Wednesday, April 25, 2007

And Justise for all? CCSU star hopes so

The NFL Draft is this weekend, and the pickin's are pretty slim for Connecticut players this season. Looks like it could be a slow couple of days, though there are a few who will most certainly sign free agent contracts to at least get into NFL camps.

I've heard mixed reviews of UConn fullback Deon Anderson, but the concensus is that he will receive a more than a few free agent offers at the conclusion of the draft (if he's not picked, that it). UConn tailback Terry Caulley has received interest in several teams, according to his agent, including the Chargers, Lions, Saints, Redskins, Seahawks, Rams, Patriots, Panthers, Colts, Raiders, Buccaneers and Jaguars. Teams have taken notice of Terry's 4.31 speed, his wiggle and toughness. He won't be drafted, but should get an offer. Tight end Dan Murray could also have an offer or two soon after the draft.

Here's a story I wrote for today's Register on CCSU's Justise Hairston, the top rusher in Division I-AA last fall. The New Britain native may have the best chance of being drafted this weekend, and will definitely sign with someone if he's not. Enjoy.

NEW BRITAIN — Justise Hairston never doubted his ability as a football player. But when it came to assessing his chances in the NFL draft, Hairston was a realist.

Despite leading Division I-AA in rushing and earning All-America honors at Central Connecticut State last fall, Hairston knew the pitfalls for small conference players. Getting noticed and taken seriously by the NFL is always tougher for those not playing Division I-A football.

Hairston, a New Britain native, remains pragmatic about this weekend’s draft even after his eye-opening numbers at his recent pro day workout put his name on the draft board for just about every NFL team.

Considered the state’s best pro prospect, Hairston could be selected late in the seven-round draft, which begins Saturday (noon, ESPN) and runs through Sunday. If he’s taken, he would be the first CCSU player ever drafted. If he’s not drafted, Hairston is a lock to get into an NFL camp as a free agent.

"I always expect nothing but great things, but the draft is out of my hands," Hairston said Monday, shortly after an extended workout for the New England Patriots at New Britain High, where he played. "I look at the NFL as a job and something I’ve been interning for my whole life. I think my chances are great, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be on the phone listening to offers to come to an NFL camp."

Hairston, a 6-foot-1, 222-pound bruiser, spent the last three seasons getting limited action as a backup at Rutgers. Slated for second string behind Ray Rice and Brian Leonard once again, Hairston transferred to CCSU in August for the opportunity to start.

He dominated the Northeast Conference, leading the country with 1,847 yards rushing. Hairston popped up on NFL radar screens last fall, helping his cause by competing in the Hula Bowl in Honolulu as well as the Texas vs. the Nation game in El Paso.

But it was his pro day workout at Yale earlier this month that truly got Hairston on the map. His 39-inch vertical leap is the best of any running back in the nation, and his broad jump of 10 feet, 4 inches is second best. Hairston bench pressed 225 pounds for 22 repetitions, showing upper body strength nearly comparable to offensive linemen, while running the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds.

Although Hairston wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month, a cross check of the numbers from his pro day with the backs at the combine would have put him among the top at that position.

The NFL has noticed. Over the past few weeks, Hairston says he has received several calls a day from teams wanting to talk or set up a workout.

"He started behind the eight ball because no one had graded him before," said Joe Linta, Hairston’s Branford-based agent. "No one really saw him at Rutgers, and in August and September, no one knew he had transferred to Central."

Linta said the teams who’ve shown the most interest so far are the Patriots, Dolphins, Colts, Eagles and Giants. His Monday workout with New England’s running backs coach may prove to be the barometer on whether Hairston is drafted. Scott Pioli, the Patriots’ vice president of player personnel, is a CCSU graduate. New England is also actively seeking a running back after the departure of Corey Dillon, the player with whom Hairston is most often compared because of his size and bruising running style.

Still, Hairston keeps everything in perspective.

"There’s only 240 or 250 guys drafted each year out of over 2,000," Hairston said. "To be in that top percentile is remarkable. It would be a dream come true to be drafted, but I understand the reality at hand. I’m humbled by it all and thankful for the opportunity."


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