Undrafted but undaunted

Believe it or not, learning how to PRACTICE football can be almost as important as learning how to play football.

That's why ex-Tennessee Vols Xavier Mitchell, Antonio Reynolds, Jonathan Hefney and Eric Young – all of whom settled for free-agent deals after being snubbed during the recent NFL Draft – need to keep their chins up. Based on historical precedent, they still have a pretty good shot at making pro rosters.

The fact is, Tennessee has a long history of free-agent signees who wound up distinguishing themselves in "The League."

One of the most successful was safety Bill Bates. Passed over in the 1983 NFL Draft, he signed a free-agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys and stuck with the team for a whopping 15 years – proving to be one of the finest special-teams players of his era.

Vol teammate J.J. McCleskey, another 1983 free-agent signee, went on to spend eight productive seasons in the NFL. Like Bates, McCleskey was a special-teams standout whose value was further enhanced by the ability to fill in at wide receiver and safety.

Daryle Smith, whose offensive line coach in the mid-1980s was one Phillip Fulmer, went unselected in the 1986 NFL Draft but still spent 10 years in pro ball – six in the NFL and four in the Canadian Football League.

Bubba Miller, though a four-year starter at guard and center for UT, was not picked by a single pro team in 1996. Undrafted but undaunted, he spent the next seven years in the NFL.

Receiver Eric Parker, injury plagued during his Vol career, got healthy in time to sign a free-agent deal in 2002. He's still playing in the NFL.

Incredibly, three Vols who were overlooked in the 2004 draft – cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Rashad Baker and offensive lineman Anthony Herrera – are still drawing NFL paychecks.

Tennessee's most recent free agent-makes-good story is defensive tackle Tony McDaniel. Undrafted in 2006, he recently completed his second season as a key backup for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

When asked why so many undrafted Vols have been able to buck the odds and make NFL rosters via the free-agent route, Fulmer answered without hesitation.

"There's an innate mental toughness about our team because we go about our business that way," the Vols' head man said. "A lot of (pro scouts) tell me the reason so many of our players who are drafted late or signed as free agents make NFL teams is because they know how to practice and they're good fundamentally.

"Sometimes people get so caught in in schemes and everything that the coaches forget to teach 'em to play football."

Several of the UT players mentioned above caught on with NFL clubs because of their willingness to play special teams and fill in at multiple positions. NFL coaches love that kind of team-first attitude.

"Our guys know how to work," Fulmer said. "They know how to practice. They know how to please a coach. They know how to play special teams. They know what 'team' is."

And, as a result, they know what it feels like to draw an NFL paycheck.


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