Former Bulldogs chase the long-shot NFL dream

semerson@macon.comApril 16, 2014 

Chris Burnette during Georgia's Pro Day on April 16.


ATHENS - A little more than halfway through UGA’s pro day, the group of three dozen NFL scouts began a slow, polite walk towards the second half of the field. The half where a certain quarterback was getting ready to go.

Yes, in a way this day was the Aaron Murray Invitational, in fact scheduled by UGA to give its quarterback time to be healthy enough to throw. But there were 14 other former Georgia players chasing their dream on Wednesday. And for most it’s a very uphill climb.

This is not a banner year for NFL draft prospect. A year after having seven players selected, including two in the first round, only Murray and tight end Arthur Lynch are considered likely to be drafted, and they’re likely headed for the middle rounds. They were the only two players even invited to the NFL combine in February.

So Wednesday was a big day for the other players, some of whom have a legitimate shot to be drafted.

Chris Burnette, a two-year starter at guard, was snapping for Murray during drills. That was partly to help his now-former teammate, but also to remind scouts that he can do that as well.

“He felt comfortable with me, so I decided to it. And also like you said, just for the prospects of being able to do it at the next level,” Burnette said. “I mean I’m willing to play whatever it is to get on the field. So I think it was good for me to be able to showcase that a little bit.”

This was Burnette’s first real showcase for scouts, since the East-West Shrine game. He wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, and hasn’t had any individual workouts yet.

All three Georgia senior offensive linemen – Burnette, Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates - were jilted by the NFL combine. Burnette said all three were “definitely a little miffed” by it.

“But I’m glad I got to do pro day at Georgia,” Burnette said. “There were a lot of scouts here.”

Murray’s appearance was a chance for more than Burnette: Rantavious Wooten, Rhett McGowan, Curtis Wyatt and Blake Sailors tried to show off their receiving wares. So did Lynch, who made some good catches over the middle, but his draft bona fides have already been established, so this pro day wasn't quite as important for him as it was for others.

Sailors made his name as a special teams star, but decided to try receiver for the scouts. He had mixed results catching the ball on Wednesday, but he did get credit for the fastest 40 time – 4.45, faster than even Branden Smith, the former Georgia cornerback who was undrafted last year, and is still trying to give it another shot.

Wooten is coming off his best year at Georgia, when he had five touchdown catches (the second-most on the team), hauling in 30 passes for 424 yards. He’s only 5-foot-9, but his speed and the fact he battled injuries makes him a “you never know” kind of NFL prospect.

“I feel like I did everything I could do,” Wooten said. “If it works out for me, great, if I get drafted, great. And whatever I have to do, I’ll be fine with. And I’ll pride myself in getting this far.”

Defensive lineman Garrison Smith was one of Georgia’s most dependable defensive players the past two years. He had six sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss as a senior, playing end and tackle. He also felt spurned by the combine snub, and said he planned to use it as motivation.

But head coach Mark Richt, speaking after pro day, pointed out that last year two Georgia defensive linemen – Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers – made NFL rosters after going undrafted. That should give Smith hope.

“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “And from what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted he’ll get into a camp and get a chance to make it.”

There were other more longshot players just chasing the dream: T.J. Stripling, a former four-star recruit who was never the same after tearing his ACL his freshman year. Marcus Washington, who played at Georgia from 2005-09, and is still trying to hook on somewhere. Players who walked-on at Georgia, like Sailors, Wyatt, McGowan, Corey Campbell and Brandon Harton.

The day made Richt feel reflective.

“That’s what I love about staying in one place for awhile,” Richt said. “I was 15 years at Florida State and now I’m going on my 14th year at Georgia. And part of the reason for that is I really enjoy recruiting guys and seeing htem through to the end, seeing them graduate, seeing them get to play in the league. And actually guys are coming back 10 years later, coming to events, you get to meet their wives and kids. It’s a lot of fun to have those types of relationships.”

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