Crunch time for ex-Vol$

Anyone who follows the National Football League Draft knows that a guy's college resume' has surprisingly little impact on his attractiveness to NFL scouts.

For instance:

Quarterbacks Chris Leak (Florida) and Troy Smith (Ohio State) led their respective teams to the BCS Championship Game a year ago. Leak won the national title and Smith won the Heisman Trophy, yet Smith lasted until late in Round 5 of last spring's NFL Draft and Leak wasn't selected at all.

Some collegians pile up gaudy statistics against inferior opposition. Smith, for instance, was a running quarterback in a conference (Big Ten) lacking in fleet-footed defenders.

Some collegians benefit from playing in a system tailored expressly for them. Former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, for instance, was phenomenal in the Gators' passing attack but lacked the arm strength to make a splash in the NFL.

Some collegians benefit from having a fantastic supporting cast. Wuerffel, Smith and Leak all fall into this category.

Given all of this, pro scouts often reserve judgment on college prospects until they see them in all-star competition and/or combine workouts. That's why several University of Tennessee seniors could make – or lose – an awful lot of money in the next few weeks.

Safety Jonathan Hefney, though he was a preseason All-American, had a disappointing senior season for the Vols. All will be forgiven, though, if he performs well in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19, along with the workouts leading up to it.

Houston will be swarming with pro scouts, so Hefney is sure to be measured, weighed, timed and tested dozens of times. He'll be interviewed and evaluated. Blowing a question during the interview process could be almost as damaging as blowing a coverage in the all-star game itself.

If Hefney performs well in Houston – on the field and off – he'll increase his draft stock. That, in turn, will increase his signing bonus.

Should Hefney perform poorly in Houston – on the field and off – he'll drop down NFL draft boards like a stone dropping down a dried well.

Hefney isn't the only ex-Vol whose financial future could be significantly impacted in the coming weeks, though.

Tight end Brad Cottam, though coming off an injury-plagued UT career, has the size (6-8, 265) and speed to make a ton of money in the NFL if he stays healthy and performs well in the Senior Bowl Jan. 26 at Mobile.

Three more ex-Vols get to showcase their wares Feb. 2 in the Texas Versus The Nation all-star game at El Paso – defensive ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds, along with H-back Chris Brown.

With so much money at stake, the pressure to perform is enormous. Can you imagine auditioning for a job with a national television audience watching?

The pressure may be a little more bearable for Cottam and Hefney, however. Even if they underachieve in the all-star games, they'll get a second chance to show off for NFL scouts Feb. 21-24 at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

Also on hand at the Indiana Convention Center will be ex-Vol quarterback Erik Ainge and offensive tackle Eric Young. Coming off injuries, both will be subjected to rigorous testing by the assembled NFL scouts.

Ainge, projected anywhere from Round 1 to Round 5 in the draft, must prove he has recovered from finger and shoulder injuries that hampered him last fall. Young, a former High School All-American who finally blossomed as a Vol senior, must prove he is completely healed from a quadriceps injury that ended his senior season prematurely.

After four years spent playing for books and tuition, it's time to play for pay.


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