May 11, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- There was a sense of exhilaration and relief for Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward and linebacker Chris Borland after each got selected in the third round of the National Football League draft. Especially after dealing with a “wrong day” and a “wrong number.”
Southward, who went No. 68 overall to the Atlanta Falcons, and Borland, who went No 77 to the San Francisco 49ers, were two of five UW players taken in the three-day, seven-round 2014 draft. Four more of their former teammates wound up signing free agent contracts.
“We had a number of guys at Wisconsin that I thought were really good players -- possibly second-round picks, possibly first-round picks,” Southward said. “It was just the way the draft rolled and it just so happened that I was the guy to get my named called first, and I was fortunate for that.”
Southward was speaking Saturday from his draft party, a gathering of friends and family in Toledo, Ohio, where his step-dad, Eli Rasheed, is the defensive line coach at the University of Toledo.
“I expected to go (Saturday),” Southward admitted.
Round 1 was selected on Thursday; Rounds 2-3 on Friday; Rounds 4-7 on Saturday.
“I knew there was little chance I would go yesterday (Friday),” Southward said.
So you can imagine his surprise when he got the phone call from the Falcons.
“It was a huge shock to me,” he said.
And it’s why he scheduled the draft party for Saturday.
|“I would hope it definitely helped some,” Southward said of his impressive pro day performance. “I’m just a guy who wants to work and earn my keep there (Atlanta).”
“I didn’t want to have the party Friday and then not go,” he said. “I wanted everyone to be able to have a good time and celebrate. For sure, I knew I was going today (Saturday).”
Southward was a sure thing for the Badgers -- he never missed a game after redshirting as a freshman in 2009. Overall, he had 30 starts and appeared in 54 games, setting the school record. Last season, Southward had the second-most pass breakups on the defense and finished with 40 tackles.
“This is a guy who’s big and fast,” said Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “Really good natural agility and movement for a bigger safety. He had actually one of the best three-cone times, which is usually an indicator of body control and movement. He has cover skills and very good range.”
Southward opened a lot of eyes during his pro day on the Madison campus. Along with his posted time of 6.50 seconds in the three-cone drill, he ran a 4.31 and 4.38 in the 40. He also had a vertical of 42 inches. For perspective, former UW basketball player Alando Tucker had a 38-inch vertical.
Southward wasn’t sure how much his “measurables” factored into the Falcons’ thinking. “I would hope it definitely helped some,” he said. “But I would also hope that my play here (at Wisconsin) was definitely taken into account. I’m just a guy who wants to work and earn my keep there (Atlanta).”
The Seattle Seahawks have redefined what a secondary should look like physically. Asked about the trend of bigger cornerbacks and more aggressive safeties and how it might have helped his marketability, Southward said, “That, and it helps that teams are throwing the ball 70 times a game.”
The 6-foot, 211-pound Southward pointed to a combination of things.
“The game is changing to a passing game,” he said, noting how running backs have been devalued in the draft. “It’s not because of a lack of talent in this class. But the big emphasis is on quarterbacks and receivers and on getting DBs who can run with these guys and get stops.”
Reflecting on how far he has come since that fateful day when he was talked into going out for football during his senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Southward conceded that “I had no idea at all” back then that it would end up this way: a third-round draft pick.
“But that was a good thing,” he said of his late start with the sport, “because I was always playing the game to get better. I was playing the game for all of the right reasons. It wasn’t until this past year that I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve really got a shot to play at the next level.”’
On Saturday, he confided, “I still can’t put it into words. It hasn’t quite sunk in. I’m blessed.”
Southward was still trying to make sense of it all, particularly after being drafted ahead of Borland. “I was absolutely shocked,” he said. “The 49ers got an unbelievable steal. I thought he was a first-round talent. I think a lot of people would agree.”
• • • •
Borland watched Thursday’s first round with his parents and one of his brothers in Kettering, Ohio. “It was pretty low key,” he said. “I didn’t really expect a whole lot. Most things I had heard was that I wasn’t projected in the first round. I thought it was a long shot.”
Near the end of the first round, though, Borland’s phone rang.
“Denver was on the clock,” he said. “I had seen and heard that I was projected to Denver by some people and that made my heart skip a beat when my phone rang. My parents and brother got real quiet and I said, ‘Hello.’ There was this moment of silence then, ‘I think I have the wrong number.’”
Collecting himself, Borland sighed and said, “Bad timing for a wrong number.”
His phone didn’t ring the entire second round.
“It was a little nerve-racking,” he said. “You see teams with a need and you keep on falling.”
With each linebacker who was drafted, he couldn’t help but measure himself against them.
“I thought about that a lot,” Borland said. “I thought that there were a bunch of guys that were picked that I was better than, so I’ll just have to show it. They’re all good players, but I guess I’ll just have to prove to the teams that passed on me that they were wrong.”
Borland is convinced that everything happens for a reason and he couldn’t have been happier when his phone finally rang and the 49ers were on the other end. He talked to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, who spent three decades coaching college players like Borland.
At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Borland got an opportunity to visit one-on-one with San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh. “And it went well,” said Borland, who was even more excited to hear from Harbaugh on Friday. “He asked me, “Are you ready to be a 49er?”’
What do you think?
“I think ultimately,” Borland said, “I ended up in a perfect spot.”
On Saturday morning, Borland spoke again with Leavitt and got a feel for what kind of role he might play on defense. He also spoke with 49ers assistant coach Greg Jackson, who spent the 2010 season on Bret Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin. Jackson assists with the San Francisco secondary.
Another UW connection, indirectly, is 49ers quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, the brother of former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Borland got in touch with him, too, along with a couple of former teammates, Scott Tolzien and Chris Maragos, who had playing stints in San Francisco.
“I’ve spoken to just about everyone,” said Borland. “I think I’ve got a good start; a good understanding of what to expect, so I’m looking forward to getting out there (Sunday).”
Borland also texted San Francisco’s first two picks: Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward and Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde. Borland got to know Ward in the Senior Bowl. Meanwhile, Borland and Hyde ran into each other -- literally -- more than once as competitors in the Big Ten.
“I’ve sent more text messages these last two days than I did these last two months,” said Borland, who was delighted to be moving on to the next step in the process. “There’s one part excitement for the next opportunity, one part relief from the (draft) build-up; a flood of emotions.”
Borland grew up dreaming about the day he would get drafted.
“It was really cool, really special, something I will always remember,” he said. “There’s nothing that can really prepare you for something like it. You don’t do anything in your life with that much attention. If I ever felt frustrated by that (the pre-draft scrutiny), I just remembered that every guy is going through the same thing. I’m confident that I can play at the next level and play at a high level.”
|“This is an ideal situation for me,” Borland said of San Francisco. “I think I’m going to really fit in well with Coach Harbaugh and what he has established there.”
As a youngster, Borland was raised in Ohio as a fan of the Green Bay Packers -- his dad went to high school in Madison -- and he said that it would have been “great” to be drafted by Green Bay.
“But like I said before, this is an ideal situation for me,” Borland stressed. “From a culture standpoint, I think I’m going to really fit in well with Coach Harbaugh and what he has established there, and even more specifically with the 3-4 defense and the way they play it.”
In making the conversion from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4, UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda used the 49ers as a model to teach some of the new techniques. “It was identical from the general sense of run fits (for the linebackers),” Borland said.
San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke may have a better understanding than most of what he’s getting from Wisconsin because of his Cheesehead roots. Born in Milwaukee, he lived in Rosendale and went to Laconia High School. Addressing Borland’s savvy, he said, “He’s everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint.”
Along the same lines, Harbaugh said, “Some of the plays he (Borland) makes, the instinct that he has, the way that he sees the game, you know he studies it because of the way he (plays) … He’s like a bowling ball hitting pins. He’s got that kind of strike.”
On the same page was NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who said of Borland’s selection, “In a division of hardheads, the 49ers have just added a thundering hardhead. He’s too short. He’s too slow. I don’t care -- he can play.”
Shortly after Borland was drafted, he heard from James White, a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots.
“James reached out to me and congratulated me and I just told him he’s going to be a long-time pro,” Borland said. “He has been polished since high school. He does everything the right way. It’s not surprising that he went to New England. That’s a perfect fit for him. He’ll get a chance to play with Tom Brady and James will be a great third-down back and ultimately an every-down guy.”
New England coach Bill Belichick sounded upbeat about White’s versatility and potential.
“They’ve had a lot of good backs come out of Wisconsin,” Belichick said Saturday. “They had one (Montee Ball) come out last year. They’ve got White this year. They’ll probably get another one (Melvin Gordon) next year.
“I’d say he (White) is a guy that has shown four-down value. He’s been productive catching the ball. He has a high average per carry. He can run inside. He can run outside. He makes good space plays and he can get some tough yards.”
Southward was thrilled to hear that White was going to New England.
“Man, that’s a great place for him to be,” he said. “How much better could you want it? You’ve got Montee out there (Denver) playing with Payton Manning and now James is going to play with Tom Brady, two of the best quarterbacks to ever do it.”
Southward also couldn’t have been happier for Jared Abbrederis, a fifth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers. “We had conversations before the draft,” Southward recounted, “and we said, ‘Hey, there’s no way we’re going to the Packers. They just don’t take Wisconsin guys.”’
Abbrederis is the first UW player to be taken by the Packers since 2001, when they drafted offensive guard Bill Ferrario in the fourth round.
“How many receivers get to come right out of college and play with Aaron Rodgers?” Southward posed rhetorically. “It will help him develop his game even faster. That’s a huge sleeper for them (the Packers). He was a guy who could have gone a lot earlier.
“He’s a football player. That’s the most important thing to know about Abby. Anything you ask him to go out and do on the field, he’ll do it. He has proven that time and time again over the course of his career with us and I’m sure he will do it with the Packers.”
The last Wisconsin player drafted was defensive tackle Beau Allen, who went in the seventh round to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I thought he was really, really underrated,” Southward said. “There aren’t many guys I would take over him at the 0-technique (nose guard). He’ll prove that once he gets there. He’s a tough guy, a smart guy and, actually, pretty quick for his size. I’m excited for Beau.”
Southward’s excitement carried over to the Badgers who will sign as free agents: Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak with Atlanta, Ethan Hemer with Pittsburgh and Ryan Groy with Chicago.
Speaking for everyone involved in the draft process, Borland concluded, “It has been a whirlwind; there’s been a lot going on, a lot of people to talk to and meet.”
But he wouldn’t trade it for anything. Neither would the others.