Fresh Starts

Lane Johnson

Many of the high end draft prospects are former junior college stars. It was there where they had a fresh start and in some instances a transformation. Each has their own story and in some of these cases they are truly great stories. Star Lotulelei, Lane Johnson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Sheldon Richardson, Menelik Watson, Jesse Williams, and Sylvester Williams are all former JC stars.

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Fresh Starts Part 2

It doesn't matter where you go but what you do when you get there.

This old adage applies to many things in life and it certainly applies to football players.

A good number of prospects entering the 2013 NFL Draft got rerouted for various reasons. And if you look up and down the FoxSportsNext NFL Draft Top 100 players, many of the elite in this ranking first made a pit stop at a junior college. Big name prospects like defensive tackles Star Lotulelei, John Jenkins, Jesse Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Sylvester Williams, offensive linemen Lane Johnson, Menelik Watson and Kyle Long, wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Quinton Patton and defensive end Cornelius Carradine all had to go the junior college route before spending a season or two with their respective BCS programs.

It's a high number of former junior college standouts and they all should hear their name called at some point in the first or second round of this draft next month. While each name mentioned above has their own unique story they do all have one thing in common – they made the most of their junior college opportunity.

Double Dose At Saddleback
Perhaps there's no greater story of the NFL Draft than that of Menelik Watson. He grew up dirt poor in Manchester, England. He was a soccer player and after a serious injury he almost had his foot amputated as a 12-year old. He then took to boxing before turning to basketball. He moved to Spain and then earned a scholarship to the Marist College in the states. There, Watson realized he wouldn't become an NBA star.

Football was the next sport on his list. He solicited junior colleges all over the country asking them for a shot at a sport in which he knew absolutely nothing about. Then he found Mark McElroy at Saddleback Community College in California.

"He came to our school in June and asked if he could play football," recalled McElroy. "He was really big (6-7/320), athletic and very humble. He seemed like a good guy. You have to understand that this happens a lot. I get guys asking me to play all the time. So I told him to show up in August."

True to his word Watson showed up for fall camp.

"Menelik was ready to play," McElroy said. "He had a ton of athleticism and just needed an opportunity to show it. He played on the defensive line for one day and then we moved him to offensive [right] tackle. My goal was to have him start by game four and he did just that."

Watson played just that one semester and half a season for Saddleback. He was so good that the college football world came after him. He ended up signing with FSU over Oregon. He only spent one semester in Tallahassee and now he's headed to professional ranks having only played two years of football.

"Menelik became hot quickly," McElroy said. "I am not surprised. The kid is an incredible athlete. He's 6-7 and 325 pounds. He can dunk a basketball with ease. And he's so coachable."

Watson wasn't the only star on the line of scrimmage. Starting at left tackle was Kyle Long. Young was actually a baseball pitcher that played at Florida State. He had football offers out of high school but elected to play baseball for the Seminoles.

"It's no secret I was arrested for DUI on Jan. 3, 2009. It was a tipping point for me," said Long at the NFL Combine. "The next day I made the decision I wasn't going to be able to go back to Florida State University. There was stuff I needed to work on personally. I took a self-inventory and was able to start the process of recovery."

Long, the son Howie Long and brother of Chris Long [St. Louis Rams] gave up baseball for football after working in a surf shop in southern California. He made his way to Saddleback.

"You need to forget about the dad and his brother," McElroy said. "This guy on his own is a tremendous athlete. He could have also played college basketball. He's so explosive, powerful, nasty and tough and he's quick as a cat. Kyle is 6-foot-6 and 310-pounds and extremely athletic."

McElroy has been coaching for 30 years and a head coach for 21 years (14 at Saddleback). He's never had a pair of offensive tackles like Watson and Long.

"I will never have two like those again," McElroy said. "They are both freaks and special players. Barring injury they should have 10 years in the NFL. I was always very comfortable stepping off the bus with those two leading the way."

Long is the No. 3 ranked offensive guard and Watson is the No. 5 ranked offensive tackle.

First Name Fits This DT
Star Lotulelei (pronounced lo-too-leh-lay) was a three-star 245-pound defensive end from South Jordan (Utah) Bingham that actually signed with BYU out of high school in the Class of 2007. But he went and starred at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah because he didn't qualify. It didn't take Lotulelei long to live up to his first name.

"When he got here you could see his significant natural tools," said Tyler Edwards, Snow College's coach. "What jumped out was he ran so well and was so strong. And he was here when most kids his age would have been seniors in high school so he was actually a year head. This is a very gifted kid. What he does on the field as uncommon, especially at this level. Star was so strong and powerful. He could shut down any offensive play and made our practices hard and difficult."

Lotulelei, now 6-foot-2 and 311-pounds, is the draft's No. 2 ranked defensive tackle and a likely top ten pick. He left Snow College for Utah, where he was one of college football's best defensive tackles over the last two seasons.

"I am not surprised," Edwards said. "The last fall he was here I had a conversation with him in our weight room about him, the NFL and his potential. He was so humble that he didn't even recognize it yet. I told him he had a great chance and that surprised him. So where he's at today doesn't really surprise me. I am just really happy for him because he's such a good and respectful kid."

It was discovered that he had a heart condition at the NFL Combine. His draft status is unknown until doctors can get a handle as to what exactly is wrong. If all is okay there's no telling how high he could go in the NFL Draft. Lotulelei was cleared to participate for Utah's pro day yesterday and tested quite well.

Former QB Grows Into OT
There's no question that Oklahoma's Lane Johnson is one of the most intriguing offensive linemen in this year's draft. There are not too many right tackles that were former high school quarterbacks. Johnson, from Groveton, Texas, didn't have any D1 offers coming out of high school, only a few D1-AA opportunities. So Johnson elected to sign with Kilgore College, a junior college, hoping that would spurn D1 offers in the future.

"It's a unique story," said J.J. Eckert, Kilgore's coach. "He just wanted an opportunity to grow and get better. Lane thought he could do better than that."

In 2008, Johnson was a part time starter at quarterback for Kilgore. He shared the starting role with another signal caller. The following spring there was an injury to a tight end. So Eckert asked him to play tight end in practice one day because they were in a pinch at that position.

"We got to that following spring and Lane put on some weight," explained Eckert. "We were doing a goal line drill and one of our tight ends was hurt and we needed another. At the time he was 6-foot-6 and 250-pounds. I asked him to just go line up as a tight end and run through the C gap and hit whoever gets in his way. Well, Lane smoked one of our linebackers. From there the word got out and the rest is history."

Johnson only spent one year at Kilgore. Just from playing spot tight end during spring ball of his freshman season earned him scholarship opportunities from some major BCS programs. He picked Oklahoma. Looking back, Eckert said that Johnson almost decided to stay at Kilgore for his second season.

"Lane didn't want to leave," said Eckert. "But I advised him that he had to take this opportunity. He was a three for three guy that could red-shirt. He was this great big athlete and he could run."

Once in Norman he moved from tight end to defensive end and then ultimately over to right tackle as a junior before playing left tackle as a senior. Now he's the No. 3 ranked offensive tackle prospect going into the draft after 23 starts at tackle. Johnson has been one of the hottest offensive line prospects since the Senior Bowl in January.

"To be honest, I never saw this coming," Eckert said. "You have to remember that he came from a small 2A high school. He wasn't living in the weight room 365 days a year. He was playing football but also playing other sports. Just think about this, he was 215-pounds in high school. He was 303-pounds at the combine and he ran 4.72 [forty]. That's astronomical."

Fresh Start In Kansas For WR
There isn't a wide receiver with a higher ceiling then Cordarrelle Patterson in this draft. He's from Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern and didn't have the necessary grades. So he signed with Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. For their head coach Rion Rhoades, he knew he landed a terrific player.

"I knew he was something when we signed him," Rhoades said. "CP was really good as a freshman. He was an All-American. But he came into his own his sophomore season in year two. He matured and took it to a whole new level."

Patterson then signed with Tennessee, where he was one and done in Knoxville. It's pretty impressive what he did in his only season with the Vols, especially considering he didn't have a spring practice to learn the Tennessee offense. Patterson set an SEC single-season record with a combined kickoff and punt return average of 27.6 yards, and set a Tennessee record with 1,858 all-purpose yards.

"I am not surprised at what he did at Tennessee," Rhoades said. "He didn't have a spring practice so I thought it might take him a while to figure things out but they had a great plan for him. [Tennessee offensive coordinator] Jim Chaney did an outstanding job of using him. He played receiver, running back and returned kicks there."

Patterson solidified himself as the draft's top wide receiver after running a 4.42 forty and vertical jumped 37", broad jumped 10'8" at NFL Combine. This is an explosive athlete at the wide receiver position but he's still has a lot to learn about playing the position.

"He does," Rhoades said. "He still has things to learn. But he's a great talent. As great of a talent that CP is what you don't know until you have him is what a great person he is. He's a fun guy and a really good guy."

For Patterson, there were times when he wanted to come back home. But he didn't and he's just a few weeks away from the NFL.

"Oh, yeah, there were a lot of times I doubted because I had to leave high school and go all the way to Hutchinson in Kansas," said Patterson during the NFL Combine. "I would call my mom every day and ask her if she still thought I needed to do this and she said, ‘Yeah, it's been your dream for a long time so just make sure you stick with it.'"

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