Athletes tend to preach about never looking back, but at this time of the year, football players often commit that very cardinal sin.
The NFL draft, which starts Saturday and runs into Sunday, has a way of either making players thankful for a successful final season in college or lamenting their lack of it. Two Gophers prospects stand on either side of that fence.
Lamanzer Williams had started only four games in his first three years at Minnesota, compiling five sacks. New head coach Glen Mason and his staff moved Williams from outside linebacker to defensive end in 1997, and the results were unexpectedly spectacular.
Williams tied for first in the nation with 18.5 sacks, and was named first-team All-American, the first Gopher to receive that honor since 1971. That one outstanding season has helped vault Williams into serious draft consideration.
The CNN/SI mock draft has the Ypsilanti, Mich., native going late in the third round (82nd, to the New England Patriots, for whatever that’s worth). Williams said he’s heard he’ll go anywhere from the second to the fourth rounds, but said he’s not too concerned because he’s proven he’s good enough to play in the NFL.
“I’m the type of guy, that all I need is a chance and I’ll impress people,” Williams said. “Obviously you want to get as much money as you can get up front. But I’m not putting too much focus on the draft. Right now I’m physically and mentally preparing myself to go to camp and do the things that made me successful last year. Where you get drafted doesn’t say who can go on and be all-pros and have the most success in that league.”
While Williams knows his individual success last season has made him a pro prospect, he said he thinks the lack of team success by the Gophers over his career has definitely worked against him.
“When you haven’t had much success, you sort of feel they overlook you a little bit,” Williams said. “After I get my shot I’m trying to single-handedly make sure they never sleep on Minnesota again. I look at it like this: If you see a guy from Florida State lead the nation in sacks, he’s a top five or top 10 pick. I don’t really feel like the pros respect our program too much.”
Still, quarterback Cory Sauter is on the lonelier side of the fence. Unlike Williams, Sauter had plenty of success before his senior season. He was already second in school history in completions and passing yards and third in touchdown passes before 1997. The Sporting News rated him as the fourth-best quarterback in the country.
Unlike Williams, Sauter did not have a productive senior year. The one thing the players’ opposite directions had in common was that both were because of changes made by coaches. Williams made a position change, and Sauter had to endure a philosophical change, going from a passing offense to a running one. Sauter didn’t complain then, and he doesn’t want to start now.
“I don’t really have any regrets,” Sauter said. “It would’ve been nice to have the same offense. I ran that offense for many years and I had good command of it. It probably would’ve helped out my senior year quite a bit, but that was something I couldn’t control.”
If he gets drafted, Sauter figures he’ll go to a team in the late rounds (fifth through seventh) looking for a backup. Pro Football Weekly rates Sauter as the 12th-best quarterback in the draft, but that ranking might not carry too much merit. After Tennessee’s Peyton Manning and Washington’s Ryan Leaf, who are expected to go one-two in the first round, drafting a quarterback might be a crapshoot.
“Besides Leaf and Manning in the first round, there’s a drop-off after that,” Sauter said. “A lot of teams aren’t going to waste a pick in the first three rounds on someone who’s not established.”
Even if he’s not drafted, Sauter, along with other Gophers fringe prospects Tutu Atwell and Ryan Thelwell, both wide receivers, isn’t quite ready to end his football career. Walking on a team as a free agent is always a possibility. The most likely place for Sauter to go in that situation is Detroit, where ex-Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn now serves in the same capacity.
“I’ve talked to him over the last couple weeks,” Sauter said. “They might or might not draft a quarterback in the late rounds, but if I would go undrafted they said it would be a good place to go as a free agent. It’s good to know that there are a few teams I’d feel comfortable going to even if I wouldn’t get drafted.”