After word started to leak a little earlier this week about the possibility of Missouri defensive end and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Shane Ray leaving the Tigers for the NFL, the star defensive player made the announcement official Wednesday. Ray will forgo his senior season at Missouri and enter the NFL Draft this spring.
Ray was a consensus All-American this season and his departure to the NFL comes as no surprise given his production and draft stock at the end of the 2014 season. In mid-November, Josh Norris of Rotoworld ranked Ray sixth among edge rushers behind players like Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Baylor’s Shawn Oakman, although some believe Ray has become worthy of a top 10 pick. Missouri has a decent track record with sending defensive linemen through the NFL Draft. Under head coach Gary Pinkel, 10 of the 27 Mizzou players to be drafted have been defensive linemen. Last year’s draft saw Missouri send defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam through the draft.
Ray recorded 65 tackles this past season, including 47 solo tackles and a team-high 22.5 tackles for as loss. Among those tackles for a loss were a team-high 14.5 sacks. Together with the graduation of Markus Golden, Mizzou will lose its top two sack-producers heading into 2015.
One of the best parts of the Michael Sam story at Missouri, where Sam informed his teammates he was gay and nobody made a peep about it the entire season, was how respectful the entire football program was of a historic moment in sports. Sam became the first openly gay football player at the highest level of college football and later went on to become the first openly gay football player drafted by an NFL team, the St. Louis Rams. Now the entire program is being recognized for how it handled Sam and his news.
The SEC awarded Missouri’s football team with a sportsmanship award for how the entire team responded and respected Sam’s wishes to keep the focus on football last fall. In this day and age of instant news and social media and networking, to keep this a secret among the entire team is a testament to the commitment to the team each person associated with the Tigers had, although former quarterback James Franklin said it was more about acceptance instead of support. What makes it even more impressive is the fact the Tigers made a run to the SEC Championship Game, garnering more and more attention from the media along the way in the SEC, the top conference in college football. Sam opened up to his team, asked for it to be kept private until he was ready to go public with it, and everybody bought in, from the players to the coaches.
“Sportsmanship, civility and social responsibility are marks of character that last a lifetime,” said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive in a release from the SEC. “We are proud of these teams from Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia and the women’s golf coaches of the SEC for setting an example for us all.”
The sportsmanship award is voted on by the SEC’s athletic directors. The football teams at Tennessee and South Carolina were each awarded the male sportsmanship award in 2013. Sam was presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in May.
Would Alabama ever recruit a gay football player? If Nick Saban is the head coach, the answer is yes.
The question has been a popular one this offseason, especially in light of the recent NFL Draft seeing Missouri defensive end Michael Sam make some history by becoming the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL franchise. The St. Louis Rams selected the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the seventh round. Sam’s momentous day continues to be opening doors for discussions regarding other openly gay athletes in various sports, college football included.
Asked about whether or not he would recruit an openly gay football player at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida on Tuesday, Saban confirmed he would not hesitate to do so, with a very Saban-esque response.
The response is everything you would hope to hear from a football coach. Saban is saying he would not be opposed to recruiting a gay football player as long as a comfortable environment can be created that works for everyone in the program. Though the quote may come off needing a little more polish, the sentiment is one that would apply to any football recruit. In recruiting, everybody needs to feel comfortable with each other, between coaching staff, players and family.
The SEC sent 49 players through the 2014 NFL Draft, more than any other conference. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the first overall pick in the NFL Draft and some of the other biggest stories followed during the three-day draft event centered around SEC players. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel was the big story of the first round as the Cleveland Browns made a move to draft the former Heisman Trophy winner. Focus shifted to the falling of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, as well as LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Georgia’s Aaron Murray. Then Missouri’s Michael Sam was the headliner with the St. Louis Rams drafting Sam in a historic moment for the NFL.
Yes, the SEC was everywhere you looked during the most recent NFL Draft. This was nothing new of course. Not that you really need another voice telling you just how good the talent coming out of the SEC is when it comes to the NFL Draft, but ESPN college football analyst Todd Blackledge reiterated the point recently at a fundraiser at Samford.
“SEC players, for the most part, are more NFL ready than a lot of players coming from other parts of the country,” Blackledge said, according to a report by AL.com.
“The Draft has been the great indicator here the last several years of where the most talent is in college football,” Blackledge said. “That’s why, up until last year when Florida State won, that the SEC has dominated the national championship picture as well.”
Three SEC schools (Alabama, LSU and Georgia) have sent at least 20 players through the NFL Draft over the last four years. Florida has sent 18 players and South Carolina has sent 17 players to the draft. The numbers speak volumes of the ability to recruit and develop talent ready to enter the NFL.
There may never be a final day of the NFL Draft as memorable or historical as the 2014 edition. Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, became the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team when the St. Louis Rams used one of their final two picks to draft him. It was a proud moment for humanity and equality, and it was not a moment that went unnoticed by President Barack Obama.
“The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward in our Nation’s journey,” a White House statement said, according to USA Today. “From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove everyday that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are,”
There is no telling just what comes next for Sam with the Rams. St. Louis has a loaded defensive line. In addition to drafting Sam, the Rams also drafted Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and the defensive end position looks to be locked down with Chris Long and Robert Quinn on each side. Seventh-round draft picks typically have a difficult time making an NFL roster right away anyway, especially when playing a position that looks to be pretty stable heading into training camp, but the situation just feels right for Sam and the Rams and head coach Jeff Fisher seems committed to seeing this through as far as he can take it.
As for the college game, Sam’s monumental steps will hopefully help others facing a similar position that it is possible to be openly gay without the fear of one day being shut out by the NFL. The story is still being written of course, but Sam’s tale at Missouri is one worth learning from.