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Friday, April 18, 2003
 
For NFL-ready talent, Miami's the place
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Like one of those MTV shows featuring scantily-clad college coeds and rockers with unfamiliar names, or the dogwoods blossoming precisely one week before the first na´ve hopeful tees off at The Masters, it has now become a latter day rite of spring.

Sometime in March, the University of Miami schedules its annual "pro day" workouts, and NFL scouts hasten to the Coral Gables campus, stopwatches at the ready, to peruse the latest contingent of Hurricanes draft wannabes.

Andre Johnson
Andre Johnson is expected to be a top five pick in the upcoming draft.
It is, just like a bar that offers free buffalo wings and one-buck draft beers during happy hour, a must-stop for guys who earn a paycheck evaluating meat on the hoof. And if the flesh market isn't quite as good as what you might witness during a stopoff at nearby South Beach, when Miami draft prospects work out, there are typically some eye-bulging performances.

Which is precisely why personnel directors, general managers, coaches and scouts return each and every year, sort of the NFL's version of the swallows revisiting Capistrano when the climate is appropriate. But instead of birds, 32 franchises dispatch their best bird-dogs, sometimes five or six members of a personnel department descending on the university football complex.

Indeed, raising 'Canes on your draft board typically results from the raised eyebrows that usually accompany the school's predraft workout.

"It's the place to be," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, who all but settled on linebacker Ray Lewis as his first-round choice in the 1996 draft during a campus audition. "You know that, year in and year out, there are going to be a few schools who will always have a lot of players. And you know that Miami is going to be one of those schools."

No doubt, coach Larry Coker could charge an admission fee, and the pack of scouts huddled tightly at the finish line of the 40-yard sprint would likely be no less jammed. For this year's "pro day" session, held on March 6, there were over 100 scouts on hand. Every franchise was represented, none with fewer than three sets of eyes, and one owner told ESPN.com he sent seven scouts and coaches.

How he reconciles ordering that small army, flown in by private plane, to the Miami audition: In many cases a scout has to show great perseverance to unearth a prospect. But at Miami, the owner suggested, you just merely need to show up, period, to locate potential draft choices.

There have been, over the past decade or so, universities that produced more players and even more first-round draft choices. But few college programs can tout the quality of prospect Miami annually exhibits. The school is one of the primary "feeder" programs for the league, a viable Triple-A affiliate, and the personnel directors know it.

Since that '96 draft, when he chose Lewis with the 26th overall selection, Newsome has exercised nine first-round picks, and one-third of them were former Miami defenders. That's three onetime Hurricanes standouts in the last seven drafts.

Dating back to the 1990 lottery, Miami has produced 22 first-round picks and 83 selections total. In the past six years, the Hurricanes had 15 players chosen in the first round, including five last year and nine in the last two lotteries. Three times in those six years, the school had three or more first-rounders. Miami led all universities in 2002, with 11 players chosen.

And don't think for a minute that Coker or his predecessors -- Butch Davis, Dennis Erickson, Jimmy Johnson -- aren't quick to emphasize such numbers at recruiting time.

Even if you're not one of the top players on the roster, the odds of getting the chance to compete for an NFL job are enhanced, since the scouts visit the Miami campus so often. Unlike some tightly-wound college coaches, who would prefer to have a razor-wire fence surrounding their campus, the Miami staff is NFL-friendly.

Scouts are welcomed and treated well, provided access to the players, and to the film room. Coker can call in favors, like asking the league to squeeze in one of his players to the combine, because general managers are very eager to reciprocate to his open policies.

"The place is like a magnet for scouts," said Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle, one of four Hurricanes players who figure to be chosen in the first round this year, during a break at the league's combine workouts in February. "If you're considering schools, and you're serious about playing in the NFL, well, you know that you're going to be seen (at Miami). There are backups who have a chance to get drafted. Going to Miami, you know it's going to be, like, instant exposure."

Wide receiver Ethenic Sands, whose lack of deep speed probably makes him just a marginal prospect, but who might still get drafted in the middle or late rounds, acknowledged he has benefited from the attention paid to fellow wideout Andre Johnson, a certain top five choice on April 26.

Sands isn't the only player like that. Miami could, realistically, have four defensive ends chosen in this draft. Last time we checked, the 'Canes still started only two players at the position.

One starting tackle from the 2002 front four, William Joseph, will be a first-rounder. The other, Vince Wilfork, would have been a No. 1 selection had he bypassed his final year of college eligibility and entered the draft. Even without Wilfork, who may be more gifted than Joseph, there is this Hurricanes warning: The university might equal, on the weekend of April 26-27, the impressive 11-player bounty they sent to the league last year.

The school, Washington Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato said this week, "just seems to mint blue-chip (players)." Said Newsome: "Just to get on the field down there, you've got to be a top athlete, and then you add top-shelf coaching to that."

I think scouts know that, if they get a Miami player, they're getting a guy who is closer to being ready to roll in the NFL than (prospects) from most programs. Guys from Miami have been through the crucible, you know? And when a school has turned out so many players, I mean, why wouldn't the NFL people keep going back to the well every year?
Ed Reed, Ravens safety and former Miami Hurricane

But beyond the athletic component, there are other reasons that personnel directors and scouts are drawn to Miami, like moths surging to the flame. There is a track record of success, of course, but there is also this element: Teams know that, if they select a Miami product, they are getting a player who is ready to compete and will not be awed by the NFL transition.

"Lets's face it," said one NFC college scouting director, "they recruit a lot of so-called 'city kids.' And, hey, political correctness aside, those players have been through a little bit more in their lives. They're tougher, they are more hardened, more prepared to get through the rough periods, because a lot of them have already been through worse. Look, I'm not saying they are all choirboys, but you know they're going to be pretty mature. They come to you with some leadership skills and they come to you hungry."

Those last two commodities, agreed Miami Dolphins head coach and former Hurricanes assistant Dave Wannstedt, cannot be underestimated.

In 1991, for instance, when the Jimmy Johnson-coached Dallas Cowboys were just two years beyond a miserable 1-15 experience and still one season removed from a stretch in which they won three Super Bowls in four years, the franchise acquired the first overall selection in the draft.

After much deliberation and debate, the Cowboys opted to use that choice to select Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland, a prospect who many other franchises did not have graded as even a top 10 pick. The choice puzzled a lot of the pundits, stunned Dallas fans, and drew sharp criticism.

But a dozen years later, Wannstedt insists the Cowboys knew exactly what they were doing, even if Maryland wasn't necessarily the top player on the Dallas draft board.

"We knew him," Wannstedt said. "We knew that, in addition to (being) a good player, Russell was the kind of guy we needed in the lockerroom. He was a winner and he was a leader. He was one of the final pieces, but one of the most important ones, in our puzzle. He helped galvanize our team."

He was, to borrow the term used by former Hurricanes linebackers Mike Barrow and Jessie Armstead, an "NFL-ready" player.

"I think scouts know that, if they get a Miami player, they're getting a guy who is closer to being ready to roll in the NFL than (prospects) from most programs," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, a 2002 first-rounder. "Guys from Miami have been through the crucible, you know? And when a school has turned out so many players, I mean, why wouldn't the NFL people keep going back to the well every year?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.