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February 9, 2009

Some familiar names not invited to Combine

NFL Scouting Combine invitations went out last week, and while 333 players received good news, there were more than a few big-name college stars who didn't.

A selection committee decides who gets invitations, and as the official Web site of the event puts it, "the goal of the committee is to invite every player that will be drafted in the ensuing NFL draft."

Last year, 252 players were drafted, and that means not getting an invitation might not be a harbinger of good things. Still, prospects fall through the cracks, and there are numerous players in the NFL who didn't get Combine invitations.

Among the big names not getting them this season are Oregon defensive end Nick Reed, who was tied for fourth in the nation with 13 sacks this past season and had 25 in the past two seasons; Penn State safety Anthony Scirrotto, who finished his career with 184 tackles, 11 interceptions and 16 pass breakups; North Carolina safety Trimane Goddard, who tied for the national lead this past season with seven picks and finished with 166 career tackles, 12 interceptions, 15 pass breakups and five forced fumbles; West Virginia kicker/punter Pat McAfee, who made 58 career field goals and was eighth in the nation in punting this season at 44.7 yards per punt; and offensive linemen Phil Trautwein of Florida, Robert Conley of Utah, Cliff Ramsey of Boston College, Rylan Reed of Texas Tech, Ben Muth of Stanford, Adam Speer of Oregon State and Rich Ohrnberger of Penn State. All those players were either first- or second-team all-league performers, and some garnered All-America mention.

As for the school with the most invitees, 26 have at least five, led by USC with 12. Second-most is LSU with 10, followed by Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Penn State with eight apiece; and Oregon and Wisconsin with seven each. Tennessee, which had six, was the only team in that group of 26 to finish with a losing record.

USC led the Pac-10, LSU led the SEC, Oklahoma led the Big 12, Ohio State and Penn State led the Big Ten, Clemson and Maryland tied with six to lead the ACC and Cincinnati had six to lead the Big East.

Every "Big Six" member school had at least one invitee except Colorado, Duke, Iowa State, Kansas and Minnesota.

National champ Florida had four – as many as San Jose State – and there were just 10 players total from Florida schools. Florida State and USF had two each and Miami and UCF one apiece. By comparison, Oregon and Oregon State combined for 13 invitees, while Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas and Central Washington each had two. (What's weird: One of the Abilene Christian players, running back Bernard Scott, began his career at Central Arkansas.)

Some other notables: Utah had three; ACC champ Virginia Tech had two; Boise State had two; and Notre Dame, UCLA and Washington each had one.

Former Virginia Tech tailback Branden Ore will be there; he finished up his career at West Liberty (W.Va.) State. The other transfers from big-time programs are Hampton defensive tackle Chris Baker (who began his career at Penn State), Sam Houston State quarterback Rhett Bomar (Oklahoma), Central Washington tight end Jared Bronson (Washington State), Stillman (Ala.) safety Dre-Mail Hardin (a former walk-on at Mississippi State), Liberty running back Rashad Jennings (Pittsburgh), Jackson State cornerback Domonique Johnson (Missouri), Tennessee State guard Cornelius Lewis (Florida State), Central Washington quarterback Mike Reilly (Washington State) and Nicholls State cornerback Lardarius Webb (Southern Miss).

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect at the Combine is a Division III player, Hartwick (N.Y.) quarterback Jason Boltus, who has excellent size (6 feet 3/225 pounds) and supposedly possesses an absolute cannon for an arm. Boltus threw for 3,934 yards and 46 TDs (against 10 interceptions) this season – in just 10 games. Boltus also punted for Hartwick, a school of 1,480 students located in Oneonta, N.Y., in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains.

Boltus finished his career with 13,276 passing yards and 134 TD passes; he is second all-time in Division III history in yardage and third in TD passes. Across all of NCAA football, he is sixth in career TD passes and 10th in career passing yards.

Boltus would be the first Division III quarterback drafted since 1991, and the last one made news when he was picked. That's because the New York Giants selected Larry Wanke, of John Carroll (Ohio), with the final pick of that draft, in the 13th round. That made him "Mr. Irrelevant," and the Web site devoted to Mr. Irrelevants says Wanke currently owns a real estate firm in the Cleveland area.

Fun times on Rocky Top
Lane Kiffin has been Tennessee's coach since Dec. 1, and he's had a busy nine weeks. He has put together the highest-paid staff in the SEC, cobbled together a solid recruiting class, had his wife deliver their third child and – oh, yeah – managed to tick off coaches/administrators at Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, not to mention the SEC commissioner. For good measure, he probably made a grandmother in Memphis angry, too.

Let's break it down by school.

Alabama: Kiffin was successful in hiring Lance Thompson off Alabama's staff just a few weeks before National Signing Day. Thompson generally was considered the best or second-best recruiter on the Tide's staff.

Thursday, at a Tennessee "recruiting celebration" in front of about 1,000 fans in Knoxville, Kiffin and Thompson got in a few jibes at Tide coach Nick Saban.

"Nick Saban should have started his press conference [Wednesday] by saying, 'Our great class that we signed ... I'd really like to thank Lance because Lance signed eight of those guys,' " Kiffin said.

Then Thompson jumped into the fray, saying Saban "ain't getting any more of my [recruits]." Then, when Kiffin said he doesn't worry about recruiting rankings, Thompson added, "Just for your information, Utah had no five-stars, and they kicked the lining out of our tails" in the Sugar Bowl.

Florida: Settle in, because this one takes a while.

Kiffin started early, at his introductory news conference in December, when he said he looked forward to "singing 'Rocky Top' all night long" after the Vols win at Florida next season.

Kiffin then tried to hire Florida wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales, reportedly calling even after Gonzales said he wasn't interested. Gonzales is considered one of Florida's best recruiters.

Then came Thursday, at the "recruiting celebration," when Kiffin accused Gators coach Urban Meyer of cheating in the recruitment of Pahokee (Fla.) wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson by calling Richardson when he was on his official visit to Knoxville.

But the rule Kiffin accused Meyer of breaking isn't even a rule, which led to a shot at Kiffin from SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who said in a statement, "The phone call to which Coach Kiffin referred to in his public comments is not a violation of SEC or NCAA rules. We expect our coaches to have an understanding and knowledge of conference and NCAA rules."

Kiffin also took shots at Pahokee High and the town itself.

Kiffin said he informed Richardson and his aunts to make sure they faxed in his letter of intent from somewhere other than the high school: "They didn't go do it at the school because they knew somebody at the school was going to screw it up, the fax machine wouldn't work or they would have changed the signatures – all the things that go on in Pahokee."

Then came Kiffin's "analysis" of the recruiting situation at Pahokee: "Pahokee is probably the hardest area in Florida to ever go into as an out-of-state school or a school not named Florida Gators and get a guy."

One problem: Florida has signed one player from Pahokee in about the past 40 years, and that was cornerback Janoris Jenkins last year. Kiffin probably was referring to Glades Central High in Belle Glade, a longtime Florida recruiting stronghold. Interestingly, Pahokee and Glades Central are bitter rivals.

And then there was Kiffin's description of the town: "For those of you who haven't been to Pahokee, there ain't much going on. You take that hour drive up from south Florida, there ain't a gas station that works. Nobody's got enough money to even have shoes or a shirt on." Those remarks should make for some nice conversations with residents when Kiffin or one of his assistants shows up in Pahokee – a small-school powerhouse – down the line.

Finally, a blog from a Palm Beach Post reporter had an interesting anecdote (Pahokee is in Palm Beach County, about 30 miles west of West Palm Beach). A Post reporter said that while Richardson was with Kiffin in Knoxville on his recruiting visit, Richardson received a text from Pahokee coach Blaze Thompson. The blog post said Richardson confirmed that when he received the text, Kiffin took the phone and texted Thompson back, pretending he was Richardson.

Georgia: While putting together his staff, Kiffin went after Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner even though the Vols already had hired Ed Orgeron as defensive line coach. Garner, who is one of the best recruiters in the nation, wasn't interested in leaving Athens, but he got a pay raise nonetheless.

Later, in a radio interview, Kiffin denigrated Georgia's recruiting efforts in its home state. But Georgia, as usual, did a great job in-state, signing four of the state's top seven players and 10 of the top 24.

Finally, one of Georgia's top signees is wide receiver Marlon Brown, from Memphis. At the news conference Wednesday to officially announce he was signing with the Bulldogs, Brown said of Tennessee, which was one of his finalists, "Right now, they have a staff with no track record."

Thursday, Kiffin said Brown called him Tuesday night with the news; Kiffin also blamed Brown's grandmother for him not being a Vol.

"We wish Marlon the best of luck, but he called … and said he loved it here but his grandmother wouldn't let him come," Kiffin said. "I don't know what you do about that."

South Carolina: Compared to the other three schools, this barely registers a blip.

Kiffin's first hire was David Reaves – his brother-in-law (he's married to Reaves' sister, Layla) – off South Carolina's staff. Reaves was considered South Carolina's best recruiter.

Kiffin also got into a public tiff with Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier about knowing – and following – NCAA recruiting rules, which is sort of funny considering what happened with Kiffin's comments about Florida.

It's all mighty entertaining, and what Kiffin has done, if nothing else, is to get people talking about Tennessee football again. And they're not talking about how the Vols underachieved and went 5-7 last season. Instead, Kiffin has been able to take the attention off the players and put it on him and his new staff. In addition, you have to admit he's added some excitement to the program, which had grown stale.

What he also has done, of course, is to make Tennessee games on Sept. 19, Oct. 10, Oct. 24 and Oct. 31 that much more interesting. Those are the dates the Vols play Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, respectively. You can bet fans of the Gators, Bulldogs, Tide and Gamecocks already have those dates noted on their calendars – and you can also bet those disparate fan bases will be chuckling whenever Tennessee loses this fall.

Grid Bits
The New York Jets announced Thursday that they had hired Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to be their quarterback coach. That begs this question: If you're Pitt, don't you want it known before signing day that Cavanaugh is leaving? That way, prospects who were turned off by Cavanaugh's "offense" might've been willing to at least consider the Panthers.

Longtime followers of recruiting probably laughed Wednesday at those who professed astonishment at the Dre Kirkpatrick news conference. Kirkpatrick, a cornerback from Gadsden, Ala., signed with Alabama after playing around with some caps, then opening a gift-wrapped package and pulling out a Crimson Tide cap. Recruitniks probably remember 1989, when standout safety Derric Evans of Dallas Carter signed his letter of intent with Tennessee while sitting in a hot tub, with numerous necklaces dangling. Later that night, Carter teammate Jessie Armstead, a top linebacker prospect, signed with Miami in a hotel ballroom, timing it so the event could make on the 6 p.m. news. While Armstead eventually played 12 seasons in the NFL, Evans never played a down of college football; he and five Carter teammates were sent to prison for a robbery spree a few months after National Signing Day.

Cool – or pompous? Florida State has started referring to itself as "The Florida State University," much like Ohio State (or, rather, The Ohio State University). A university spokesman said a committee came up with the idea.

Speaking of Florida State, former Seminoles offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden has been named the wide receivers coach at Division II North Alabama, where his brother, Terry, recently was hired as coach. Jeff Bowden still is receiving money from FSU as terms of his buyout, so he won't be paid by North Alabama and instead technically will be a volunteer coach.

New Kansas City coach Todd Haley's official bio on the Chiefs' Web site points out that he attended Florida and Miami – but played golf, not football, at both schools. He ended up getting a degree at North Florida, which doesn't even have a football program.

Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher has pledged $500,000 to New Mexico, his alma mater, to be used in improving the Lobos' indoor practice facility. Why don't more players do the same thing?

We were remiss in not pointing this out last week: The referee in the Super Bowl was Terry McAulay, who is the Big East's coordinator of officials.

Hoop talk
Davidson and Siena lost conference games Saturday – Davidson at home to College of Charleston and Siena on the road to Rider. On the face of it, those losses don't seem to be that big a deal because the Wildcats (Southern) and Saints (Metro Atlantic Athletic) should win their respective league titles. But where it might matter is if either falters in its league tourney. Going into Sunday's play, Siena's RPI was 28th and Davidson's was 49th. And both played tough non-conference schedules, with Siena's ranking third in the nation and Davidson's 17th. The problem is that Siena has no win over teams in the RPI top 50 and Davidson has one, over West Virginia. It's hard to get an NCAA at-large bid with résumés lacking marquee wins.

It's hard to see Gonzaga being left out of the NCAA tourney, even if the Zags falter in the West Coast Conference tournament. But there has to be a nagging doubt about the Bulldogs after they were hammered Saturday by Memphis. The Tigers cruised past the Zags, who looked very, very soft. Gonzaga has three top-50 wins: two over Tennessee and one over Oklahoma State. By the time the tourney rolls around, though, Oklahoma State might not be in the top 50, and those wins over Tennessee already don't look that good anymore. Gonzaga has no low-post presence other than Josh Heytvelt, and that will cost them early in the NCAA tourney.

Mid-major teams – and some power conference tams – have to be silently cheering every time Georgetown and Notre Dame lose. Both looked like NCAA locks – well, as much as a team can be termed a "lock" in early January – but have fallen on hard times. The Irish have lost seven in a row and look to be dead in the water as a possible NCAA at-large selection. While the schedule certainly offers the opportunity to get some big wins, nothing we've seen from the Irish lately gives an indication they can turn it around. The Hoyas, meanwhile, have lost six of seven; their inexperience is costing them. As with the Irish, there are numerous opportunities for some big wins, but it looks as if the Hoyas can start making NIT plans. The question is whether two other Big East teams – Cincinnati and Providence – can take advantage of Notre Dame's and Georgetown's problems and grab an NCAA bid, or whether those bids go outside the Big East – and, indeed, outside the "Big Six" conferences.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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