The primary objective for Darren Waller and Shaquille Mason is to hear their names called during this weekend’s NFL draft and to begin their professional careers. Beyond that, however, they hope to do their part to further undo the pigeon holing that has often accompanied the offense that has helped bring them to the doorstep of the NFL.
Mason, Tech’s All-American guard and a driving force behind the Yellow Jackets’ Orange Bowl championship, will likely become the first offensive lineman signed by coach Paul Johnson to be drafted. Waller, as well as DeAndre Smelter, can extend the lineage of wide receivers sent to the NFL by Johnson.
“Freddie (Burden), ‘Chambo’ (Bryan Chamberlain) and (Errin) Joe, they’re all saying, ‘Man, you’ve got to do it for us so they’ll see that the option can produce offensive linemen,” Mason said, speaking of his former linemates still with the Jackets. “They all want me to go ahead and open that gate for them.”
Waller and Mason are among six former Tech players hoping to land jobs in the NFL this weekend, and likely the two who will learn their fate the earliest. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Waller could go in the third or fourth round and pegged Mason as a fourth- or fifth-rounder. The end of the draft is precariously projected, but Smelter could be a later-round pick, as could linebacker Quayshawn Nealy and safety Isaiah Johnson. B-backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey may go as undrafted free agents. (If you're interested, there are in-depth scouting reports on Days, Mason, Nealy, Smelter and Waller here.)
Interest in Waller has been high since he followed his strong finish to his senior season with a head-turning performance in practices at the East-West Shrine Game and then a positive showing at the draft combine. Arizona and San Francisco both brought Waller out to their headquarters – strong evidence of their interest, as teams are allowed only 30 such visits. He also had private workouts with the Falcons, Cincinnati, New England and Tampa.
He would be the third Tech receiver to play for Johnson to be drafted, following Demaryius Thomas (first round, Denver, 2010) and Stephen Hill (second round, New York Jets, 2012). Thomas played his first season for then-coach Chan Gailey, but developed into in an All-American playing for Johnson.
Beginning with the 2010 draft, only three present ACC teams have had more than two wide receivers drafted, and Tech’s first- and second-round selections in that span compares favorably with Miami’s three (third, fourth and sixth) and Pittsburgh’s trio (first, fifth and seventh). (Clemson is the other, with four – two first-rounders and two fourth-rounders) By the end of the seventh round Saturday, Tech may have boosted its number to four.
Asked what he would tell a high-school wide receiver prospect considering Tech, Waller said, “I’d say, ‘Don’t listen to what everybody has to say about playing receiver at Tech. It teaches you a lot more than just catching the ball and things along those lines. It teaches you how to be unselfish and a team player. At the end of the day, 90 percent of the time you get a one-on-one matchup, so what more can you ask for? Coach Johnson is open to throwing it if you prove it day-by-day in practice.’”
Like Waller, Mason’s draft window may open in the third round Friday night. There is undoubtedly interest. Mason took five visits to the headquarters of NFL teams (he declined to identify them).
“More teams like me at center than guard, typically because of the height situation, but I have no problem moving inside to center,” Mason said. “That’s what I’ve been training at all offseason.”
He will be the first Tech offensive lineman to be drafted since Andrew Gardner was taken in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. Gardner played his senior season for Johnson after three seasons with former coach Chan Gailey.
“It would definitely mean a lot (to be the first Johnson-signed offensive lineman to be drafted) because it’d be a steppingstone and bridge that gap for Tech offensive linemen,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of those guys behind me that are good. It’d be nice to open that gate for those guys.”