Yale safety Than Merrill began his college career as a quarterback at Stanford
The 'Than' in Than Merrill, by the way, is short for Nathaniel.
That might make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new safety from Yale seem a little less exotic, but the path he took to the NFL is certainly far from ordinary.
How did this California kid, a star high school passer in one of the nation's most football-rich states, wind up at Yale?
Well, not surprisingly, Merrill was not just the quarterback at Fresno High, but also his class' Valedictorian. Yale gave him a recruiting pitch during his senior year, but Merrill didn't give it much thought.
"I brushed it off at first because I was a California guy and Yale was far away," said Merrill, who had his sights set on playing for Stanford.
And Stanford gave him a scholarship, but he soon found himself switched to safety, and then second on the depth chart at that position. Though he finished with 29 tackles and two interceptions, both in a win over Oregon State, he was looking for more playing time. To transfer but still play without having to sit out a season, Merrill had to move down a division.
And so Yale re-entered the picture. Merrill believed his football career could continue to flourish in the Ivy League.
"I knew Ivy league schools were really good schools football wise and I knew they had a really good defense," he said. "So I got on a plane and came out and looked at Yale and the coach's seemed really impressed. Plus, I knew I could play right away and that was one of the major reasons."
That was never an issue at Yale. Described in the media guide as the 'biggest DB on (the) team,' the 6-3, 220-pound Merrill started nine games in his first year with the Bulldogs, playing both strong and free safety and racking up 69 tackles and one interception. He even returned kickoffs for a bit, running back six kicks for 88 yards. By his junior campaign, he was an All-Ivy first-teamer and the winner of Yale's Hammer Award, given to the team's hardest hitter.
He had 77 tackles and four picks that season, then came back with 56 stops as senior and once again won all-conference honors. And, while he might have run into former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton at Stanford, there was no shortage of star power at Yale, either.
"It's not uncommon to see (former President) George Bush out here walking around with some secret service," said Merrill. "It's not uncommon to see public figures and politicians come out of Yale."
It is uncommon, of course, to see professional football players emerge from Yale. Merrill is the first Ivy Leaguer ever drafted by the Buccaneers. He couldn't remember the last player from his school to be drafted by any NFL team, though he may not have realized that, even as he spoke those words, his teammate, TE Eric Johnson went to San Francisco with the very next pick. Princeton T Dennis Norman had been selected by Seattle with the selection just before Tampa Bay, but those three were the only Ivy Leaguers to get the call this year.
Merrill will be competing with rookie CB Dwight Smith, among others, for a spot on the Buccaneers roster this summer. Smith, Tampa Bay's third-round pick, would be an equally unprecedented player on the team's all-time roster, as no Akron product has ever played for the Buccaneers. Only one other Akron player was ever on the Bucs' draft list: P Daron Alcorn, taken in the eighth round in 1993. Alcorn did not make the team.
On the other hand, guard Russ Hochstein, the team's fifth-round selection, could join a long list of former Nebraska Cornhuskers to play for Tampa Bay, including linebackers Broderick Thomas and Jimmy Williams and cornerback Tyrone Legette.
Nebraska, which seems to treat the passing game as a semi-necessary evil, has scouts eyeing its running backs and offensive linemen every fall. Tampa Bay has taken liberally from the Nebraska running back stable, employing such Husker runners as Jeff Smith, Rick Berns and Tony Davis, but surprisingly has never before dipped into the Nebraska O-line pool.
None of the 12 Cornhuskers that have donned Buc unis was an offensive lineman and Hochstein is the first front-line player to be drafted by Tampa Bay out of Nebraska.
Kenyatta Walker was one of 30 underclassmen selected in the draft this weekend. That continues a bit of a trend for Gators-turned-Buccaneers.
Both of the Bucs' Florida alum receivers, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green, left school a year early to join the NFL. Anthony was a first-round pick in 1997, Green a second-round choice a year later.
Anthony and Green are now seasoned veterans on what remains a very young Buccaneer roster, but Walker just recently turned 22. The team's new lineman is not, however, the youngest player on the roster after the draft (and before the addition of undrafted free agents). Walker was born on February 1, 1979, seven days before FB Jameel Cook, the team's first sixth-round selection. But the title of youngest Buc goes to Mississippi State DE Ellis Wyms also taken in the seventh round, who was born on May 12, 1979.
Walker was one of 13 underclassmen to go in the first round, joining such notable names as wide receivers Freddie Mitchell, David Terrell and Koren Robinson, DT Gerard Warren and, of course, QB Michael Vick.
Going into the draft, the Bucs had Kenyatta Walker tabbed as the only player they would be willing to trade up to acquire. Walker was actually the second offensive tackle chosen, however, as Texas' Leonard Davis went to Arizona with the second pick overall.
Walker was also the second of four Florida players drafted, following DT Gerard Warren, who went third to Cleveland.
Here's where the Buccaneers' other picks fell in relation to their positions and schools:
- Dwight Smith was the 19th defensive back selected and was the only Akron player drafted.
- John Howell was the 25th defensive back selected and the first of two Colorado State players drafted.
- Russ Hochstein was the eighth guard selected and the fifth of seven Nebraska players drafted.
- Jameel Cook was the 17th running back selected and the second of two Illinois players drafted.
- Ellis Wyms was the 17th player listed as a defensive tackle to be selected and the fourth of four Mississippi State players drafted.
- Dauntae' Finger was the 12th tight end selected and the fourth of four North Carolina players drafted.
- Than Merrill was the 43rd defensive back selected and the first of two Yale players drafted.
- Joe Tafoya was the 21st defensive end selected and the second of two Arizona players drafted.