Small school, big dreams

After putting up big numbers at Elon, can Aaron Mellette produce against elite competition? AP Photo/Ben Liebenberg

MOBILE, Ala. -- For the first three days of Senior Bowl week, the second-floor lobby at the Renaissance Riverview Hotel played out like a scene from "Jerry Maguire."

Players gave each other dap and exchanged hugs. Displays by Senior Bowl sponsors promoted their high-protein drinks and high-tech moisture-wicking gear and high-tech video editing systems.

As the players walked through the lobby, they could be pulled aside to talk to one of the various sports radio jocks on radio row or chat with credentialed financial advisers. They could interview with representatives from all 32 NFL teams, who had commandeered every table and every comfy chaise longue in the area. And all day, they could snack on Krispy Kreme donuts from the dozens available on the tables next to the escalators.

By Thursday afternoon, the action in the lobby had slowed and the number of people had thinned. Most of the coaches and front-office personnel, who had seen what they needed to see at practice and heard what they needed to hear in interviews, had left. A few financial advisers remained. Thankfully, there were still fresh Krispy Kremes.

A few fans seeking autographs began to fill the lobby, and players' families began to arrive. And no family had a larger presence than the Mellettes from Sanford, N.C. There was mom Beverly; dad Merle; an uncle; sisters; aunts; and a grandmother. There were 17 relatives in all to greet Aaron Mellette, a record-setting wide receiver from tiny Elon University in Elon, N.C. The family hadn't seen him since Jan. 2, when he left for Miami to prep for this game.

"I'm excited that everyone is here," Aaron said. "Who wouldn't be excited with your family here?"

The Mellettes have every reason to be thrilled to be in Mobile, too, as Scouts Inc. projects Aaron to be selected in the middle rounds of the 2013 NFL draft. Aaron would be the first player from Elon to be tabbed since the Jacksonville Jaguars took Chad Nkang in the seventh round in 2007. If Mellette goes before the fourth round, he would be the second-highest draft pick in school history. Tight end Rich McGeorge went to the Green Bay Packers with the No. 16 pick in 1970.

"He's very lucky and happy to be here," Merle said. "He's surprised, like we are, coming from a small school where he had great opportunity. He's blown away.

"But he's never backed down from competition or the ability to compete on high level."

For Aaron, competing against players from bigger schools in major conferences in practice was eye-opening.

"It's been fun and humbling hanging with some of the top seniors in the country," Aaron said. "There's been nothing negative all. It's been a great learning experience.

"It's also brought out the competitor in me because you're learning from NFL coaches and they get to see how you interact with your teammates. It feels good to be here. It means I'm one of the elite seniors in the country and that I'm able to play with the SEC guys, the ACC guys, the Big Ten guys -- the guys I'm watching on TV or playing with on video games."

One of the reasons Mellette was invited to the Senior Bowl was that he put up ridiculous, video-game-type numbers in his four seasons at Elon. That he was in Mobile at all was something of a shock. Mellette was a late bloomer. He didn't play pee wee or Pop Warner football because, as Merle noted, Beverly was afraid her son would get hurt.

"We thought he may play basketball or baseball," Merle said.

But football found Aaron as much as Aaron found football. His high school, Southern Lee, opened in 2005, and Aaron, a sophomore, tried out for the team. He liked football for the challenge and the camaraderie.

"I liked the team attitude you get in football," Mellette said. "In basketball, you can depend on two or three guys to get you through. In football, you need 22 guys at all times. You have those bonds waking up at 6 in the morning and doing runs."

Mellette proved to be a quick study.

"We were at a new school; it was the first coaching staff, and it didn't have connections," Aaron said, "but someone reached out to Elon. They saw me in the spring before my senior season, and they offered me a scholarship on the spot."

After redshirting his first year for the Phoenix, Aaron showed flashes of the talent that eventually would lead him to the Senior Bowl. The first catch of his career was a 36-yard TD against Davidson. It would be one of two TDs and one of eight catches he would make in the 2009 season.

After that modest beginning, Mellette began to blossom. In 2010, he hauled in 86 catches for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning him first-team Southern Conference and second-team All-America honors. That campaign included an 18-catch, 195-yard, 2-TD game against a tough Richmond squad. That game had Merle believing his son could thrive playing the game.

"We said, 'Oooo-K, this kid can catch the ball,'" Merle said.

If Mellette's sophomore season made people start to take notice, his junior season -- and a stellar performance against an SEC school -- put him on the map. In Elon's 2011 season opener at Vanderbilt, Mellette made 11 catches for 180 yards and a TD. Merle was convinced.

"We watched the Vanderbilt game and said, 'Man, this boy can play,'" Merle recalled. "It seemed every time he was playing a big school, that's when Aaron played his best.

"The more you play like that, the more people start hearing about it."

Mellette's size (6-4½, 215 pounds) and above-average speed (4.55 in the 40) made him a nightmare to cover. He gathered in 113 receptions, 12 of them TDs, for 1,639 receiving yards, a Southern Conference record. It earned him another first-team all-conference honor, plus first-team All-America recognition. You make noise like that and even someone as grounded as Mellette starts to realize something that was once as inconceivable as making the NFL could soon turn into a reality.

"I never dreamed of being drafted, especially not when I went to an FCS school," Aaron said. "It never really crossed my mind until I got to my senior season."

Mellette's ability didn't escape the notice of North Carolina, the first opponent of 2012. The Tar Heels schemed to stop Mellette, who finished with two catches for nine yards in a 62-0 loss.

"I told him, 'You didn't have a good day today, but you gave it your best," Merle said. "The more people are aware of you, the more they are going to key on you.

"You have to counter and adjust to them."

Aaron rebounded from the UNC game with eight 100-plus yard games in the last 10 games of his career. He finished with 97 catches, 1,408 yards and 18 TDs, earning him his third consecutive first-team all-conference and second straight first-team All-America nods.

Yet as impressive as Mellette's Elon career was, he might not find his name being called the first two days. Scouts Inc. and ESPN's Todd McShay noted that Mellette's lack of elite speed might be the reason for that.

"I think he's in the third- or fourth-round range," McShay said. "He just doesn't separate very well. He's a big guy who can shield defenders, but his lack of suddenness and explosiveness hurts his potential.

"You can use him in the slot, use him outside and try to create mismatches. That would be the best fit. He's made some tough catches this week, and I've seen it on tape. A team won't spend a first- or second-round pick on him, but I think when you get into the third round, teams like the Texans and West Coast teams that value size could be in the mix."

After the Senior Bowl, Mellette will return to Miami, where he's been training with Pete Bommarito's Performance Systems, to prepare for the NFL draft combine in February. After the combine, Mellette will return to South Florida again to train before the draft in late April.

It's the prospect of being selected in the draft that makes this weekend in Mobile important for Aaron and his family. Getting together is what you do when a family member is prepping to play on his biggest stage to date. You pile seven people into one car for the 11-hour, 700-mile trip, and you put everyone else on a plane to make sure they see it.

It has been eight years since Aaron started playing football, five years since he was offered a scholarship to Elon and three years since his breakout sophomore season for the Phoenix. Still, Mellette's family members never imagined they'd be taking pictures with him and his white No. 33 jersey in the heart of the Senior Bowl headquarters.

"We're surprised, we're happy, we're elated for him," Merle said.

"I wish every father could feel what I feel right now."