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Draft hopefuls await weekend decisions

In addition to star running back Thomas Jones, the Virginia football team hopes to graduate as many as 10 players to the National Football League in this weekend's NFL draft. Offensive linemen John St. Clair and Noel LaMontagne, defensive back Antwan Harris, linebacker Shannon Taylor and tight end Casey Crawford head the list of Cavs with professional hopes.

"Once you decide on a Division I team, it automatically pops up in your mind: 'I'm going to a big-time college; hopefully I can make it to the NFL,'" St. Clair said.

The potential draftees are understandably nervous about the upcoming draft. After being scrutinized by scouts at the NFL draft combine in February, the players will discover whether they're NFL material this weekend.

The draft begins at noon tomorrow with the first through third rounds. It continues Sunday with the remaining four rounds.

"I'm excited," St. Clair said. "I'm a little nervous though. I've been anticipating this moment for so long. I'm going to be glued to the TV."

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    After clearing the way for Jones and his 1,798 yards in 1999, St. Clair is regarded as the top center available in the draft and is rated as the 60th-best NFL prospect this year by Pro Football Weekly. Most experts believe St. Clair, a 6-foot-4 center with quick hands, will be drafted between the first and third rounds.

    "I heard late first all the way to the third round," St. Clair said. "I just want to be at the midpoint. I'm hoping for the second round."

    Perhaps the only thing keeping St. Clair out of the first round is the small number of centers usually taken in the first round. Only three centers have been first-round selections in the 1990s.

    "I'm ecstatic about St. Clair, but traditionally, centers don't go in the first round," Ourlad's Scouting Service draft analyst Tom Hepler said. "This guy is a first-round talent."

    LaMontagne was St. Clair's partner on the offensive line and has the talent to be drafted, but a torn ACL suffered in the Dec. 30 MicronPC.com Bowl severely hurt his chances. LaMontagne is currently in rehab and expects to resume full-contact practicing in late July.

    "The situation with me is, I'm going to get drafted or go where I'm going to go not because of my ability or lack of ability, but just because of the injury," LaMontagne said.

    "Basically, the way I'm looking at it is, if I go free agency, that's fine. If I get drafted, I'll be really happy. My agents and a lot of people that I've talked to are telling me, 'don't bet on free agency.' They're all saying I'm going to get drafted."

    Unlike LaMontagne, whose draft stock has slipped due to injury, defensive back Harris has been shooting up the board, courtesy of the 4.39 40-yard dash time and a 39-inch vertical leap he displayed at the NFL draft combine. According to The Sporting News draft analyst Dan Pompei, Harris is a low-round pick.

    Harris "worked out well, which is what saved him a little bit, but he didn't play as well as he could have on the field," Pompei said.

    Taylor also is projected to be a low-round pick. The linebacker missed the 1998 season because of personal reasons but returned last season to lead the Cavs in tackles (81), tackles for a loss (15) and sacks (6). Although there are questions surrounding his lack of experience, the athletic linebacker possesses the versatility that pro teams covet.

    Taylor "shows a kind of a mean streak," Hepler said. "He's erratic, but has intriguing upside potential."

    Crawford presents an interesting dilemma for NFL teams. He has yet to decide whether he wants to continue his football career.

    "If NFL people sense [Crawford] wants to play football, I think he's draftable in the fifth round, but that's a big if," Hepler said.

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