LB DeMeco Ryans was Alabama's first consensus All-America pick since Chris Samuels in 1999
(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans.)
When DeMeco Ryans attended the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, it was his second trip to Indianapolis in two months.
The NFL scouts waiting at the RCA Dome in February were on a fact-finding mission in regards to the Alabama linebacker and his fellow draft prospects. They wanted to see for themselves just how fast, quick, strong and smart Ryans is.
In contrast, the NCAA officials who invited Ryans to Indy on January 8 already knew everything they needed to know about him.
Ryans' first trip to Indianapolis, on January 8, was to attend the NCAA Honors Celebration, where he was presented with an NCAA Top VIII award. That honor recognizes outstanding achievement in athletics, scholarship and community service and, as the name suggests, it is given to just eight student-athletes each year.
To be clear, that's eight athletes, not just football players. The award is given to a select group of young men or women across all NCAA sports and divisions. Ryans and Brown University's Nicholas Hartigan were the only football players lauded with Top VIII awards at the 2006 ceremonies.
The self-effacing Ryans has had his share of attention and awards since his senior season at Alabama ended with a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech (a game in which Ryans was chosen as the Defensive MVP). He won the Lott Trophy, which is given to the nation's top defensive player and is based on character as well as performance. He was a finalist for the Butkus and Nagurski awards. He was an Arthur Ashe Scholar. He was Alabama's first consensus All-America pick since Chris Samuels in 1999.
We could go on. Seriously. Trophies bearing such names as Draddy, Bednarik, Lombardi, Wuerffel and Bryant either ended up on Ryans' mantle or included him as a finalist. One wonders if he could keep track of them all, until one is told that Ryans graduated from Alabama cum laude in just seven semesters. So, yeah, he probably could.
Oh, and he goes out as the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Guess which award means more to him, that or the ones that honor his character and commitment to education?
"Any achievement that I have received with academics, that's up there in my book because that shows what the real college athlete is about – being a student and an athlete," said Ryans. "All of those scholar-athlete awards are at the top of my book."
All of this is more than just a side note as it pertains to the upcoming draft, where Ryans is expected to be a strong candidate for first-round selection, perhaps in the range where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pick at number 23. Scouts love how his intelligence translates to the field. Ryans isn't off the charts in terms of size or raw speed, but he's instinctive, quick and good at diagnosing plays.
The 6-1, 229-pound had 307 career tackles with the Tide, fifth-most in school history. He played strongside linebacker in Alabama's system but is seen by some as a good fit on the weakside in the NFL, due to his size and quickness. He might be considered a bit small by some teams, though that has never been a hang-up for the Buccaneers, who got Derrick Brooks 28th overall in 1995 because he was "small."
His strengths? "I think just instincts and being around the ball," said Ryans. "I anticipate well on where the ball is going and try to pick up on different audibles and signals that the offense is doing and relay it to my teammates."
Of course, Ryans is also smart enough to know that the scouts still want to see a good 40-time. At the Alabama Pro Day on March 15, he was clocked between 4.6 and 4.7.
"I've been working on it a lot for the past couple months," Ryans said at the Combine. "Ever since our bowl game, I have been out training in Arizona, doing speed work, strength…working on everything, basically, but working a lot on speed."
As good as Ryans was at Alabama, he is still a player on the rise. He didn't even pick up the sport until the ninth grade in high school, or get serious about it until he was in the 11th grade. He calls himself a "late bloomer" when it comes to athletics. He was a learner first, serious about academics since he was in grade school.
"That came from my mom, just because she let me know early you have to get it done in the classroom," said Ryans. "I wasn't real big into sports when I was younger. I played a little baseball, but she always harped on grades so I just kept that with me ever since I was a young boy, and kept it going through college."
Indeed. Ryans graduated with a 3.5 GPA and says he has never run into any trouble with grades or schoolwork, if only to keep out of his mom's doghouse. Even now, as the NFL prepares to call his name on the first day of April's draft, very possibly in the first round, Ryans still values the education he received at Alabama as much as the professional springboard.
"It means everything to me because I know football isn't going to last forever," he said. "You have to have a degree to fall back on just in case things don't go like they planned. I majored in business management, so I'm looking into some type of entrepreneurial activity. I would like to go into real estate, real estate investment or something along those lines."
First things first. Ryans is also serious about football, as evidenced by his post-college work in Arizona. He might not have to fall back on his real estate acumen for some time if this NFL thing works out. So, for now his goal is to be considered in the same class as the likes of Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, Iowa's Chad Greenway and Florida State's Ernie Sims.
"I would like to be mentioned with all the top guys, all the elite guys," he said. "Everyone wants to be one of the best, and one of the elite, so of course I want to be up in there with those guys."