UK players take the bridge from Saturdays to Sundays

By J.D. Williams

After a collegiate career full of circus catches, hard hits and memorable wins, it is safe to say the group of UK players enlisted in the NFL Draft controlled much of program’s recent gridiron success.

But this weekend, it will be executives from 32 NFL teams who control the fate of UK’s pro prospects in what is projected to the largest group of athletes drafted out of UK in a single year.

This year’s draft prospects are common household names in Lexington — quarterback Andre Woodson, wide receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson, tight end Jacob Tamme, and linebacker Wesley Woodyard. All of them have engraved their names in UK football history, taking claim to accomplishments reached by only a few players who have passed through Commonwealth Stadium.

Back-to-back winning seasons tapped off with back-to-back bowl wins and wins over top-ranked teams are the most noticeable achievements. Now the group faces the task of turning success on Saturdays into being a factor on Sundays. But under the watchful eyes of NFL scouts leading up to the draft, each player has seen his name rise and fall on the draft boards of NFL teams.

None have taken a more publicized hit than Woodson, who was once projected as a shoe-in for the first round, but is now lingering somewhere in the third round to most draft experts. Mel Kiper, ESPN’s draft expert, doesn’t list Woodson in his list of top five quarterbacks entering the draft.

“Whether it’s an analysis on a TV show, a draft expert, or a scout or coach, everybody is going to have a different opinion,” UK head coach Rich Brooks said at Pro Day last month. “It’s almost like running for president — no one is perfect.”

“They’re going to find any flaw or perceived flaw and tear you apart when you’re at the level of Andre Woodson,” he said.

Heading into the draft, Woodson is not the only Cat who has seen a great deal of interest along with doubts from NFL teams in the last weeks. Burton, who had one of the best performances of any UK player at the NFL Combine, has continued to impress scouts in workouts.

Burton said he has had a great deal of interest from the Jets, Jaguars, Cowboys, Patriots, Chiefs and Titans. After a career with numerous injuries, he is confident heading into the draft.

“They’ve seen a healthy Keenan Burton, so they seen exactly what I can do,” Burton said. “I played the cards I was dealt — now I’m all in.”

Burton said he isn’t nervous as this weekend’s draft approaches. He’ll be with his family in Louisville and will be excited when his agent calls to tell him what team he’s drafted.

Woodyard is another UK player who has moved around on draft boards. He said he’s noticed what NFL teams like and dislike in him.

“My strength is that I’m a football player — I have a lot of instincts, and I love the game of football,” Woodyard said. “My weakness is, everybody says I look stiff.”

The linebacker said there has been no downtime leading into the draft, as he’s been doing workouts to move up the ladder.

As recent years have proven, players’ draft spots don’t determine the shape of their NFL careers. Anything can happen in a league where some top draft picks are jobless a few years later, and second-day picks go on to be Super Bowls MVPs.

The success of players going into the NFL doesn’t start on draft day, but rather the day after, as players begin to prep for competition at the highest level.

Burton said his “life will be over for a year” after being drafted as he goes through mini-camps to prepare for success on the gridiron on Sundays — a feeling shared by many players entering the draft.

But for now, NFL teams have to work from what they’ve seen in game tapes and workouts while evaluating who they will draft this weekend. It’s out of the players’ hands.

“Now, it’s up to God,” Burton said.