Few footsteps to follow at Rice
Casey, Dillard hope to create a higher NFL profile for the Owls' program
By MEGAN MANFULL Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
April 15, 2009, 9:47PM
1 2 3 .
Brett Coomer Houston Chronicle
Receiver Jarett Dillard, holder of the NCAA career touchdown receptions record, may be picked as early as the third round.
RANKINGS AP | USA Today Top 25 | BCS James Casey knew the day he declared for the NFL draft that he no longer could step on the field and play for Rice. But Casey is determined to help continue building up the program in other ways.
For the past three months, the tight end has worked to position himself to become the school’s highest draft pick since running back Earl Cooper was taken 13th overall in 1980. With teammate Jarett Dillard, a receiver, expected to be drafted as high as the third round, draft day will be a historic one for Rice.
It has been more than 60 years since the Owls had two players taken in the first three rounds. And few can deny the significance it may have on the program.
“It’s huge because when you’re a 16-, 17-year-old recruit, you’re not really thinking about a great education and how a Rice degree is going to help you in the future,” said N.D. Kalu, a Rice alum and former NFL defensive lineman. “Your main concern is, ‘Can I get to the NFL if I go to this school?’ And that’s been the knock on Rice.”
When Casey weighed his options two years ago, he did look for the list of Rice players in the NFL. Casey found Kalu and New York Jets linebacker Larry Izzo — two players who put together decade-long careers.
It was enough for Casey to decide his own NFL dreams were a possibility even if he chose Rice.
“You look at where me and Jarett were coming into Rice — totally unknowns,” said Casey. “And because we went to Rice, we were given some opportunities that maybe if we went other places we might not have had.
“If me or him had gone to Texas, we might have had to sit on the bench for a while before getting some opportunities. But coming to Rice, we were able to play. If you’re good, you’re good. People are going to recognize it.”
In the past, NFL scouts haven’t always rated Rice players too high, though. Izzo was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1996 by the Miami Dolphins. He is now a three-time Pro Bowler and has played in 159 of 160 regular-season games over the past 10 years.
O.J. Brigance also was undrafted out of Rice. He went on to have a seven-year NFL career after a successful stint in the Canadian Football League. Brigance, one of the few players to win championships in the NFL and the CFL, was an inspiration to Kalu and Izzo.
“I remember watching O.J. play in the Grey Cup and pointing him out to my dad, saying, ‘Look, that guy played at Rice,’” Izzo said. “It definitely inspired me and gave me some hope that I had an opportunity to play at the next level as well.”
Now, Izzo and Kalu are doing the same with current players at Rice.
“You see that (Kalu) had a tremendous career, as well as Larry Izzo,” Dillard said. “Just seeing what these guys have done. Not having the big name coming out of Rice, they have made a name for themselves in the NFL. It’s a big help for me as well as other players at Rice right now.”
Kalu said Rice players may not have an easy road to the NFL, but their patience can pay off.
“I can tell — even though (Dillard) won’t say it — but he’s a little frustrated, because he’s done everything asked to do as a receiver, but yet when you look at the rankings, he’s at the bottom or the middle of the list,” Kalu said. “He’s not thought of as one of the top draft picks.
“I just let him know it’s that Rice stigma, because he didn’t play in a big-time conference. It’s going to hurt him. But Rice guys are the type of guys that once we get in camp we prove ourselves.”