They were top 10 players coming out of high school with offers to just about every school, and barring injuries, it just seemed inevitable they'd walk across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, shake the commissioner's hand and hold a jersey up as they are expected to do on Thursday night.
But for every sure thing, there are unheralded prospects like wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jerrel Jernigan and running back Derrick Locke who had but a few offers, a dream and the desire to make it come true. And over the course of of the three-day NFL draft, they're likely to hear their name called and turn that dream into a reality.
Locke, a member of the Class of 2007, was an electrifying running back from Oklahoma who ran for over 3,200 yards and 53 scores as a senior. Problem was he weighed 175 pounds and that scared many schools from recruiting him as a running back. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State recruited him as a defensive back, but he wanted to play running back so he enrolled at Northeast Oklahoma A&M, a junior college in Miami, Okla., to prove he could play the position at the next level.
"What people don't realize is that we played 13 games that year and I bet he didn't play in the fourth quarter in seven of those games. Nobody wanted him as a running back," said Tommy Bare, his high school coach at Hugo. "But he had his heart set on playing that position. He was all set on going to JUCO route to prove himself."
Locke was also a track star and in his final weeks of high school he ran in the state track meet. He ran a 10.6 100 meters and set the state record in the long jump (25'4¾"].
"That caught Kentucky's eye and they brought him in as a track guy," Bare said. "After that, some other schools jumped on him like Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State. But it was too late. He was going to Kentucky to run track and hope to catch on with the football team."
Locke arrived in Lexington that June. He was given basically a three-week window to show the football coaches what he could do on the gridiron and immediately impressed then coach Rich Brooks and former assistant and current coach Joker Phillips. He earned a football scholarship and quickly became an impact player for the Kentucky Wildcats.
"He was a great player for us from the opening day," Phillips said. "No one from our staff ever saw him play prior. But boy did we like what we saw then. From the very first practice he was one of the best in that class. He made the team that August. We knew then that he had lots of talent."
Talent, plus an attitude prove the football world that they were wrong about him and the desire to work hard to make it happen.
"I wasn't his coach then but I am a hometown guy and I have known Derrick for a while," said longtime friend Courtney Lattimore. "I see him work out and his work ethic is unreal. Derrick is very gifted and he gets up every day like he has a point to prove to someone. Everyone doubted him because of his size and look how things turned out."
Locke, who played as a true freshman, finished his Kentucky career with 2,618 rushing yards, 22 touchdowns and caught 95 passes and now projects as a fourth- or fifth-round pick in the NFL draft.
"What I like about Locke is that he runs hard," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay. "He's such a competitor who has speed and quickness. He can pull away from people. Derrick Locke has a lot of ability."
Locke soon was joined by another overlooked prospect when Cobb was signed by Kentucky in 2008. Cobb was a star quarterback for Tennessee power Alcoa and while he was a ranked player (No. 86 in the ESPNU 150), teams never really seemed to warm up to him until late in the process.
"We always saw greatness in Randall," said Alcoa coach Gary Rankin. "We saw character and great work habits. But we didn't blow him up as much as we should have. We didn't have another quarterback and we didn't use him like we really wanted to because our games got out of control. We would get a lead and sit on it. Always the end result was to win the state championship [Alcoa has won seven straight state championships] and we used him accordingly. You can definitely say that he fly under the radar in high school."
The Wildcats offered Cobb during the summer of his junior year after having him at their summer camp. He committed to Brooks and Kentucky and stayed true to his word, especially when some programs jumped on him very late in the recruiting process.
"Randall is just one of those very loyal guys," Phillips said. "Tennessee and a few other teams came on him late but he never wavered with us. He's a loyal guy that was with us the entire time."
Cobb, like Locke, showed up at Kentucky with a great work ethic and the attitude to be a difference maker for the Wildcats.
"The thing about Randall is that he has so much confidence," Phillips said. "When he came in he took over the room. He was a leader and a great player. He came him as a quarterback but we knew we would likely have to project him and he did a little of everything for us."
In three years, he rushed for 1,313 yards, had 1,661 receiving yards and 35 touchdowns. He also passed for 689 yards and five scores.
"I knew he would be a great player for Kentucky," Rankin said. "I knew he could play in the SEC and play well. He's very motivated and that's the one thing that sets him apart from everyone else. That's a little different element that he and Derrick have. They are both very driven."
Cobb will likely be selected on Day 2 of the NFL draft.
"I think he's a mid-second rounder," McShay said. "If he had more top end speed Cobb would likely be a first-round guy. Cobb is so versatile and great with the ball in his hands. He's a creative runner and versatile. Cobb can play in the slot, maybe some Wildcat and be a return guy. You just want to get the ball to him in space."
Jernigan was a quarterback for Eufala (Ala.) Etowah High School and a member of the Class of 2007. He was an option quarterback who played well but had no takers except for Troy.
"Jerrel just got over looked," said Kenny Edenfield, Troy's offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach. "Some SEC schools flirted with him but his size and academics were borderline. That gave him motivation."
Jernigan, who played as a true freshman, came to Troy with a good work ethic and while it sounds odd, he learned how to practice.
"That was the main thing," Edenfield said. "Once he practiced better he got more snaps on field. The last two seasons he was a really good practice player and we used him more and more. As sophomore he was our No. 1 guy at his spot. His junior year we moved him around. By the time he graduated he played everywhere, including some Wildcat for us."
Work ethic aside, one thing that sets Jernigan apart is his character off the field.
"Jerrel was like an ambassador for Troy football. He's a wonderful person with a great personality. That's what sets him apart from everyone else," Edenfield said. "Sure he has great skills; quickness, phenomenal speed and really strong hands. He can really snatch the ball out of the air. Jerrel will only get better. Whoever picks him will be glad they got him."
Jernigan finished his Troy career with 262 receptions for 3,128 yards and 18 touchdowns. At 5-9 and 185 pounds, McShay believes Jernigan could be taken in the third round.
"He's a little faster than Cobb," McShay said. "And he can do a lot of things Cobb can. I worry a little about his knee [injured in 2008]. He reminds me of Dexter McCluster. He's explosive, shifty and quick."
Business as usual in Blacksburg
Frank Beamer and the Hokies keep humming along. Virginia Tech has won as consistently as anyone over the past decade, yet are hardly considered a recruiting power. The formula is simple for Beamer & Co.: Pound their home-state hard and find athletes who make a difference in Blacksburg on offense, defense and special teams.
So it's not surprising the Hokies landed a trio of commitments that fit that exact profile in running back J.C. Coleman (Chesapeake, Va./Oscar Smith), athlete Der'Woun Greene (Portsmouth, Va./Woodrow Wilson) and safety Desmond Frye (Chester, Va./Thomas Dale). Virginia Tech now has eight commitments for its 2012 recruiting class.
"J.C. is bringing a whole lot of speed to Virginia Tech," said Oscar Smith coach Richard Morgan. "He's just a home run threat and he has some power too. J.C. has great hands out of the backfield and is just a versatile player. He's the type of player that changes your offense because he can score from anywhere on the field."
Coleman, 5-6 and 170 pounds, will be a welcomed addition to the Virginia Tech offense, especially considering Ryan Williams and Darren Evans are both headed to the NFL. That's a big reason why Coleman selected Virginia Tech over Maryland, Duke, West Virginia and others.
"I think it really helped that Virginia Tech is going to have two guys drafted this weekend in the NFL," Morgan said. "He likes that history there. They have David Wilson coming back so the depth chart to him is very attractive. He also knows that Virginia Tech always has a strong running game. It's close to home as well. All of that was appealing to him."
Frye, 6-3 and 175 pounds, is likely to play in the secondary despite the fact many recruited him as a wide receiver.
"Desmond is an athlete who can play either side of ball," Thomas Dale coach Kevin Tuker said. "He's a big play guy who can go up top and get the ball. Desmond runs sharp routes and is very physical. But Virginia Tech likes more on defense at safety. He covers so much ground and he can hit you. I mean thump you. Desmond is also very good in coverage. I know he can carry 200 pounds easily."
Last season he recorded 60 plus tackles, had four interceptions, and caused three fumbles.
"That staff did a great job of recruiting him," Tucker said. "It was more of a gut feeling for him and in the end it felt more at home there. He loves that coaching staff and really trusts those guys. He also developed a great relationship with Shane Beamer."
Greene, 5-10 and 170 pounds, could be the most athletic of the bunch. He plays quarterback for his high school team but will likely line up in the slot or even outside receiver in Blacksburg.
"Der'Woun is just an amazing athlete, who works hard and does every right," Woodrow Wilson coach Curtis Williams said. "He's our quarterback and he plays there because he's our best athlete. He's so gifted, very coachable and very knowledgeable. He can run and has quickness. It's nice for him because Virginia Tech is the school where he has wanted to go since he was a little kid."
Ole Miss picks up two
South Panola High School in the Magnolia State has always been good to the Ole Miss Rebels. And this week was no different as Houston Nutt and his staff landed a pair of defensive prospects from the school in Temario Strong and Isaac Gross.
"First and foremost they are both two, hard-nosed, blue-collar, old-fashioned Mississippi football players," said Lance Pogue, South Panola's coach. "They are not on everyone's recruiting lists but they can certainly play. They both have started 30 games and won two state titles and a national title for us. They are two winners with a great attitude."
Strong, 6-1» and 220 pounds, plays outside linebacker for South Panola.
"I think his future is inside or as an outside guy that rushes the passer," Pogue said. "He has great speed, is a very good athlete and is strong."
Gross, 6-2 and 250 pounds, is a versatile defensive line prospect who Pogue believes could line up anywhere.
"He's a little but undersized for defensive tackle in the SEC right now but I can see him eventually playing all four spots up front," Pogue said. "Isaac's quick and he has strength and speed. He's got to be one of top sack guys in Mississippi. He can really penetrate and get off ball."
South Panola has been one of the most successful high school football programs over the last two decades. It has won nine state titles since 1993 and its 2011 edition will be strong once again led by Gross, Strong and a few talented rising juniors.
"I have two guys next year that will be national guys and they are both drawing major attention already," Pogue said. "Safety Antonio Conner and offensive tackle Deon Mix are two guys that are as good as we have had here."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.