NFL draft: How choosing family, UTC made Cole Strange a first-round pick

In an alternate universe, Cole Strange is coming off his sixth and final season of college football at the Air Force Academy.

But in that universe, would Strange be in his current position in the real world - one where his name was called during the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night?

"I think that's a really good question," the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offensive lineman said earlier this week leading up to the draft, which was held in Las Vegas for the first time.

"I have kind of reflected on that, and in my opinion, I think the answer is no. I think that everything happens for a reason, and I think that I ended up at Chattanooga for the right reasons that things went the way they did."

Now he has ended up with the New England Patriots, who used the 29th pick on Strange. It's the earliest, by far, the Mocs have ever had a player drafted.

The standard bearer in that regard had been Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was selected 89th overall as a third-round pick in 1996.

Now it's Strange, who might have never been a Moc at all.

What caused the change of heart for Strange all those years ago as a college prospect out of Farragut High School?

For him, the answer is simple: family. The same family - his father Greg, his brother Dylan and his sister Anna - he planned to watch the draft with. The same family he planned to quietly celebrate with once he received the phone call about his future football home.

"I was very much into the Air Force Academy. I was into the military lifestyle, and I was interested in serving afterwards," he said. "I loved Colorado Springs when I was out there, the campus was great, the coaches were awesome. I was all for everything, but the sole reason I didn't end up going there is because of family. My family is close (in Knoxville), and if I would have gone to Chattanooga, they're closer. I'm not saying that in a way to downplay the way I felt about Chattanooga then, because I went and visited and I had several different coaches.

"I love the area, I was close to home and the football was good. But it was mainly about family."

So he became part of UTC's signing class for 2016, but an injury caused him to redshirt that year in the Mocs' eighth and final season under Russ Huesman. And when Strange got on the field in 2017, he had no clue what he was doing as an offensive lineman - because he'd spent his Farragut career as a tight end and defensive player.

But that year, in Tom Arth's first of two seasons leading the Mocs, Strange found his way onto the field due to a dearth of offensive linemen on a struggling team, and he basically had one goal: See defender, hit defender.

Strange played that 2017 season at 255 pounds, far smaller than the 300-plus he now carries on his 6-foot-6 frame, but earned a spot on Phil Steele's Freshman All-America team. And over a college career protracted in part by the coronavirus pandemic, that frame allowed him to make 44 starts (mostly at left guard), become a two-time winner of the Jacobs Blocking Award as the best offensive lineman in the Southern Conference and receive FCS All-America recognition from multiple outlets as a senior this past fall in Rusty Wright's third year as coach of the Mocs.

How did Strange's body change? Hard work.

When he would return to his hometown for breaks, he'd immediately call former Farragut head coach Eddie Courtney to let him into the weight room. Once in there alone - "He was better by himself," Courtney said - Strange would spend no less than 90 minutes and sometimes up to two hours in the weight room.

"It's what separates him," Courtney said recently. "I've had other guys ask me to unlock the weight room, and in 30 minutes, they are gone. But Cole has been that intense the last five years of college."

That intensity has caused problems at times on the field. Even in high school, Courtney would have to pull him out of drills just to make sure Strange didn't hurt anyone in practice. It wouldn't have been on purpose; it's just the way he plays: to the echo of the whistle.

That style, that tenacity, certainly played a part in getting him drafted.

But as of earlier this week, the idea of being an NFL player was something that hadn't quite sunk in for Strange, who has always wanted to be a pro but is now in the process of fantasy becoming reality after a busy few months that included trips to the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine.

No Farragut player had ever been drafted, and until Strange was selected late Thursday night, the most recent UTC player drafted was Corey Levin, who was a sixth-round pick in 2017, although other Mocs had reached the NFL outside of the draft since then.

"It won't sink in until it actually happens," Strange said as he looked ahead. "I don't really know how to explain it, but for the most part I've tried not to look too far ahead, you know what I mean? Because I try to stay focused on the here and now and make sure that I stay focused and continue to workout and work. I don't want to be in a situation whenever that time does come and I go to a team that I feel like a step behind because I haven't been working out.

"I can see some people getting the big head because you see things about you, people doing articles about how you're doing well, and obviously there's articles about people who said you're not doing well. I don't know. I guess I'm just trying to keep myself grounded the whole time."

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.