NFL draft prospects

January, 21, 2009

It's always amazing to me around this time of year when you start hearing about who the best NFL prospects are. Invariably there will be some huge buzz brewing about a few players who were hailed as good college players, but then when they get under the NFL microscope, we learn that for whatever reason, they may have been undervalued in college.

Maybe the player needed to get in better shape. Maybe he was used in a scheme that didn't quite showcase his ability. Or maybe we in the media missed the boat on him. Or a combination of all the above. From talking to two scouts who are down in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, Boston College's massive DT B.J. Raji is rocketing up draft boards and is looking like a top-10 pick.

Raji did earn first-team All-ACC honors this past season, although he struggled with some conditioning issues at times while at BC. He's also a guy who has been under the radar for much of his career, and his story is one folks should keep in mind over the next few weeks as we get closer to national signing day. He arrived at Boston College without any hype at all. The New Jersey native chose BC over Rutgers. On Wednesday morning, after watching Raji dominate some of the most celebrated college linemen in the country, I called former Rutgers assistant Darren Rizzi, who recruited the 300-pounder for the Scarlet Knights, to find about what his backstory was.

"It was basically just us and BC, and we were amazed by that," Rizzi said.

Back then, Raji was a 310-pounder playing at Westwood High, a small Group 2 high school about 40 miles from the Rutgers campus. Westwood also happened to be just five minutes from the town where both Rizzi and Billy McGovern, the Boston College linebackers coach, grew up.

Rizzi says Westwood is probably not a school a lot of college coaches stop by when they swing through New Jersey, but RU had been recruiting Ramel Meekins (an outstanding wrestler and slightly undersized DT who would later become a standout for the Scarlet Knights), and the coach there told Rizzi about Raji, a great junior lineman they had to look at.

"He had great size, great feet," Rizzi says of the time he and the Rutgers staff watched film of Raji. "He was never on the ground, which is rare for big high school linemen, and he had exceptional change of direction. We were like, what's the problem here?"

Still, as great as Raji looked on film, he wasn't on many people's recruiting radar, and there was zero hype around him. "There was a list of the top 100 juniors in the state of New Jersey, and he didn't even make the list," Rizzi recalls.

Ultimately, BC beat Rutgers for Raji, who became a starter by his second year in the program. "He was an awesome kid, and it's great to see him having the success he's having now," Rizzi says.


• BYU potentially could sign a highly touted class if blue-chip LB Manti Te'o and offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo commit to play for the Cougars. The class already is getting a lot of hype, and there are some intriguing subplots in play, as Jay Drew writes:

"Because of some of the players that BYU has already landed, including Timpview safety Craig Bills, Spanish Fork tight end Richard Wilson and a four-star recruit that Utah recently snared by the name of Latu Heimuli, experts say this is arguably the best crop of LDS players ever. Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged that is important to LDS Church-owned BYU, but downplayed the significance of landing, or the potential negative aspects of not landing, a player such as Te'o. 'My hope is that every young man who wants this experience comes to BYU. The only time I am disappointed, or agonize over it, is if a young man sees this experience, knows it will be the best thing for him and then chooses something else, possibly because of a name or a title or possibly even a reputation of, let's say, USC or something like that,' he said in a recent one-on-one interview with The Tribune.

"'To see them know that this is where they are supposed to be -- because you can see it -- and then choose something else, that is probably the one time that I become saddened by things like that.'

"Later, Mendenhall added: 'There is not a kid in the country that is make-or-break. What I do think is at stake is a young man can have the very best experience to shape his life, be a part of a fantastic football program, obtain an education based on faith that is perfectly suited to him, and then be surrounded by young men that have similar ideas and beliefs. But in terms of our program ever hinging on a given player, or coach, I hope that's not the case.'"

• Rizzi, now the head coach at Rhode Island, is excited about a quartet of transfers from his old school, Rutgers. The headliner is QB Chris Paul-Etienne, a gifted Miami product who is ideal for URI's spread offense. Paul-Etienne, who had to overcome a knee injury early in his career at RU, is a 6-3, 195-pounder who is back running in the high 4.5s and has two seasons of eligibility remaining. "His arm strength is phenomenal," Rizzi said. "We're very excited about him."

• Arizona needs to replace LT Eben Britton, who jumped to the NFL, and hope 19-year-old Shasta College transfer Shane Zink, a guy who grew up hoping to play basketball for Lute Olson, might be the answer. According to the Arizona Daily Star, Zink's recruitment happened very, very fast:

"Coaches first contacted Zink two weeks ago about playing at the UA. He visited Tucson last week before making up his mind."

• Baylor keeps reeling in coveted prospects. One of the biggest pickups came this week as Darius Jones, the nation's No. 77-rated prospect, decommitted from Oklahoma to Baylor.

The 5-11, 175-pounder, who was a QB in high school, probably moves to corner or wideout. "Regardless of what position Jones ends up playing at the next level, he is a definite upgrade to Baylor's overall skill set," ESPN's Tom Luginbill says. "For Baylor to lure away a Texas kid from a team that just played for the national title is a testament to Art Briles and their staff."

Baylor also is getting former Houston Cougars running back Terrance Ganaway, who is reuniting with Briles. Ganaway played for Briles at Houston during the 2007 season, rushing for 550 yards and scoring six touchdowns as a true freshman. According to John Werner, Ganaway transferred to Texarkana College last fall and plans to earn his associate's degree in May. He plans to begin attending summer classes at Baylor in June, and will have three years of football eligibility remaining beginning in the 2009 season.

• Don't be surprised if Randy Shannon goes after Rutgers offensive coordinator John McNulty again to fill his vacant offensive coordinator spot. There are rumors that Shannon also interviewed former K-State coach Ron Prince on Tuesday. I've heard that former Jets assistant Noel Mazzone has tried to make a run at the job as well. Mazzone is close to UM tight-ends coach Joe Pannunzio and also has the support of Federal Express founder Fred Smith, a potentially big Miami booster who is also the father of backup Canes QB Cannon Smith.

• Nice pickup for Western Kentucky in Courtney Dalcourt, the nation's No. 43-rated QB.

Dalcourt reportedly had offers from a bunch of BCS-conference schools, including Stanford, Georgia Tech, Kentucky and Louisville. I had seen Dalcourt last spring when I was visiting Stanford and he was on campus for an unofficial visit.


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