Stevens: If You Can Play, The NFL Will Find You -- At New Mexico
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  01/24/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Jan. 24, 2011

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

If you can play, they will come and watch. Which translates into: if you can compete at the National Football League level, the NFL scouts will find you -- no matter where you might be playing your college ball.

Most colleges in America once overlooked a skinny, gangly kid out of Lovington, N.M. The skinny kid eventually became a New Mexico Lobo, eventually grew into his manhood, eventually became a blip on the NFL radar, eventually became a First Round pick by the Chicago Bears, and eventually became one of the top linebackers in the NFL.

No, let's correct that. Brian Urlacher, the ex-Lobo, eventually became one of the best NFL linebackers ever. This past Sunday he played in the NFC Championship game while ex-Lobo Robert Turner played for the New York Jets in the AFC title game.

Being a Lobo and going to the pros is really no big deal. It happens all the time. You can go back to 1960 when a Lobo running back named Don Perkins -- probably too small even by college standards -- was noticed by the Dallas Cowboys and became one of the early stars of that franchise.

Perkins played for the Cowboys for eight seasons and rolled out 6,217 yards in making six Pro Bowls. In 1961, the NFL Rookie of The Year was a Lobo. Perkins' heart, his talent, surely exceeded the boundaries of his small frame.

The most recent Lobo drafted came last year in the 2010 NFL Draft when Albuquerque's Erik Cook was plucked off the UNM roster in April by the Washington Redskins.

OK, so if the NFL is going to find you no matter where you go play college ball, are there any advantages to playing for the New Mexico Lobos?

Yeah, you get to play.

A few Lobos might not agree with this, but there are more than a few Lobo players who have joined this program over the years, who probably would have been lost on rosters on the so-called, big-time BCS schools. These Lobos got better quickly by quickly getting onto the field.

Amazingly, Urlacher might have been one of those. For sure, his phenomenal talent would have eventually emerged and passed the talent at probably any school. But Urlacher also got a lot of playing time as a young Lobo while he grew into his body.

Ditto for Cook. Cook came out of Albuquerque's Cibola High with good size, but needed to improve his footwork and strength. At a lot of programs, Cook would have been pushed to the back of the pack for several seasons. At UNM, he played as a freshman and grew into a three-year starter. The early playing time helped develop Cook into a strong NFL prospect.

Another Lobo who benefited greatly from early playing time -- and exposure -- was Stoney Case, who actually rode a path to Lobo stardom similar to the one taken by Urlacher.

Case was another skinny high school kid, who needed to a few years to develop while putting on some pounds and muscle. Case played on a running team in high school and that background, combined with his thin frame, did not have any big-time colleges knocking on his door.

He came to UNM and played as a freshman. He became arguably the best Lobo quarterback ever with 10,651 total yards. He became the first D-I player in NCAA history to rush for 1,000-plus yards and pass for 8,000-plus. He was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals.

Even if you are destined for Super Bowl greatness, it doesn't hurt to get your rear off the pine and get into games early. The first Lobo ever drafted in the first round was Robin Cole. Cole, typical of high school players, needed to pack on some weight and throw up some weights as a freshman.

It's conceivable that this eventual Super Bowl champion might have got lost on another roster. At New Mexico, he got in on 49 tackles as a freshman in1973. The next three seasons Cole's tackles jumped from 96 to 141 to 120 (teams were running away from him!). Cole was a first-round pick for Pittsburgh. He played 11 seasons, was a member of the Steelers' legendary "Steel Curtain," and he has two Super Bowl Championships rings.

Ex-Lobo Terance Mathis became one of the few NFL players to pull in 100-plus catches in a season. The 5-foot-9 Mathis hauled in 263 passes for 4,254 yards as a Lobo before he went onto NFL fame with the Atlanta Falcons. He caught 63 TD passes in the NFL -- 689 passes for 8,809 yards.

Ex-Lobo Preston Dennard played six years with the Los Angeles Rams and played in Super Bowl XIV. Ex Lobo Paul Smith played 13 years in the NFL and is a member of the Denver Broncos' Ring of Fame. Ex-Lobo Andy Frederick was on NFL championships teams at Dallas (1978) and Chicago (1986).

The list goes one and on. Lobos have made it to the pro level since 1939 when Bill Dwyer was drafted by Chicago (Cardinals) and Dutch Niemants was picked by the Detroit Lions.

Some of the more recent NFL selections/players include Hank Baskett, Jarrod Baxter, Joe Maese, Quincy Black, Erik Cook, Ryan Cook, Brian Johnson, DonTrell Moore, Terrance Pennington, Glover Quin, Brian Ramsay, Marcus Smith, Nick Speegle, Casey Tisdale, Robert Turner, Claude Terrell, Brian Urlacher, DeAndre Wright, Rodney Ferguson,

Yes, if you can play, they will find you.

At New Mexico, the Mike Locksley staff knows that kids come out of high school with visions of NFL dancing in their heads. It's natural. Heck, if you don't come out of high school with that vision in your head, you maybe shouldn't be playing college football. There is a certain passion for this sport that is necessary at the D-I level.

NY Jets coach Rex Ryan shares a hug with ex-Lobo Robert Turner

Locksley and his staff have a reputation for developing NFL talent. It is a staff that combines for around 140 seasons of college or pro ball. It is a staff with a record of helping push college talent toward the NFL.

The opportunity to play came in handy for 16 Lobo freshmen and sophomores in 2010. Locksley inherited a program under an NCAA-sanctioned scholarship reduction. UNM's roster numbers are down and young Lobos are getting valuable playing time early in their career.

Of course, that early playing time helps a player develop his NFL skills. But coach Locksley and his staff also know that the NFL opens its doors for less than three percent of the college talent.

At UNM, a player's dreams are recognized and skills are developed. But Locksley's program also emphasizes education and degrees. In the spring of 2010, James Aho, Chris Biren, Kasey Carrier, Brad Gruner, Evan Jacobsen, Victor James, Clint McPeek, Spencer Merritt, Cody Neely, Frankie Solomon, Joshua Taufalele and Nick Wilhelm made the All-MWC Academic list.

The Lobos program had it second-highest GPA ever in the spring of 2010. "We understand and embrace that college football players want to play in the NFL," said Locksley. "As a coach, you want to coach players who want to play in the NFL.

"We'll do everything we can to make our players' dreams come true, but we also know that there are some realities to face, too. We want our Lobos to be holding onto their NFL dreams when they leave our program. We also want them to be holding onto a college degree."