The University of Florida’s storied NFL draft history gets a little greater every year, with the 2021 event further cementing the Gators’ place among college football’s top producers of NFL talent.
For the second consecutive year, eight Gators heard their names called over the course of the three-day NFL Draft, with an additional handful of athletes inking free-agent deals in the days that followed. The Gator grab was highlighted by Kyle Pitts, who became the highest drafted tight end ever when the Atlanta Falcons called his name with the No. 4 overall pick. Wide receiver Kadarious Toney was drafted at No. 20 by the New York Giants, marking the first time since Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony in 1997 that the Gators had two skill position players selected in the first round.
It takes a lot more than performance on the field for a player to go from The Swamp to the pros. Whether it is a top-five pick like Pitts or one of the many free-agent signees, every player in head coach Dan Mullen’s program strives to live up to the Gator standard the moment they don the orange and blue.
The Gator standard means having competitive excellence in every endeavor, according to Vernell Brown, director of Student-Athlete Development. Brown served as a captain on the 2005 Gators squad and was dubbed The Face of Florida Football by then-head coach Urban Meyer for his tireless work ethic. He now leads the charge, ironically, behind the scenes.
“Whether it’s at sports, school, or corporate America, wherever you land, it’s about the performing in the top 1%. That’s ultimately what it’s about,” Brown said after the NFL draft.
As the university’s professional football liaison, Brown connects players with NFL scouts and coaches long before the annual draft. Sending lists of available players out to NFL scouts, coordinating interviews and workouts and preparing players to succeed at the next level is all in a day’s work for Brown, beginning the moment the draft ends. Though players like Pitts, Toney or quarterback Kyle Trask, who joined the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the final pick of the second round, are already front and center on NFL draft boards, Brown’s work can make a big difference for a later-round pick or an undrafted free agent.
While Brown’s work and simply playing in the Southeastern Conference affords players exposure on the field, UF’s Otis Hawkins Center serves to help athletes achieve the Gator standard away from it.
The 82,000-square foot, state-of-the-art facility hosts a variety of services for student athletes, from tutoring and counseling to internships and job placement programs for those going pro in something other than football.
Projected to start at quarterback for the Gators in the fall, potential 2022 draft pick Emory Jones is one of the many players that make good use of the campus hub.
“The Hawkins Center is definitely a big resource for us as student athletes since they offer a lot of resources for everybody that can help us all out, academically and socially,” Jones said.
The Hawkins Center’s essential mission is to take top-notch athletes and produce first-rate professionals, regardless of their professional league prospects. The center works toward this mission through an extensive array of educational services and programs, such as Gator Life, which coaches players on life outside of football.
“The opportunities that you get both on and off the field here at Florida is really what separates us and makes us special,” Coach Mullen said.
UF truly does stand out from the crowd.
Producing the best of the best does not stop when the draft ends. With mock drafts and projections for the Class of 2022 gaining steam in the news cycle, the train keeps moving. Brown’s team has already started sending out the first round of player lists to the NFL’s 32 teams while simultaneously getting those prospects ready off the field through the Hawkins Center.
Although his job primarily steers him to focus on the future, Brown wants to assure the 50-plus former Gators who have moved on to the NFL know they can always return home to Gainesville.
“For us, it doesn’t matter where you go in the NFL draft. It’s a matter of where you left off with the University of Florida,” Brown said. “If a player who left early decides to come back and get their degree, we make that as easy as possible.”
On and off the field, the Gator standard is golden, giving NFL draft picks and all other UF students a chance to be the best they can be.
2021 Florida Gators Draft Picks
Name Position Round (Pick) Team
Kyle Pitts Tight End 1 (4) Atlanta Falcons
Kadarius Toney Wide Receiver 1 (20) New York Giants
Kyle Trask Quarterback 2 (64) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Marco Wilson Cornerback 4 (136) Arizona Cardinals
Evan McPherson Kicker 5 (149) Cincinnati Bengals
Shawn Davis Safety 5 (165) Indianapolis Colts
Tedarrell Slaton Defensive Tackle 5 (173) Green Bay Packers
Stone Forsythe Offensive Tackle 6 (208) Indianapolis Colts
Undrafted Free Agent signings
Donovan Stiner Safety Pittsburgh Steelers
Feleipe Franks Quarterback Atlanta Falcons
Trevon Grimes Wide Receiver Philadelphia Eagles
Brett Heggie Offensive Lineman New York Giants
Author: Angela Underwood