Weighing their options

Andre Johnson,Willis McGahee, D. J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma and Vince Wilfork all have something in common. And it has little to do with the fact that all five University of Miami players will be on the field Jan.3 in Tempe, Arizona in search of a second consecutive national championship for the Hurricanes.

Aside from having a chance to provide the school with their first back-to-back national title in any sport and extend the nation's longest winning streak to 35 the aforementioned Hurricanes could also be on their way to becoming very rich men as soon as next April.

That's if they decide to say good-bye to the Hurricanes and say hello to the National Football League.

With the Hurricanes back among college football's elite and riding a wave of success that started over two years ago, including the program's fifth national title last season with a victory over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, the eyes of NFL scouts have once again become fixated on Coral Gables in search of new talent.

For years a pipe-line for sending players to the NFL, the University of Miami reclaimed that distinction in the 2002 draft with five first-round selections, including Jeremy Shockey (NY Giants), Phil Buchanon (Oakland), Ed Reed (Baltimore), Bryant McKinnie (Minnesota) and Mike Rumph (San Francisco). McKinnie was the seventh overall selection in the draft, while Shockey was taken at No. 14. Shockey was followed by Buchanon (No. 17), Reed (No. 24) and Rumph (No. 27).

Former UM running back Clinton Portis was drafted in the second-round and No. 51 overall by the Denver Broncos. Shockey, third on the Giants with 54 receptions, 652 yards and a touchdown, is a frontrunner for NFC Rookie of the Year honors. Portis has 1,098 rushing yards and nine TDs on 216 carries and is making a strong bid for the AFC Rookie of the Year Award.

Shockey, Portis, and Buchanon, all juniors who had a year of eligibility left at UM, opted to skip their final seasons at the school and bolted for the professional ranks, with Ken Dorsey and William Joseph staying for another year.

Now, several of this year's Hurricanes face the same dilemma. By all indications Johnson and McGahee could be top-10 first-round draft picks, while Vilma, Wilfork and Williams could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to early in the second-round.

Johnson and McGahee are the most likely of UM players to be sporting NFL trends next year but the possibility of Williams, Wilfork and Vilma leaving can't be discounted. All except Wilfork are juniors.

University of Miami coach Larry Coker would obviously be at a disadvantage in terms of fielding a team next season if the Hurricanes lose any of the players. But rather than discourage his players from leaving he will look to help by gathering information from the league on potential draft status and talking to different scouts.

"There are a lot of things that these kids have to take into account in making that decision," said University of Miami coach Larry Coker. "I just want to make sure they get the right information before deciding on anything."

Whatever research Coker does might not make a difference in the case of Johnson, who has attracted attention from NFL personnel all season thanks to his advanced skills at the wide receiver position. With a combination of breakaway speed and the ability to fend off defensive backs because of his size, the 6-3, 225-pounder has already drawn comparisons to former University of Miami receiver and NFL star Michael Irvin.

Most observers believe that if Johnson were playing at another school, and not Miami's split offensive system, his numbers would be off the charts. Johnson, who leads the Hurricanes with 48 receptions and 1,038 yards this season, has proven to be a star although he is underused in Miami's system. Last season Johnson had 37 receptions with 682 yards and 10 touchdowns in an offense that also featured Shockey and Portis.

Johnson has had a single-game high of six receptions in three games this season and is coming of a season-best 193 yards receiving against Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale.

Johnson has not come out publicly and said whether or not he is entering the draft. And has rejected any thoughts of becoming a professional until after the Hurricanes play in the Fiesta Bowl.

"I'm just ecstatic to be in this position again and happy that we have a chance to bring another title home," said Johnson, during the on-field celebration that erupted at the Orange Bowl after Miami's 56-45 victory over Virginia Tech last Saturday. "We'll have plenty of time to talk about the NFL later. I'm still a Miami Hurricane." But that doesn't mean nobody is watching him closely- very closely.

Johnson's speed, pass catching and blocking ability have plenty of NFL executives already touting him as an early selection in the 2003 draft. Four of five NFL scouts recently contacted agreed that Johnson would be one of the top-10 picks in the draft next April.

Although Johnson hasn't declared anything one way or the other speculation around the program and the league is that he will bypass his senior season at Miami.

"Andre is the prototype receiver. He has an incredible body, can jump through the roof and is blazing fast," said an NFC scout, who spoke anonymously. "Guys are just drooling over this kid."

He isn't the only one though.

McGahee, who last spring was behind teammate Frank Gore on the depth chart, has rushed for a school record 1,686 yards and 27 touchdowns, likely making him the first running back taken and another top-10 pick for the Hurricanes. That's if McGahee, a red-shirt sophomore, elects to leave school.

Asked earlier this week repeatedly during a press conference, McGahee indicated that he was ‘definitely' coming back. But asked if his decision could change from now until Jan. 3, McGahee wavered a bit.

"I don't know really," McGahee said. "Its something that I have to discuss with my family later on. I don't know."

McGahee, who added 24 receptions for 350 yards this season, has attracted scouts with his strength and speed. In addition to breaking five single-season rushing records, McGahee has also displayed above-average skills in blocking and pass-catching.

Gore will return next season to challenge for playing time after having surgery in October to repair a torn knee ligament, which makes McGahee's departure all the more reasonable. Many observers have pointed out that after such a break-out season coming back to share the position with Gore would make little sense for McGahee. Some of the arguments posed: Why would McGahee share reps after proving so much this season? Why would he come back to school and risk an injury, washing out a potentially large signing bonus? Why stay and take a chance at hurting your status in the draft?

Wilfork, who is only in his second season at Miami, is 21-years-old and still has a lot of things to learn. But the 6-2, 355-pounder has a quick first step and the upper-body strength that have people dangling him as a middle first-round pick. Wilfork said before the Virginia Tech game that he was staying in school. Although his father passed away last summer and his mother is currently ill. His decision could change if he is advised of a significant signing bonus in the draft.

"I still have a lot of things that I need to get better at," said Wilfork, who has recorded 42 overall tackles, 12 tackles for losses and seven sacks this season. "But the opportunity might be there so I it's something I may have to take a look at."

Vilma, who has a team-leading 119 tackles, is considered the defensive leader and has earned the reputation of being a hard-nosed player. But a lot of it is based on Vilma's knack for sniffing out plays before they even develop. A punishing hitter with above-average speed, Vilma could use another season at UM to get stronger. Vilma, one of the smartest players on the team, hasn't divulged his intentions.

Williams has alarmed the coaching staff at times by making plays although he had no idea what he was doing. Despite a likely second or third round if he comes out Williams might be encouraged to stay in school to improve on his overall skills. Regardless all of them will be in the NFL before long.

Since 1984, the University of Miami has turned out more selections (63) in the first three rounds of the NFL draft than any other school in the country. The Hurricanes have had 32 and 18 players taken in the first and second rounds of the annual draft, respectively. The University of Florida is second on list of first-round selections during the same time period with 25, while Tennessee has had 17 second-round draft picks.

Current New York Jets back-up quarterback and former Hurricane Vinny Testaverde was the first overall selection of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers in 1987 and retired defensive lineman Russell Maryland, who played at UM from 1986-1990, was the No. 1 pick of the draft in 1991 by the Dallas Cowboys.

It's hard to tell if any of this year's UM NFL draft hopefuls will be taken with the first pick. But one thing is certain: The Hurricanes will undoubtedly have a big impact in the draft.

"The University of Miami is stock piled with talent everywhere," said ESPN college football analysis Kirk Herbstreit. "You might as well take licenses away from NFL scouts if they're not paying any attention."

That being the case, the unemployment line should be pretty scarce of NFL scouts.

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