Former Sooners get fresh starts in the NFL

Former Sooners Tommie Harris, Dan Cody, Mark Clayton (pictured above), Brandon Jones and Jason White talk about life in the NFL. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

It is well into the summer and a number of talented Oklahoma Sooners are trying to make their mark in the NFL. Many were high draft picks and many will have no trouble making their respective teams. However, no matter how good you are making your mark in the NFL as a rookie is no easy task.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with five former Sooners who are trying to make it in the NFL. Well, one is totally established already in the NFL, but is working hard to turn around a losing team in his outstanding rookie year in the NFL. All have been in camps thus far this summer, and all are getting ready for the big camp which gets underway in July.

Tommie Harris is the prototypicak defensive tackle that coaches on the Bob Stoops' staff try to recruit to. Harris was the best athlete to play defensive tackle since the great Lee Roy Selmon, and that ability landed him in the first round with the Chicago Bears. Harris started every game of his rookie season with the Bears, just missing out on Rookie of the Year honors.

"My rookie year was alright.It was certainly a learning experience for me," said Harris. "It is hard to win Rookie of the Year and honors like that playing defensive tackle. Like I told Coach Stoops when I was at OU, it is easier to obtain accolades when you are on a winning team. I know playing at OU that the awards were going to come. I didn't get Rookie of the Year because I played on a team that went 5 -11. They gave it to a guy whose team won two games in the playoffs and it was well deserved. All I can do is just impact on next year's season, and I am looking forward to it."

The young talent the Bears played with last year will be a year older, and Harris expects big things out of the Bears this season.

"I am so anxious to get going," said Harris. "We just expect the best from the Bears. A lot of people are slipping on us and all they can remember is our 5 -11 season, but I tell you to expect big things from the Chicago Bears."

Dan Cody played All-American football at OU at defensive end and was a second round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan says Cody was the one player he hoped the Ravens could sign because of his versatility. Thus far, that is proving out as he is playing Cody at two different positions, and Cody is out to prove that teams that passed on him dropping him to the second round made a mistake.

"When the day came around for us to test I knew that I was not a guy that was going to break all these records at the combine," said Cody recently from the NFL Rookie Orientation. "That is not what makes me special. What makes me special is what Coach Schmidt did with me, making me mentally tough on the football field. Unfortunately, when teams go look at players a lot of times they forget to look at film and just look at what a guy does on paper. They just look at how good of athletes they are on paper.

"It kind of had the reverse effect on me as they looked at what I did on paper and they forgot to look at what I did on film. I felt like there were very few defensive players in college football that did what I did on film, and that got disregarded on pro day."

"Things are going well for me in Baltimore," Cody continued. "Baltimore is a great fit for a guy like me because the Ravens use those guys that are kind of in-between guys, like me. You know guys that can cover a tight end and a guy that can get across the field because of his speed, but who also is a guy who is a good end rusher. There is not a bunch of pressure on me to be 275 pounds and play defensive end 90 snaps a game. I am kind of a utility player. That is how they are going to use me and I couldn't be any happier with how things worked out."

"Obviously I thought I was a solid first round pick and that didn't happen," Cody continued. "Looking back on it now, I couldn't be any happier with the way things are. I am kind of under the radar, which is where I like to be. I don't feel as much pressure as I would if I was a first round pick. People aren't up in my business near as much, and I am kind of slipping between the cracks. People are not forgetting about me, but I am not feeling all the pressure that a lot of people feel and that pressure is hard to deal with some times. That is especially true when you are making the transition from college to the NFL, but I could honestly not be any happier where I am and where I am with the coaches at Baltimore, who are great people. They are really excited and really working hard with me. They are doing everything they can to help me make that transition to linebacker as easy as they can on me. They feel comfortable with what they drafted in me and I couldn't be happier."

Exactly how many positions will Cody play in Baltimore this year?

"I am a back-up rush defensive end and a back-up 'SAM' linebacker," said Cody. "I am backing up two Pro Bowlers, so it doesn't bother me that much that I am not starting. I know that I am going to get plenty of opportunities to play. They are not just bringing me in here to be some guy on the practice squad. There is nothing wrong with that, but they are definitely looking for me to make an impact at some point during the season. That will be early on I am sure. I also will play on special teams."

Cody has the advantage of going through his new experience with fellow former Sooners Mark Clayton, Trent Smith and Kelly Gregg, which he admits has been a huge advantage for him.

"They are all doing really well. Learning form guys like Kelly and Trent, who have been in pro ball for a while, has been invaluable," said Cody. "I think Mark has the biggest opportunity to have biggest impact for a first rounder this year. I really believe that. Mark's abilities are phenomenal, and he is going to make a difference this year. Trent is doing really well and this summer had been his first time to practice in two years because of his injury (broken leg). He is trying to get back into the mix, and that is a tough thing to do. The NFL is a business and when you get hurt you sometimes have a tendency to slip. He hasn't been able to play for two years. The Ravens have made do without him and now he is trying to shove his way back in the mix. I know the coaches always have good things to say about him, so I think the guy is definitely going to be with us this year.

Mark Clayton has been a big hit thus far with the Baltimore Ravens, having already moved into the starting line-up.

"Things are going outstanding. I absolutely love it there," said Clayton recently from the NFL Rookie Orientation. "The players are great and the coaches are awesome. They are great teachers and seem to love to teach the game. I believe that the players who have been there and the coaches can make the transition for a player like me as easy and they want to make it. They do a really good job here in Baltimore of helping you understand things and to put it in its simplest form.

"So far, everything that they have thrown at me I have taken it in and studied it and learned it inside and out. I am just trying to get to the point that when they call my name that I can go out and produce for the team and make sure they don't have to worry. I live with the quarterback Kyle Boller, and he is just a silly kid like me, but on the field, he is very serious. I think he is really to take a giant step forward."

Clayton figures to get better in practice as he lines up against Samari Rolle and some of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL.

"I get to go against Samari some and it is a great just to sit back and watch those guys," said Clatyon. "They not only have Samari, but they have Pro Bowl cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Deion Sanders. I am going against them, but I wouldn't say I am having a lot of luck. I lose as many battles as I win with those guys."

Wide Receiver Brandon Jones was a third round pick of the Tennessee Titans, and from all accounts has been one of the biggest surprises in camp. The Titans go into this season looking for some playmakers at wide receiver, and Jones has been able to provide just that so far in training camp.

"Things are going real well for me right now," said Jones recently the NFL Rookie Orientation. "I am really enjoying myself. I think I am developing a good relationship with our quarterback — Steve McNair — and I think he is developing a trust in me. I think Jason (White) is throwing the ball well, and when we get a chance to hook up it feels like we are dominating at OU again. I think Jason has a great chance to make our team, but we both have a long way to go."

Speaking of Mr. White, the former Heisman Trophy winner is going through camp just like you would expect. He is going one day, one hour, one minute at a time through training camp as he tries to stick with the Titans.

"I think things are going pretty well," said White. "I am studying the playbook every day and trying to learn it in a hurry. I feel a lot more confident, and it shows on the plays that I have down pat than on plays that I am unsure about. I think anybody would feel the same way. At each practice I get better and I know that I am talented enough to play on this team and in this league. The competition is tough, and I don't get a lot of reps at practice so when I get them I have to make sure that I take advantage of them. I love the competition and I can't wait to get into a scrimmage and a game."

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