to show everything I could do. So, the Shrine Game, I had a point to prove, pretty much.”

Following the Shrine Bowl, Woods, from Ellenwood, Ga., worked out with fellow tight ends Kolar, Greg Dulcich (UCLA), Jake Tonges (California), and Erik Krommenhoek (USC) in Los Gatos. Under the tutelage of David Spitz and Joseph Mar II, the group was preparing for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, working on their technique for position drills and speed for testing drills.

The prospects would take part in a testing trial every Friday, and the results were “up and down,” according to Kolar. That said, Kolar remembers when it clicked that Woods would have a standout performance at the Combine.

“I remember, probably right before the Combine, Jelani had a time on Wednesday and it was okay,” Kolar said. “And then he just came on back Friday and ran a blazing time. I’m like ‘What the hell happened between the last two nights?’ That’s when I knew — because I wasn’t 100 percent ready to go — but that’s when I knew Jelani was going to run a great time.”

Woods ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, which ranked second among tight ends at the event. His 24 reps on the bench press were the most at his position.

Woods didn’t just impress his peers with his speed and strength while training in California. He also stole the show in position work as well. Former NFL tight end Logan Paulsen, another Caric client, worked with Woods to help him refine his technique. According to Paulsen, Woods was a quick study.

“I think he did an excellent job with everything, and I’m not exaggerating,” Paulsen said. “Everything you told him, he was able to internalize — mentally and physically — so quickly. I think, honestly, that’s what makes him special and that’s one of the reasons I get so excited to talk to people about Jelani. He just has this ability where I’m like, ‘Get your elbow tighter,’ and it’s not like he needs a whole bunch of reps to get that done. Like the next time we do that drill, he’s the best one at it.”

Paulsen, who spent 10 seasons in the league, sees tremendous upside in Woods. He believes Woods has plenty of room to grow with only four seasons of work at tight end.

“I think it’s all there,” Paulsen said. “He’s like a big ball of clay, you just have to get him in the right space with a good coach. He’s going to take everything in like a sponge and I think he’s going to be an outstanding pro.”

Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar (88) catches a pass for a touchdown during an NCAA college football game in the Cheez-It Bowl against Clemson, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. © Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Charlie Kolar: Blocking out doubt

Unlike Woods, Kolar was fed the ball right away in Iowa State’s offense. He produced 168 catches for 2,181 yards and 23 touchdowns in 49 career games during his four seasons with the Cyclones. He capped his Iowa State career with an impressive senior season, gaining 756 yards and 6 touchdowns on 62 catches.

The numbers were never the issue for Kolar at Iowa State. Instead, he has faced questions about his ability to block, a skill he wasn’t asked to utilize all that often in the Cyclone’s offense. But when Kolar got to California in January, he surprised Paulsen with his raw traits as a blocker.

“I was really impressed with him,” Paulsen said. “He’s very strong, much stronger than I thought he would be. He plays with good blocking acumen. It’s a little bit by-the-book, but he has a good feel for it, good feel for the tension needed.”

Kolar, who just finished his post-grad degree in finance, puts a lot of thought into his technique. Paulsen noticed that mentally right away.

“I think Charlie is very cerebral and analytical, much like myself and other guys that I’ve worked with,” Paulsen said.

During training, Paulsen helped Kolar get a more natural feel for blocking, something he will be asked to do much more than he was in college. They also worked on Kolar’s route running.

Like Woods, Kolar was also invited to an all-star game — the annual Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. There, coaches asked him to block pretty regularly throughout the week of practice. According to Kolar, he was asked to play a more traditional “Y” tight end than the “F” spot that would have left him flexed out in space.

NFL teams seem to have different opinions on how they’d use Kolar in their respective offenses.

“Honestly, it’s been very varied,” Kolar said. “Some teams see me in the traditional ‘Y’ — inline, running routes — and then some teams just see me strictly as an ‘F’ and more flexed out. Some teams see me as a combination.”

While Kolar didn’t run at the Combine due to ankle soreness, he was able to participate in Iowa State’s pro day in March. According to Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who cited scouts in attendance, Kolar ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash and posted a 10-foot broad jump. The 6-foot-6, 252-pound tight end also had a 35.5-inch vertical jump and ran a 6.98-second 3-cone drill.

Kolar should be a fixture in the red zone rather quickly, given his size and athletic makeup. The Iowa State tight end, who scored at least 3 touchdowns in each of his four college seasons, loves the matchup problem he can create around the goal line.

“It’s great to create mismatches down there,” Kolar said. “Also, you’ll get a lot more tight coverage down there, and when the distance between the throw and the catch are shorter, the quarterback can put it in a spot where you can use your body so much easier.”

A bond beyond the draft process

It was 9:45 p.m. at the Hotel Los Gatos. Woods, Kolar, and a handful of their fellow NFL hopefuls were sitting around the lobby, joking and chatting up a storm. Their chatter projected throughout the hotel, forcing a noise complaint. The hotel manager had to tell the group to lower their voices.

It’s a memory that Kolar and Woods are still laughing about. It’s just one of the many topics in their text thread, which also includes the seven other prospects who worked out with them, including Dulcich, Tonges, Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn and UMass cornerback Bryce Watts.

Woods believes the thread will stay active throughout their respective careers.

“I think about it more long-term than just this process,” Woods said. “Creating a brotherhood — this class — and not only the tight ends, but everybody else. Just imagine seeing us in league five or six years from now and going back to work out in the summer again and continuing that bond.”

The text chain is expected to be rambunctious this weekend as most of the NFL hopefuls are expected to hear their names called on Day 2 or Day 3.

The group has a gentleman’s bet for the draft: the top-selected player has to buy dinner for the rest of the group when they return to Los Gatos for offseason training. The dinner won’t be at a chain restaurant — it’ll be at the most expensive joint in town.

“I’m kind of hoping that I go like one pick behind the guy that goes first,” Kolar said with a laugh.

(UPDATE: Woods was the first player selected in the group on Friday at No. 73 by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round. Kolar was selected Saturday at No. 128 in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens.)

Regardless of how it all shakes out, Woods and Kolar — along with the rest of the group — will be rooting for each other. Woods, Kolar, and Dulcich are competing to be among the top tight ends taken on Friday, but that competition is all in good fun.

“Even though you’re technically competing for the same draft spot, you don’t really think about it that much,” Kolar said. “You’re just working out together, you push each other, and as you become closer, you root for these guys — all of the guys that we trained with at our place, I’ve only known them for three months — but I’m going to be super excited when they’re drafted.”

Kolar plans to spend Friday with his immediate family, his grandmother, and his girlfriend in his hometown of Norman, Okla. Woods will be in Atlanta, where his family will oversee a tight guest list.

“My parents kind of took that idea and ran with it,” Woods said.

Kolar and Woods will be waiting by their phones as they prepare for the calls that will change their lives. The draft is unpredictable, but both will be happy just to hear their names called during the weekend.

“I think we’re both in the same boat,” Kolar said. “Obviously, we hope to go Friday. If we go Saturday, we’ll be grateful.”

Paulsen, who witnessed Kolar and Woods develop a bond with the rest of their draft classmates, believes their friendships will help them during their early days in the league. Speaking from experience, Paulsen knows that a reassuring word from a fellow player can go a long way when a rookie is struggling to find his footing in the offseason program or training camp.

“I think that kind of solidifies your focus as a professional in the NFL,” Paulsen said. “It builds the fraternity, and it makes it so you’re not quite as alone in your journey, and that’s always helpful, I find, especially for the young guys.”

Kolar and Woods are on the cusp of realizing a lifelong dream, and in a way, they’re doing it together. The draft process connected them, and now they’ll be able to lean on each other as they are competing for jobs at the highest level.

“They have the same motivation,” Paulsen said. “They care a lot about football, and they’re all good kids. I think that all kind of lends itself to building good relationships.”

Mike Kaye is the Lead NFL Reporter for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @mike_e_kaye.