PROVO — When star tight end Matt Bushman and standout defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga announced within a week of each other last December that they were returning to BYU for their final seasons of eligibility, the Cougars’ chances of having a player selected in this weekend’s NFL draft dropped considerably.
The odds worsened even more when none of the 19 seniors on BYU’s 2019 roster were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, leaving every school in the country without a formal pro day. Fringe draft hopefuls and noncombine invitees now have almost no chance of being seen in person by more than a couple scouts at once.
Orem-based agent Evan Brennan, who represents three to four BYU players a year, said in a normal year only 30 to 40 guys who weren’t invited to the combine get drafted.
“This year, it is going to be less than 10,” Brennan predicted. “That’s just because teams don’t have the latest and greatest medical reports on them. This year it is going to be extremely difficult to get drafted if you weren’t in the scouting combine.”
So the outlook is bleak for the 10 or so BYU players who still harbor dreams of playing professional football, but, as BYU safeties coach Preston Hadley told the Deseret News on Tuesday, the NFL is full of stories of long shots who made it via free agency.
And some of them have BYU ties, such as New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, Kansas City Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen and New York Jets linebacker Harvey Langi.
“Just my personal opinion, but I think there are several BYU guys that should be drafted,” Hadley said. “But that’s for the NFL teams to decide. I just coach. I am not the evaluator. It is hard to guarantee anything, no matter who it is.”
That said, Hadley notes that he’s heard from multiple teams about several different BYU defensive backs. He even spoke to the head coach of an NFL team, whom he declined to name, about some of the players in his position group such as Austin Lee, Beau Tanner and Dayan Ghanwoloku.
“There’s a lot more interest (in BYU players) than some might think,” Hadley said, while acknowledging that not having a pro day this year, due to campuses being shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, didn’t help the lesser-known players from non-Power Five schools.
The Deseret News recently profiled three BYU players and their draft or free-agent possibilities — defensive backs Ghanwoloku and Lee and receiver Aleva Hifo. A fourth prospect who is getting some attention from the pros, running back Ty’Son Williams, declined an interview request through his agent, Mark Flores, until after the draft.
Other Cougars hoping for good news Saturday night when free agent and minicamp tryout invitations are extended include running back Emmanuel Esukpa, safety Austin Kafentzis, tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau, receiver Micah Simon and defensive tackle JJ Nwigwe.
Tanner, who started his career as a receiver and switched to a safety last season, hopes to follow in the footsteps of another speedster who didn’t have an outstanding career for the Cougars but carved out a nice career in the NFL, Michael Davis of the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I’ve talked to a lot of teams, teams that like fast guys. It seems like people aren’t quite as sure what is going to happen in the draft this year, because of everything that has been going on,” said Tanner, who signed with highly regarded agent Leigh Steinberg and was mentioned by Steinberg on social media as having “blazing 4.3 speed and great athleticism.”
Stranger things have happened, said Brennan, who also represents Weber State defensive end Jonah Williams and believes the returned missionary from Meridian, Idaho, has a good shot to be drafted.
“Most of the deals after the draft are done in about 15 or 20 minutes,” Brennan said.
Imagine the outcry in Provo if an RM from Weber State, a quarterback (Jordan Love) from Utah State and up to 10 players from rival Utah are drafted Thursday through Saturday and nobody from BYU goes in the seven rounds. It would be the fourth time since 2011 a Cougar hasn’t been drafted, and second time in the past six years.
BYU hasn’t had multiple players selected in the same year since Austin Collie and Fui Vakapuna in 2009.
Hadley, a former Snow College and BYU player, said the coaching staff isn’t worrying about it. The talent level is good, he said, but other factors come into play such as injuries and having older players due to church missions. Brennan said age is certainly a factor when NFL general managers evaluate prospects because potential is analyzed extensively.
“We just mow our own grass, you know?” Hadley said. “At the end of the day, it is about what they do once they get there. … We just stay in our lane, focus on ourselves and our program. We are not going to draw any comparisons between us and (Utah). We just worry about ourselves.”
While Utah’s coaches have said they will be glued to their television sets this weekend, that won’t be an issue for Hadley, who plans to follow the draft on social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram.
He’s a cord-cutter who doesn’t get over-the-air television.
“I only have a TV for gaming and streaming,” he said. “But I will follow the draft closely, and if one of our guys’ names is called, I try to be one of the first ones to text them and congratulate them. It is a lot of hard work, and a long journey, so we are really proud of them.”
Especially when the odds are really against them — like this year.
BYU’s NFL draft and free agent hopefuls
• Running back Ty’Son Williams
• Defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku
• Receiver Aleva Hifo
• Defensive back Austin Lee
• Tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau
• Defensive lineman JJ Nwigwe
• Receiver Micah Simon
• Defensive back Beau Tanner
• Defensive back Austin Kafentzis
• Running back Emmanuel Esukpa