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On draft day, NFL turns to UM

Miami is peerless in producing top prospects and has at least five likely first-rounders this year.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published April 20, 2004

Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork knew about the University of Miami's record of producing NFL players, but not until he jumped offside during a game did he truly understand how the pipeline worked. The first person to reach him on the sideline was not a coach or a teammate.

It was a mentor.

A big guy named Cortez Kennedy, whose credentials included being an All-American at Miami in 1989, the third pick in the 1990 NFL draft and a Pro Bowl selection with the Seahawks in 1991.

"He'd come down for a lot of our games," Wilfork said. "He tells me what works and what won't. He's a defensive tackle from UM, so I'm going to listen to him. ... That's the University of Miami. We have a tradition of defensive tackles."

And linebackers.

And quarterbacks.

And safeties.

And receivers ...

The list goes on for the school that has produced a staggering 36 first-round picks the past 20 years, more than any other school by far. And with five Hurricanes, possibly six, projected to go in the first round Saturday, the gap between Miami and second-place Florida, with 26, is only going to grow.

Along with UM's reputation.

"You feel good about Miami's players because they come in and really compete," said Ruston Webster, the Bucs' director of college scouting. "They never come in wide-eyed. They have a swagger. They come in ready. There's usually not a huge learning curve with their players. They're very competitive, very tough."

Miami has had at least one player taken in the first round every year since 1995, when the Bucs took defensive tackle Warren Sapp 12th overall. Thirteen Hurricanes were drafted in the first round the past three years: four in 2003, five in 2002 (three months after UM won its fifth national championship) and four in 2001. Throw in this year's crop and it's almost enough for a full-pads scrimmage.

This year, safety Sean Taylor, tight end Kellen Winslow, defensive tackle Wilfork and linebackers D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma are among the best in the nation at their positions, with either linebacker a possible first-round pick of the Bucs at No.15. Guard Vernon Carey also could go in the first round.

"It's a self-perpetuating thing," said Butch Davis, who coached at UM from 1995 to 2000 before leaving to coach the NFL's Browns. "Once you get it going, if you'll do the due diligence and do the work, you can keep it going forever."

Not only is the talent pool in the state of Florida extremely rich, but the Hurricanes also attract top players from throughout the country. The atmosphere is highly competitive, and not just on game day.

"It's the type of program that attracts extraordinarily competitive players," Davis said. "Phenomenal competition took place just in practice. It really, truly drove guys. You could never be satisfied because the other guys wouldn't let you. ...

"Pro coaches look at the phenomenal track records of the highly competitive players who come into the league: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jeremy Shockey, Dan Morgan. All of that had its gestation period during their years in college. It was bred into them."

Miami's accomplished alumnus pay frequent visits to the campus, sharing their NFL experiences and offering tips. Their UM proteges not only absorb the valuable information but feel honor-bound to take their place in line.

"It gives me a lot of confidence," Williams said. "Guys come back and tell us what it's like at the next level. During the summertime, Mike Barrow is there working out with us, showing us little things to make us better. I think it makes it a lot easier for us."

Davis, whose Browns roster on May 1, 2003, boasted a league-high nine former UM players, predicted that of the roughly 100 players in the program when he left in 2000, half had a chance to spend at least some time on an NFL roster. He was most proud of the players recruited during his first two seasons, when NCAA sanctions limited the Hurricanes to 12 and 13 recruits, down from 25.

"The foundation on which we chose 95 percent of those kids started with character," Davis said. "We were under so much pressure and so much scrutiny to turn the image of the program around. Eventually we were hitting about 60 to 70 percent of the players with at least a chance to get drafted. Then our scholarships went up and our record went up and the rest is history."

[Last modified April 20, 2004, 01:20:37]


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