Vandy could write new chapter in its NFL history book
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — This might be the NFL Draft where the Vanderbilt Commodores, yes those guys, make a little bit of history.
The Southeastern Conference school that hasn’t had a winning season since 1982 could enjoy its most productive NFL Draft in decades starting Saturday.
Vandy has not had five players drafted since the league went to a 12-round draft in 1976, and four is the highest number since then.
And that happened only twice — in 1985 and 2001.
Now left tackle Chris Williams likely will become only the second Vanderbilt offensive lineman selected in the first round since Wil Wolford in 1986.
He will have company with receiver Earl Bennett, linebackers Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs and defensive end Curtis Gatewood, who are all possible draft picks during this year’s selection process.
“Very few of these guys were projected as NFL types when they first got here,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said.
“That’s really fun to watch them come through and get better, get stronger, get faster, and they’re all smart so they can learn. That’s the great thing if you look at Vanderbilt’s history in the NFL. Just about all the guys who go there have their degree, they’re adaptable. They can learn. I think that’s why all of them who’ve gone seem to have good solid careers.”
They’re not alone with NFL draft hopes.
The Volunteer State could have three different players from three different Tennessee colleges drafted in the first round Saturday.
Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo could extend the Volunteers’ streak of drafts with at least one first-rounder to three straight.
But cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of Tennessee State is poised to become the first Tiger drafted in the first round since Jackson native Ed “Too Tall” Jones in 1974 after a strong performance at the Senior Bowl helped prove he could play against the nation’s top competition.
“Ten minutes away, we’ve got hopefully two first-round draft picks,” Vanderbilt strength coach John Sisk said. “That doesn’t happen much for these two schools. … It’s good for our program to have this many guys. It shows we can develop kids.”
If Williams, Bennett and Goff are gone by the end of the third round, it would be the first time three Vanderbilt players have been selected that quickly in a single draft.
Only eight Commodores have ever been taken in the first round, which is what makes Williams a special player in his team’s history.
Tennessee Titans’ scouting coordinator Blake Beddingfield said Bennett will pay dividends for whatever team takes him in the draft.
For starters, Bennett leaves college as the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leading receiver and that fact along with his style of play is not lost among NFL scouts.
“He’s got good hands. He’s a good route runner. He’s a smart football player. Most teams want that type of player. Earl is going to translate. He’s going to be a nice player immediately,” Beddingfield said.
Johnson said signing Williams was a bit of a gamble.
That was before Williams blossomed into a 6-foot-6, 315-pound monster.
Then, the gamble turned out to pay large dividends for the Commodores with the giant working hard to perfect his craft.
“We knew we could get him in here and build muscle and mass, and coach (Robbie) Caldwell did a great job with his technique and his fundamentals. The rest of it was just ability from Chris. Sometimes you hit that right. Sometimes you don’t. But we hit a home run when we decided to sign him,” Johnson said.
The Volunteers had two first-round draft picks a year ago with six total Vols being drafted.
It might be hard for them to match that total this year, but Mayo has worked his way up the draft boards in recent weeks after leading the SEC in tackles last season.
Beddingfield said Mayo will be in demand because of his ability to play inside or outside linebacker.
This past season, he was undoubtably the Volunteers’ defensive leader with the junior electing to leave the team early due to his rising stock among NFL teams.
Since then, he has risen on most draft boards with projections seeing him picked in the late first round of this year’s draft.
“He really is a versatile type of player. A lot of teams are going to be interested in him because he’s going to fit your scheme,” Beddingfield said.