Big moment arrives for NFL draft hopefuls from Virginia, Virginia Tech

Norm Wood
Contact Reporternwood@dailypress.com
Harris is coming off December shoulder surgery, which could affect his draft stock

Standing on the Lucas Oil Stadium field in February in Indianapolis watching safeties go through NFL combine drills, Anthony Harris started to mentally compare himself to the NFL draft hopefuls who were posting times, reps and distances.

Since he was rehabilitating from December shoulder surgery, playing the comparison game was as close as Harris would come to actually competing in the combine. Maybe it was a missed opportunity, but Harris was content. He was sure he’d done enough in his career at Virginia to create plenty of value in the eyes of NFL teams.

He’s about to find out if he’s right.

“I’m a competitor,” Harris said. “You always want to go out there and show that you’re one of the best at your craft. To see guys putting up numbers, you like to think about yourself out there showing your own times and your reps and show where you stand and how you can separate yourself. It was tough.”

Harris and a handful of former U.Va. and Virginia Tech players will be tethered to their cell phones for the next few days. The NFL draft begins Thursday evening in Chicago with the first round and carries on through Saturday.

U.Va. is looking to extend a streak that has seen at least one of its former players get taken in 31 consecutive drafts. Tech has had at least one player chosen in the last 21 drafts.

Among the top prospects from U.Va. and Tech, Harris is expected by most draft pundits to be selected somewhere between the third and fifth rounds, but former U.Va. teammate Eli Harold likely won’t have to wait that long. Harold, a graduate of Ocean Lakes High in Virginia Beach who played defensive end in college and may have to transition to outside linebacker in the NFL, is considered an early second-round pick.

“Harold needs to get stronger and improve his reliability as a tackler, in addition to developing better recognition skills,” wrote ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay in his analysis of Harold on ESPN.com. “He has a high upside as a pass-rusher, with several pass-rush moves and good athleticism and closing burst.”

In addition to Harold and Harris, former U.Va. outside linebacker Max Valles has a shot to get selected. Harold bypassed his final season of college eligibility, while Valles left U.Va. with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Offensive tackle Laurence Gibson and safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett are the best candidates to continue Tech’s streak of having players chosen in drafts. Tech has had multiple players taken in 20 of the last 21 drafts.

Harold is by far the most coveted of the prospects from the two Atlantic Coast Conference programs in the commonwealth. He’s rated the 34th-best prospect (fifth among outside linebackers) in the draft by McShay, 35th-best prospect by NFLdraftscout.com (third at outside linebacker), 46th-best prospect (sixth among defensive ends) by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper and the seventh-best outside linebacker (likely second-round pick) by Tony Pauline of draftinsider.net.

Due in part to his shoulder injury, Harris is all over the map in projections, but it’s not a particularly deep draft for safety talent. He’s the 79th-best prospect (third among safeties) in McShay’s analysis and 141st on Kiper’s list, but he’s 234th on the NFLdraftscout.com rankings.

“I’m feeling really good,” Harris said of his shoulder, on which he underwent surgery Dec. 30 to repair a torn labrum. “I’m pretty through the tough stage of the recovery process. Now, I’m running and I’m back in the weight room lifting. I’m slowly working my bench back up and continuing to progress. I’m doing what the doctors tell me to do, and I’ll be ready by camp.”

Valles may be in a precarious position. Kiper considers him the 108th-best prospect (14th among defensive ends), but McShay doesn’t rank Valles among his top 300 prospects. He’s 208th on NFLdraftscout.com’s list, and he’s seen as the 21st-best outside linebacker (a likely sixth- or seventh-round pick) by Pauline.

As for Tech, Gibson has drawn a lot of interest since posting impressive numbers at the combine. NFLdraftscout.com has him rated the 200th-best prospect (17th among offensive tackles), McShay lists him 231st (19th among offensive tackles), Kiper lists him 232nd (18th among offensive tackles), and Pauline considers him a likely seventh-round pick.

“Gibson’s certainly a draftable player,” Kiper said in late March via teleconference.

“There’s a lot to work with there with him; very athletic kid. I would think in this draft, where you don’t have a lot of guys who have that type of skill set, that he would be a guy that goes at some point.”

Bonner and Jarrett participated in the combine, but Bonner was limited due to a toe injury he suffered in January at the Shrine Game. Both players are considered by draft analysts to be late-round draft material, or undrafted free-agent signees.

Gibson, who started all 13 games last season at left tackle and six games two seasons ago, has an advantage many offensive linemen don’t have. He’s never had to undergo surgery. Still, he’s had to work hard just to put his name on the radar.

“I never had like a moment where I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely getting drafted,’ ” said Gibson, adding he’s visited with Houston, Denver, Arizona, Seattle and Atlanta leading up the draft. “I don’t think like that. When I was growing up, people always told me I’d never play Division I football, let alone at the NFL level. When I was a kid, I told myself I was going to play in the NFL. Of course, that’s when I was playing quarterback (freshman year in high school), but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Harris, who said he traveled to meet with the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings, will be home in Richmond all weekend. Though he led the nation in interceptions in 2013 with eight, and explored the possibility of forgoing his final season of college eligibility, he decided to come back to U.Va.

“There were things I could still work on to improve my game,” Harris said.

“There wasn’t a point this season where I felt like, ‘Oh, I should’ve maybe jumped ship last year.’ At the point I hurt my shoulder, I didn’t realize it would require surgery. I was just doing whatever it took to be ready to play on Saturday.”

Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.

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