Five University of Kentucky Wildcats — Micah Johnson, Trevard Lindley, Corey Peters, John Conner and Sam Maxwell — will head to Indianapolis this week for the NFL Combine that gets under way on Wednesday.
If all five players get drafted, it would be the most successful class for UK since 1979, when eight Wildcats were chosen in a 12-round draft. the best year for UK in the draft since it's gone to seven rounds was 2008, when Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, Andre Woodson and Steve Johnson were all selected.
Most draft prognostications have Johnson being selected somewhere in the middle rounds and Peters and Conner as late-round selections. Maxwell is the wild card. He played at an All-Southeastern Conference level before having surgery in December for a torn labrum and missing the Music City Bowl. Maxwell will attend the combine but will be able to participate only in interviews and medical testing. Maxwell said he is hoping to do some drills at UK's Pro Day on March 10 and expects to be ready for full contact by the time NFL camps open in the summer.
Maxwell said he injured the shoulder in UK's 41-7 loss to Florida on Sept. 26, but he played the entire regular season and finished with 80 tackles and six interceptions (the most ever by a UK linebacker) on the way to second-team All-SEC honors.
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"It was my choice to play; I really didn't let the trainers know how serious it was," Maxwell said. "I had finally gotten my chance and was just beginning to make a name for myself. Plus, I wanted to win, and my team needed me. It was just a matter of how much pain I could tolerate."
Maxwell isn't the only UK draft hopeful trying to overcome injury. Johnson took about a month to rehab from a knee injury suffered in the Music City Bowl. Lindley finally appears to be recovered from a high ankle sprain that sabotaged his senior season. And Peters had to pull out of the East-West Shrine Game after suffering a minor shoulder injury in the bowl game. All three plan to work out at the combine in some capacity. Johnson said that if he doesn't run the 40-yard dash at the combine, he'll run it at UK's Pro Day. And Peters might not be able to bench press at the combine, but he will run the 40 and do drills and plans to bench for scouts at Pro Day.
Peters and Conner are high-character guys who should ace the interview process.
"I'm in the best shape of my life and, while I won't be able to bench, and I've never been characterized as the fastest guy in the world, things like agility drills, the short shuttle and cone drills are spots I can really shine," Peters said. "But I feel like the interviews are going to be my strongest parts. I can just be myself because I don't have anything to hide, and I've never been in trouble."
Peters and Conner have been working out with Clif Marshall's Ignition combine training program in Naples, Fla. Two other Wildcats, Alfonso Smith and Justin Jeffries, are training at Marshall's facility in Cincinnati.
Marshall, who's also training Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard, specializes in the 40-yard dash and has developed a reputation for taking lesser-known prospects and improving their draft status. Last year, Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin ran a 4.37 40 at his Pro Day and was taken in the second round by the Houston Texans, and Ohio's Michael Mitchell was snubbed at the combine but had a great Pro Day workout and became a second round pick of the Oakland Raiders.
"We pride ourselves on the guys who are supposed to be either free agents or late round picks and putting them in position to dominate their Pro Day," Marshall said. "That makes the scouts go back and pull out some film. Michael Mitchell, nobody had even heard of this kid. He didn't go to the combine, didn't play in the All-Star games, but went to Pro Day and dominated, and the Raiders drafted him No. 47. That's the story I tell."
Conner is ranked as the No. 1 fullback in the draft, quite a feat for a guy who arrived in Lexington as an under-recruited walk-on from Cincinnati. He received a late invitation to the Senior Bowl after a recommendation from Miami Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells.
"Being able to get drafted, it's crazy when I think back to where I came from," he said. "Fullbacks usually don't get picked before the fourth round, but I'm hoping to go as high as I can."
Five players under the microscope this spring
This is the second in a series of notes on things to watch leading up to the start of spring practice, which kicks off on March 31 and concludes with the Blue-White Spring Game on April 24 at Commonwealth Stadium. Here are five players who will be under the microscope for various reasons during spring ball:
Mike Hartline: Hartline was playing the best game of his career when he went down with a knee injury at South Carolina. He looked rusty and appeared to be favoring the knee when he returned against Vanderbilt and stood on the sidelines for the entire Music City Bowl despite being available to play. If Hartline wants to reclaim his starting job and hold off youngsters Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski, he needs to have a strong spring.
Chris Matthews: Much was expected out of Matthews in his first year from Harbor College in Los Angeles but, like most junior-college receivers, he struggled to make the transition to SEC football. If Matthews can make like Aaron Boone and Steve Johnson, two former UK receivers whose production skyrocketed in their second year after transferring, the Cats might be on to something.
Ronnie Sneed: Sneed will get the first crack at replacing Johnson at middle linebacker. Sneed got spot duty last season when Johnson was banged up, but he'll have to show he can handle the job on a full-time basis. Sneed will need to show something this spring because the coaching staff is high on freshman Qua Huzzie, who missed last year with a shoulder injury.
Shane McCord: McCord is a guy who probably needed a redshirt year. A lack of depth at tackle forced the coaching staff to put him in the rotation, yet he's never been able to crack the starting lineup. Now entering his senior year, McCord could be in line for a dramatic increase in snaps with the loss of Peters. He, Ricky Lumpkin and Mark Crawford are the only returning defensive tackles with game experience.
Billy Joe Murphy: The offensive line lost both its starting tackles from last season, Jeffries and Zipp Duncan. Brad Durham figures to take one of those spots, and the other is wide open. Murphy didn't see much game action in 2009 but did have three starts as a redshirt freshman in 2008. So, if experience counts for anything, he'll get a long look this spring.
Next week: Five redshirts to watch for this spring
Best of the Bluegrass
The third annual Best of the Bluegrass East vs. West All-Star Game will be played Friday, June 18, at Western Kentucky University. Whitley County's Jim Black will coach the East, and Fort Campbell's Shawn Berner will coach the West.
Three University of Kentucky signees will play in the game: Miles Simpson for the East, and Tim Patterson and Malcolm McDuffen for the West.
Bryan Station's Tevin McCaden, who will walk on at UK, is also playing for the East.