April 26, 2012

No JMU Player A Lock

Several James Madison football players, notably defensive end D.J. Bryant and wide receiver Kerby Long, have received interest from the NFL, but none is anywhere near a lock to be selected in this week's draft.

That doesn't mean it won't happen.

"I've seen it work where guys get a lot of phone calls and they don't get an opportunity to sign," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said Wednesday. "And then I've had kids that only had one team call and that one team signs the kid. I always felt, getting an opportunity to play in the NFL is like getting a date to prom. It only takes one person to like you; it only takes one person to think you're pretty."

So who's the prettiest of JMU's prospects? No one really knows. In addition to Bryant and Long, cornerbacks Mike Allen and Taveion Cuffee also have generated calls to Madison coaches.

None is highly ranked. ESPN graded each at 30, a rating that places them as a "borderline prospect" and pegs them as no better than a late-round pick or a free agent. The NFL draft has seven rounds, beginning today and ending Saturday.

An article on The Sports Network lists the potential I-AA prospects by two publications, and Bryant is the only JMU player named. He made one list as "others in the picture."

Arthur Moats and Scotty McGee were the last JMU players drafted. Both went in the sixth round in 2010 - Moats to the Buffalo Bills and McGee to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Among JMU's I-A neighbors, Virginia and Virginia Tech, there is less uncertainty - at least for a few players.

Mel Kiper ranked Tech's David Wilson as the fourth-best running back in the draft and 40th-best player overall, making him the top prospect in the state. Hokies cornerback Jayron Hosley - whose prospects could be hurt by a failed drug test, according to FoxSports.com - was ranked No. 79 overall and wide receiver Danny Coale No. 150.

Virginia's top pro prospects are defensive end Cam Johnson (108th) and cornerback Chase Minnifield (123rd).

Still, the 6-foot-3 Bryant is optimistic. He said he now weighs 255 pounds after playing at about 240 last season. He's also preparing to play linebacker as well as defensive end to make himself "more marketable."

ESPN ranks Bryant as the 57th-best defensive end and the 79th-best linebacker. The other JMU players' rankings: Allen and Cuffee are 101st and 119th at corner, respectively; Long is 152nd at receiver. ESPN also lists center Roane Babington (33rd at his position), safety Vidal Nelson (45th) and defensive tackle Lamar Middleton (78th).

Bryant said he visited the Baltimore Ravens' facilities and met their coaches. Among the teams he said have shown interest: the Ravens, Oakland Raiders (he worked out for them at JMU), Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Matthews said Bryant, who had 48 tackles and seven sacks last season, has a chance to be drafted because of his ability to rush the passer.

Bryant said the process has been fun but frustrating.

"It's stressful and mind-boggling just because you really don't know what the outcome's going to be," he said. "You could go two weeks without hearing from a team, and then you could go a whole week and you can hear from 10 teams, and then it will fall off again."

Long echoed Bryant.

"This week is like the worst week - the most nerve-wracking week. Not knowing," he said. "You don't know where you want to be, who's going to come. You don't even know what teams are interested. Then you're just - after this, what if nothing happens? Then what?"

Matthews said Long could be a surprise.

Long's career at Madison was inconsistent and up-and-down. It included numerous off-the-field issues, including the death of his father. His senior season, though, was better. He caught 29 passes for 386 yards and two touchdowns. His 13.3 yards-per-catch average was second-best on the team of those with double-figure receptions. He also had the Dukes' longest reception of the season at 80 yards.

"His best football is ahead of him," Matthews said.

Long - who said he ran the 40-yard dash in a super-fast 4.35 seconds at JMU's pro day - said he had interest from a number teams, notably the Philadelphia Eagles. He also said he worked out for the Raiders and received a text from the New England Patriots about two weeks ago. And Long, too, thought his best football was in the future.

"I needed to get my mind right," he said.

Nevertheless, Matthews stressed how difficult it was to even get a look in the NFL with so few roster spots (53) and so few players invited to training camp (90). Matthews estimated that about 20 of those players were rookies, and at least seven of those were drafted. That leaves very little space for free agents - a likely route for JMU's NFL hopefuls.

"If you get an opportunity to sign a free-agent contract, you're a great player; you're a great prospect," Matthews said. "And a lot of people don't understand that. It's extremely difficult to get invited to an NFL camp."

But if you can get to camp …

"I feel like all of us are going to be in rookie camp with an opportunity to prove ourselves," Bryant said. "All of us are late-round guys if we get drafted… but when we get to rookie mini-camp, none of that really matters. It just matters how you perform when you're there."

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