FAIRFIELD — The Vanden and Rodriguez high school football teams played one of the most storied games in city history on windy Nov. 14, 2008. The underdog Vikings rallying from a 15-0 deficit in the fourth quarter for a 21-15 victory that decided the Solano County Athletic Conference championship.
Rodriguez senior Jason Verrett and Vanden junior Deone Bucannon each played key roles in the game, the former rushing for 33 yards on seven carries (alas, no defensive stats for the Mustangs are available), the latter amassing five solo and 17 assisted tackles.
By way of Santa Rosa Junior College, Verrett went on to star for three years at cornerback for Texas Christian University, receiving all-American honors as a senior.
Bucannon went straight to Washington State, for which he started all four years at safety and also was named an all-American.
The two will be on a much bigger stage this week – New York’s Radio City Music Hall in the case of Verrett – as both are expected to be taken within the first three rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. Rodriguez High graduate Marcel Jensen, a tight end out of Fresno State, is also projected to be selected.
The first round of the draft is Thursday, the second and third rounds are Friday, and the fourth through seventh rounds are Saturday.
The toughest part for all three has been the wait, their collegiate careers having ended four months ago. The time in between has been filled with the NFL Combine, pro days and generally trying to make a good impression for 32 prospective employers.
“Oh, man, it still hasn’t hit me, it’s surreal,” said Verrett, who’s projected to go anywhere from 22nd to 42nd in a survey of just a few of the dozens of mock drafts. “When I get on a plane for New York, that moment, then it’s here. Right now I’m just relaxing, soaking it all in.”
For Bucannon, whose first named is pronounced “day-own” and estimates “probably 20 percent” of people say it correctly, he’s glad the wait is over.
“Oh, man, it’s crazy, kind of like a relief,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. I put myself in a position – everyone (considered)
has – to be drafted. It’s surreal. I’m sure when it does happen it’s going to be emotional.”
Jensen said he’s feeling plenty of emotions already as the draft approaches.
“I feel anxiety, nervousness, excitement – it’s terrible,” he said. “It’s bad just because of the mixed emotions. It’s exciting at the same time. I want to know where I’m going, I want to know what team I’m playing for, I want to know the fan base. It’s a big time of my life coming up. At the time I committed to Fresno, that was a phase of my life. Now it’s the next phase.”
Despite being only 5-foot-9, 189 pounds, Verrett made a name for himself as one of the top lock-down corners in the nation. His story was intriguing enough for him to be on “The Jim Rome Show” on Wednesday, drawing a chuckle from the host by calling him “boss” as the interview wrapped up.
After an injury-plagued junior year at Rodriguez – Verrett played in only six games during the Mustangs’ run to the 2007 Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title – he showed great versatility as a senior.
He rushed for 785 yards and nine touchdowns, caught 17 passes for 333 yards and two TDs, averaged 50.3 yards on four kickoff returns and led the team with four interceptions in 2008.
With no scholarships offered to him, Verrett followed several former Mustangs to SRJC as a slot receiver/running back but starred as a cornerback. He drew the attention of TCU and as an academic qualifier was able to transfer after just one year at the JC level.
“At TCU I had a chip on my shoulder,” Verrett said. “I always have the heart of a lion on the football field.”
He showed it by leading the nation in passes defended from the start of the 2012 season through 2013 with 38 (8 interceptions and 30 pass breakups). That helped him earn co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior.
“It’s exciting to see how he’s grown from his high school days to where he is now,” said David Fishleigh, Verrett’s coach at Rodriguez and now the coach at Fairfield High.
Verrett certainly displayed “where he is now” at the NFL Combine, where he dazzled. Among cornerbacks, he ranked first in the 20-yard shuttle (4 seconds), second in the 40-yard dash (4.38 se-conds), tied for third in the vertical jump (39 inches) and broad jump (10-8) and third in the 3-cone drill (6.69).
Because of a torn labrum, suffered during the 2013 season, Verrett didn’t do the bench press until his pro day at TCU, where he did 19 reps.
“I killed the drills at the combine,” Verrett said. “I ran a 4.38 40. I thought I tested well, I did all the drills and did everything right with pro day. It was something to show the coaches.”
Of Verrett, Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com wrote, “A tough, scrappy, undersized nickel back with potential to emerge as a No. 2 corner, Verrett’s body is not ideally built to withstand the rigors of a starting job. An outstanding football player in the mold of feisty Titans 2006 seventh-round pick Cortland Finnegan.”
Verrett’s overall grade was 5.75, meaning that by being between 5.50 and 5.99 he has a “chance to become (an) NFL starter.”
Sports Illustrated has Verrett going to the Cincinnati Bengals with the 24th overall selection.
Chris Burke of SI said of Verrett, “When all is said and done, Verrett may prove to be the standout corner of this class. Cincy’s secondary could use a youth infusion.”
Verrett has no idea where he’ll end up, though he’s confident he’ll go in the first round.
“All I can do is wait for the phone call,” Verrett said. “There’s nothing I can do to control it.”
Bucannon packed up in Pullman, Wash., last week before driving home to Vacaville to spend the draft with family and friends.
“I’ve been here (in Washington) so long, it’s kind of crazy going to a new place,” he said, “I’m just trying to be ready for it, it’s just the next chapter in my life.”
It’s a chapter he’s prepared for. The two-time SCAC Defensive Player of the Year finished fourth in Washington State history in career tackles (384), second in career solo tackles (268) and third in career interceptions (15).
He also did well at the NFL Combine. Among safeties, he was second in the broad jump (10-5), third in the 3-cone drill (6.96) and bench press (19), and tied for third in the 40 (4.49) and vertical jump (36-5).
“I felt I put up competitive numbers,” Bucannon said. “I felt I could’ve done better. At the same time, I had good numbers. I felt happy leaving, I was just happy I had the opportunity.”
He had a time of 5.32 with those between 5.00 and 5.49 rated as “NFL backup or (having) special teams potential.”
“Although he’s built like a cornerback, Bucannon’s style of play makes it easy to identify him as a tone-setting strong safety,” Nawrocki wrote. “Has coverage limitations, but brings the aggressive and physicality to carve a niche as a downhill box defender and core special-teams player.”
The consensus on Bucannon is that he’s a big hitter, though he’s sometimes out of position in coverage and in making tackles.
“It’s kind of funny, everyone finds something to pick at,” Bucannon said. “That’s why it’s kind of crazy. At the same time it’s constructive criticism. I take it with a grain of salt. . . . It just motivate me, honestly, it makes me a better player. I understand, everyone has their own opinion why I’m good, why I’m not good. I want a chance to prove people right, prove people wrong. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
But where? Sports Illustrated has him going midway through the second round to the Miami Dolphins with the 50th overall pick.
Of that possible selection, Burke wrote, “Louis Delmas’ injury history makes finding another reliable safety option a necessity. Bucannon plays with Delmas-like aggression.”
“First round, second round, I’m just happy for the opportunity,” Bucannon said. “That’s how I truly feel. Each and every moment of the draft, I’ll wait for my name to be called. I’m not going to be mad (having to wait). I’m going be happy because I’ll be given an opportunity – whatever round, whatever team, whatever pick it is, I’m excited about it.”
So is his coach at Vanden, LeVon Haynes.
“It is an honor to have someone from your program who is being highly considered in the draft right now,” the coach said. “I really think of all the hard work he put in in high school and kept the same work ethic when he went to college, I just think it’s amazing. I know his parents have to be extremely proud. I can only imagine what he’s going through with the wait.”
Of the three local players, Jensen will likely have the longest wait. But seven years ago, thoughts of an NFL career would’ve been absurd. He wasn’t even a football player.
“Marcel didn’t play football his junior year, he only played basketball.” said Fishleigh, who also coached Jensen at Rodriguez. “He came a long way in a year to get a scholarship to go to Fresno.”
Jensen describes how far he’s come since he first put on the pads for the Mustangs as “light years.”
“In high school I was just out there running around having fun,” Jensen said. “I really thought I was going to be a basketball player. I didn’t play my junior year because I focused on basketball. Josh Keys persuaded me to play football.”
Indeed, playing on the same front line as future NFL linebacker James-Michael Johnson, Jensen was most noted for blocking shots and approached football the same way, swatting away passes like so many weak layup attempts.
Despite missing five games with a broken hand, Jensen did enough “running around” to draw the attention of recruiters and landed a spot with Fresno State.
His career with the Bulldogs was slowed by a broken leg his freshman year and attempts to turn him into an offensive lineman.
Once they put Jensen at tight end he excelled, earning all-Mountain West Conference honorable mention as a junior, all-MWC second-team honors as a senior with 26 catches for 353 yards and three TDs.
“They did great job progessing me to come into my own as a football player,” Jensen said of the Bulldogs coaches. “I’m grateful for that.”
The 6-foot-6, 259-pound Jensen suffered a slight muscle tear that forced him to miss the Senior Bowl, but was able to take part in the NFL Combine. Not surprisingly, he excelled in the vertical jump, finishing second among tight ends at 35-0. He also tied for sixth in the bench press (24) and tied for seventh in the 3-cone drill (7.38).
Jensen was especially pleased with his pro day in Fresno where he had former Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr, a top prospect, making the throws.
“At the combine you’ve got guys you don’t know throwing to you.” Jensen said. “I was a lot more relaxed at the pro day. My quarterback was throwing to me, I was playing with my boys.”
Jensen’s overall score from the combine was 5.26, putting him in the same category as Bucannon as a probable backup.
Of Jensen, Nawrocki wrote, “Strapping, athletic, long-armed, ascending talent who did not play a starring role in a run-and-gun, receiver-dominated spread offense, but has raw physical tools to develop into a balanced ‘Y’ tight end. Should only get better and has potential to become an asset in the running game and a mismatch in the passing game.”
Most mock drafters have Jensen going in the seventh round, though NFLmock.com had him going in the fifth round to the Baltimore Ravens.
So where does Jensen think he’ll go? “I have no clue, honestly,” he said. “I know it’ll be the third day at some point. It’s not something I’m really concerned about. I’m just blessed and excited about the opportunity I’m going to receive because there’s lot of people out there who would love to be in my position.”
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.