UM Draft Central … Again?

It's become a common occurrence for close to the last two decades. And this year is no different. Right around March NFL scouts, coaches and executives make their way down to Coral Gables in search of the next great player to come out of the University of Miami football program. For the most part the Hurricanes haven't disappointed with 32 first-round NFL draft selections from 1984-2002, including five last year.

Saturday could be another of those days.

As is usually the case prospective teams will have a handful of former University of Miami players to choose from when the lights go on in The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York today for the 2003 NFL draft. By the end of the first round Miami could have three or four players selected.

UM has had the most premium picks since 1984 with 63 players being taken in the first three rounds of the draft. Last season alone UM had 11 players selected in the draft, including first round picks Bryant McKinnie (Minnesota), Jeremy Shockey (NY Giants), Phillip Buchanon (Oakland), Ed Reed (Baltimore) and Mike Rumph (San Francisco).

The trend won't end anytime soon, according to several NFL executives interviewed earlier this week in Miami to witness a workout held by former UM running back Willis McGahee.

"He must be pretty special if everybody is out here watching him," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Rick McKay. "Just take a look around this field. There is a lot of potentially solid material out here, huh."

Added Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger: "It would be pretty wise to check on things in Coral Gables once in a while. I mean the kind of players they put out on a consistent basis is just incredible. It's no surprise that they maintain such a high level of excellence year after year."

The Titans don't have a pick in the draft until 28th selection, which might be a little too late to land any of the high-profile Hurricanes.

Heading that list are McGahee and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Before suffering a possible career-ending knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl McGahee was being projected as top-five overall selection. But McGahee, who rushed for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns on 262 carries, now is being touted as a mid-to-late first rounder. McGahee's potential drop in the draft could mean a loss of $8-$10 million in his signing bonus.

Nonetheless, the single-season record holder in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and 100-yard games isn't bothered by all the speculation. Even 15 weeks removed from surgery to reconstruct his anterior cruciate ligament McGahee is certain he is still first round material.

"I'm know that I'm going in the first round," says McGahee. "Whoever gets me is getting a phenom. I know what I can do on a football field. There are no questions in my mind. I just know, that's my confidence."

The possibility remains that McGahee could still land in the first round anywhere from 14th to the New England Patriots to 32nd to the Oakland Raiders. Drew Rosenhaus, McGahee's agent, says there is little doubt his client won't be taken in the first round.

"What Willis has done is miraculous," says Rosenhaus. "He is going to make somebody out there extremely happy."

Johnson, who earlier this week selected agent Jeff Moorad to represent him, already posses the combination of size and speed that NFL teams crave which could make him as high as the second overall pick in the draft. The 6-2, 230 pounder posted a 4.28 time in the 40-yard-dash during the NFL combines in February drawing comparisons to former UM receiver Michael Irvin.

Johnson caught 52 passes for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns last season at Miami and many felt that his statistics were kept down because of the wealth of talent on the team's offense. Still, Johnson is expected to be the highest draft pick UM has had since defensive tackle Russell Maryland was taken first by Dallas in 1991. Even if Johnson slips a few spots he is still on track to become the highest drafted receiver in UM history. Irvin, who was taken 11th overall in the 1988 draft, currently owns that distinction.

Johnson might have to wait a few more minutes than expected with the presence in the draft of Michigan State standout receiver Charles Rogers. Rogers, like Johnson, fits the mold of quick and physical receivers that pro teams look for. Detroit and Houston, rumored to be frontrunners for either player's services, might have to resort to flipping a coin in deciding whom to take. Most NFL executives agree that there isn't much difference between Johnson and Rogers.

"I think there's no question they are at the top of the class," said New York Jets general manager Terry Bradway said. "They're both big guys that can run first and are capable of making big plays and touchdowns. They are clearly the top-two receivers in the draft and have special ability."

Johnson isn't taking anything for granted, even going questioning those that are not sold on his speed.

"A lot of people look at my size and immediately underestimate my speed," says Johnson, a former standout at Miami Senior High. "They see a guy who is 6-2 and 230 pounds and they don't think I can run, but I know I can keep up with the best of them."

"Yeah, there's always room for improvement, but I never get complacent. I just come out and try to work hard every day."

McGahee and Johnson will likely have company if not on the draft's first day shortly after. Defensive ends Jamaal Green, Jerome McDougle, Andrew Williams, defensive tackles William Joseph and Matt Walters, center Brett Romberg and quarterback Ken Dorsey are all expected to be selection at some point during the draft.

McDougle, listed in last year's UM media guide at 6-4 and 271 pounds, recorded 55 tackles and seven sacks last season for the Hurricanes. McDougle also displayed solid closing speed by adding 16 tackles that accounted for a loss of 62 yards. McDougle could slip into the latter half of the first round.

Joseph's came into his senior season with high expectations but was plagued by inconsistencies. He concluded the 2002 season with 30 tackles and five sacks (16 tackles for negative yardage). Joseph's work ethic has also been questioned. Williams said that he has heard from ‘several people' that he could be a late first rounder or early second rounder. Although too small to play defensive end in the NFL he added that people he has been taking to would like to see him move to linebacker. Williams, who recorded 38 tackles last season, totaled 99 tackles, 6.5 quarterback sacks and recorded three fumbles as a senior at Hillsborough High, mostly out of the inside linebacker spot.

Jamaal Green and Matt Walters, both former defensive linemen at Miami, are being considered mid-round picks. Center Brett Romberg has impressed in recent workouts and watched his stock rise to possibly the late stages of the second round, while many insiders still question the arm strength of quarterback Ken Dorsey. Dorsey is projected as fifth or sixth round pick at best.

Miami had a school-record 12 draft selections in 1988, one more pick than last year. Irvin, along with Bennie Blades, who was taken third overall by Detroit, were the only first-round picks for the Hurricanes that year.

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