Arkansas' Pleasant Surprises

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jamaal Anderson wasn't expected to be in this position.

After all, he was a two-star recruit, simply a lanky wide receiver who wasn't even promised a scholarship when he arrived at Arkansas in 2004. He's now a 6-foot-6, 279-pound defensive end. Chris Houston has no business being here, either. He spent much of his high school career as a running back, and the idea of him switching to cornerback didn't excite too many people. In fact, Rivals.com had 31 cornerbacks rated higher than Houston during his senior year in 2003. And as for Tony Ugoh, there was a chance at this time last year that the offensive tackle might not even get drafted. But the three former Arkansas players have since left little doubt about their worth on the football field, and further proof of that will come today in a big way. Anderson, Houston and Ugoh have been projected as high picks in this weekend's NFL Draft, and there is a chance that all three could be among the first 32 players taken in the first round today. Not bad for a bunch of guys who were off many people's radar not long ago. "I feel like it was somewhat of an advantage for me to be a two-star (recruit) because I wasn't in the spotlight," Anderson said. "I really emerged from nowhere." The same could be said for Houston and Ugoh. Houston needed an impressive showing at the NFL Combine in late February to prove that he had the skills worthy of making him a first-round pick. Over the past few weeks, Houston's name has shot up mock drafts like only a handful of other players. "It's not really overwhelming because this is what I've dreamed about," Houston said. "You're only going to go through this once in your life, and how many people get to go through what I'm going through now? Not too many." Ugoh, meanwhile, wasn't even that highly regarded at this time last year. According to his agent, Dave Butz, the consensus among NFL teams was that Ugoh would be an undrafted free agent. But in a matter of a year, the former Razorback has worked his way into being one of the top offensive tackles in the draft. Ugoh has been projected as a high second-round pick, but there is a chance he could end up going toward the end of the first round. If that happens, Arkansas could have three former players taken in the first round of the same draft, something that has never happened before. "He's come a long way," ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said of Ugoh. "He had a fifth-round grade going into the year; now he's a second-rounder. I'd say late first (or) early second (round for him)." Anderson, however, is the former Razorback who has the best chance of hearing his name called first during the two-day draft. Thanks to his imposing size and raw ability, the Little Rock native is rated by most experts as the second-best defensive end in the draft, behind only Clemson's Gaines Adams. But it wasn't long ago that Anderson had to prove that he was simply capable of playing Division I-A football. The only legitimate scholarship offers he received coming out of Little Rock's Parkview High School were from programs like Central Arkansas, Ouachita Baptist and the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff. He wasn't promised a scholarship when he signed with Arkansas, and few people could have imagined that he'd grow into being a physically imposing defensive end. ESPN NFL expert Chris Mortensen recalled sitting in the stands at Fayetteville High School several years ago, watching Anderson go through summer workouts with the other wide receivers. Alex Mortensen, Chris' son, was a quarterback who was in the same recruiting class as Anderson. And though he was considerably smaller than he is now, Anderson made an impression on the elder Mortensen. "Jamaal was playing receiver then, and to be honest with you, I thought that summer he was more impressive than Marcus Monk," Mortensen said. "And I can tell you that I wasn't the only one who thought that." But Anderson soon moved to defensive end despite having some reservations about the change. He put on weight, studied tape of NFL defensive ends and proved during his breakout junior season that he had the tools to be a first-round selection. "I started out (this past season) with a slow start, but things slowly progressed," Anderson said before correcting himself. "I wouldn't say slow; they rapidly progressed. After that Alabama game, things really accelerated." Few could have seen it coming -- for any one of them.

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