South Alabama’s football program is expected to achieve another first this week when the NFL holds its annual draft. It’s believed, for the first time in the program’s history, a South Alabama player will be selected in the NFL Draft when it begins Thursday in Chicago.
The two most likely candidates to be selected are former Jaguars tight end Wes Saxton and former quarterback Brandon Bridge. Head coach Joey Jones said he will be watching, hoping to hear both players’ names called at some point during the three days of the draft. While it would be a great accomplishment for the players, it will also represent a big step forward for the Jags’ program, he noted.
“We’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” Jones said. “I know we’ve got a couple of guys that have a chance to be selected. (Former player) Damond Smith (2011 team) is with the Arizona Cardinals right now, but as far as being drafted, this would be a first. It’s exciting to hear that we have a couple of guys who could be drafted and we probably have four or five more who will get into NFL camps as free agents. So that’s five or six guys off our team who will be in NFL camps and that’s tremendous.”
Saxton, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end from Hueytown, figures to be the best bet to be drafted. He produced the second-best time in the 40-yard dash by a tight end at this year’s NFL Combine and he has performed well at pro day events and in tryouts for some pro teams. He also played well in the East-West Shrine all-star game. A nagging Achilles’ heel injury through most of the season limited Saxton’s playing time and effectiveness, but the injury has healed and his performances in the Combine and other tryouts have made him a good draft prospect again.
“I think had he not gone back and done well in the all-star game and in the Combine, I think (the past season) would have hurt him, but the fact he was able to come back and do well in those things, that really helped,” Jones said. “I think they realized he was really hurt 85 percent of the season and never was able to play up to his potential. I think he could be a diamond in the rough for some NFL team, for sure.”
Saxton played in 12 games, catching 20 passes for 155 yards, a 7.8 yards per catch average and no touchdowns last season. In 2013, he shared the team lead in receptions with 50, collecting 635 yards for a 12.7 yards per catch average. He has improved his blocking skills and is considered a solid receiving tight end.
Bridge, an Ontario, Canada, native who stands 6-4 and weighs 230 pounds, has a strong arm and excellent speed and quickness. His drawbacks are a tendency to lock-in on a receiver before throwing a pass and his accuracy. He played in 11 games last season, completing 169 of 307 passes for a 52.1 percent completion rate, 1,927 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also had 297 rushing yards and four more scores.
“I think it’s borderline whether he’ll be drafted or not, but I think there’s no doubt that he›ll get in a camp,” Jones said.
Bridge would also seem to have a back-up plan, that being a chance to be selected in the CFL Draft and have a chance to play in that league if an NFL opportunity is not presented. Several CFL teams have expressed interest.
Other South Alabama players are not expected to be drafted but Jones expects there will be undrafted free agents who will get a chance to take part in NFL camps this summer including offensive linemen Ucambre Williams and Melvin Meggs, defensive lineman Theo Rich and defensive back Montell Garner.
Just the fact there are a few Jags players with an opportunity to be in NFL camps this summer adds to the perception of the South Alabama program, Jones said. It also serves to motivate players currently on the Jags’ roster.
“Most things in life are contagious — leadership’s contagious, winning’s contagious, losing’s contagious,” he said. “I think the fact we’ve got a few guys getting a chance with the NFL will be contagious for these current guys. They are going to look at it as a push to work a little bit extra to reach their goals. The fact they are seeing those other guys living out their dreams, they realize they can do the same thing.
“It’s going to be exciting. I’m going to be watching the draft. It’s going to be so exciting for those guys and their families and also for South Alabama.”