Three Vols sign deals after 51-year NFL draft streak ends

Three Vols sign deals after 51-year NFL draft streak ends

May 3rd, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Former Tennessee defensive back Justin Coleman runs during NFL Pro Day on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Michael Patrick)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- As the rounds and picks of the NFL draft continued to roll by Saturday afternoon, Justin Coleman began to get anxious.

The former Tennessee cornerback knew the day would end with him getting his NFL shot.

The only question, as the 2015 draft neared its end, was if the historical streak largely in his hands -- through no fault of his own -- would come to an end.

"Can Justin Coleman go, please?" former Tennessee defensive back and now analyst Charles Davis pleaded on NFL Network's draft coverage before the 256th and final pick was announced.

When he didn't, the streak was over.

For the first time since 1963 -- a span of 51 years -- the Volunteers didn't have a player selected in the NFL draft.

Coleman wound up signing a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings, while two other former Vols, punter Matt Darr and defensive lineman Jordan Williams, agreed to deals with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, respectively.

Tennessee's Matt Darr {CQ}, No. 5, runs the ball after a blocked punt in this file photo.

Tennessee's Matt Darr {CQ}, No. 5, runs the...

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

"I was thinking maybe I was going to get picked up, and this is my time, as the rounds kept going through," Coleman said by phone Saturday night. "As they kept going by, I kept seeing guys (picked) that I felt that I'm probably better than, but I ended up not getting picked. It was frustrating that in a seven-round draft I wasn't picked.

"It was frustrating, but I am relieved just to know that I'm able to get an opportunity. At the beginning, that's all I asked for, was the opportunity to try out for a team or play for a team, just to show my abilities and strive to be the best."

Tennessee's streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft was the sixth-longest in college football, trailing only Michigan and Southern California (76 years to 1939), Michigan State (75 years to 1940), Florida (63 years to 1952) and Nebraska (52 years to 1963).

Tennessee defensive lineman Jordan Williams (54) gets fans to yell during warmups in Knoxville in this file photo.

Tennessee defensive lineman Jordan Williams (54) gets fans...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Only three previous times -- 1938, 1960 and 1963 -- was Tennessee shut out of the draft, though the Vols recently came close with just one player picked in 2009 (first-rounder Robert Ayers) and 2012 (fifth-rounder Malik Jackson).

Brighter draft days are ahead for the Vols, who can expect a steadier stream of NFL prospects thanks to the high-level recruiting of third-year coach Butch Jones and his staff, but the end of the streak, even if it's a one-year blip, serves as a startling dose of reality for a program trying to fight its way out of an extended stretch of mediocrity.

After all, this is a program with an entire room in its football complex devoted to the 45 first-round NFL draft picks in its tradition-rich history.

With two-time All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson, the second-leading career tackler in Tennessee history, awaiting trial on rape charges and thus not an option for any NFL team, Coleman, the 5-foot-11, 188-pound former three-star recruit, was Tennessee's best hope of continuing the streak.

After strong showings at the East-West Shrine Game in January and the NFL combine in February helped his stock, Coleman said he was expecting to go in the fifth or sixth round Saturday, and one mock draft on NFL.com projected him to come off the board in the middle of the fifth round.

He was aware, too, he might wind up as an undrafted free agent, so he limited his expectations.

Thursday, Coleman posted a classy letter on his Twitter account in which he acknowledged his hopes to add and continue Tennessee's rich NFL draft history. The Vols' 337 draft picks rank first in the SEC and seventh in college football. The program's 26 first-round picks in the last 25 years are the sixth-most.

"I felt like it was very important to continue the streak, but sometimes you get put in positions for a reason," he said. "And I felt like I was put in a different position. Sometimes they say it's better to be a free agent than to get picked in the sixth or seventh round. Free agents probably helped me out and put me in a better position to be better."

Leading up to the draft, Coleman worked out for New England and Houston, and he had free-agent offers from Minnesota, Oakland and San Francisco.

The Vikings, he said, gave him "the best offer and the best opportunity."

With the weight of history and a hectic weekend behind him, Coleman now can focus on making the most of it.

"It already hit me because that's all I've been asking for, is the chance to play in the NFL," he said. "I'm going to take full advantage of it and make the best of it. Wherever I'm at, I'm going to do my best to make the team better, regardless of what position I'm playing or where they put me at."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


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