Elon University is no University of Alabama, which had eight draft picks in this year’s NFL Draft, four in the first round.
But in the eyes of Elon head coach Jason Swepson, the signing of former Elon offensive lineman Rodney Austin by the Detroit Lions to a free-agent contract, along with two other rookie camp invites to former Phoenix, is something “fantastic.”
“Obviously, that helps our program, puts Elon University at the NFL (level),” he said. “It’s all good.”
Austin missed most of the 2011 season with injuries, but the Charlotte, N.C., native made enough of an impact to be signed by the Lions, whose signing of Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore is grabbing a lot of attention.
Swepson said he warned Austin that NFL means “not for long.”
“He’s gotta put his best foot forward and seize the moment,” he said. “He has all the tools. He’s just going to have to outwork some people at that level, which is hard, because they all work hard. If he stays healthy and gets the right opportunity, he has the chance to have a nice long career at that level.”
While he only got to see Austin in spring practice and preseason camp as a coach, Swepson said Austin may have made a bigger impact on the team and potentially raised his draft status if he had played the whole year.
“Only having two and a half games of senior film is tough for any GM or owner or coach to put out money,” he said. “It is a business at that level. If he played the whole season here, it might have given us a winning season and he might have gotten drafted. At this point, he’s got his foot in the door and that’s all you can ask for.”
Two guys that also have their foot in the door are former linebacker Joshua Jones and cornerback Jonathan Conner. Jones was invited to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ rookie mini-camp while Conner will participate in the New York Giants’ first-year camp.
Swepson had not heard much about Conner, but he had high remarks for Jones and the change in his 40-yard dash speed.
“I think the one time we tested him in the 40 when I first got here in February, he was a 5.1, and then ran 4.7 down at the (North Carolina State University) pro day,” he said. “If he gets the opportunity, he’s going to surprise some people.”
Jones and Conner got similar invites to the one former Elon quarterback Scott Riddle received last year with the Jaguars. Riddle was on the roster for one day as a tryout, but was released.
“It’s all about getting that opportunity,” Swepson said. “As we all know, Scott Riddle didn’t get that opportunity. I think he was only able to throw the ball 4-5 times with Jacksonville, and they let him go. (It is a) different set-up because it’s not a lockout year, so I’m assuming Josh and Rodney are going to get all the way up to pre-season camp, the quarterback camps, the mini-camps, before preseason even starts. They’re going to get some opportunity.”
The near future also bodes well for the Phoenix, with some pundits predicting rising senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette as a potential draft pick next year.
“It will be interesting if we can increase Aaron’s numbers from a year ago,” Swepson said after the Spring Game April 28. “I don’t know how much you can increase 113 catches for 1700 yards” (he actually had 1,639 yards receiving) “but the thing we can increase is his touchdown production. He only had 12 a year ago, and we need 24 out of him this year for him to be where he wants to go in the draft. If he’s getting 24 touchdown catches, then we’re winning a lot of football games.”
Mellette was encouraged by the 33rd overall selection of Appalachian State University wide receiver Brian Quick, who has a similar build and playing style to the Elon all-Southern Conference pick.
“It helps me out because now I know that I could get a chance to go second round if everything works out right,” Mellette said. “Some of the guys think I could go first round.”
Either way, for Swepson and the Elon football program, Austin’s contract signing, the invites to Conner and Jones and the NFL potential Mellette has bodes well for the future of the gridiron at Rhodes Stadium and beyond.