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April 26, 2011

HURT: Tide against Auburn again in NFL draft

It's possible that Thursday night's National Football League Draft will be the final chapter in what has been the most improbable year ever in the history of the Alabama-Auburn series.



It won't necessarily have the importance of Auburn's 2010 duplication of Alabama's 2009 BCS Championship/Heisman Trophy season. It won't have the impact of the Tigers' historic comeback for a one-point win at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

But if one accepts the consensus of what seems to be 10 million 'mock' NFL drafts floating around (at least 1 million of which are generated by Mel Kiper, who must update his ESPN 'Big Board' at least once every 90 seconds), then Auburn might just edge Alabama once again. That's because Kiper, and lots of others, are guessing that AU quarterback Cam Newton will go with the No. 1 pick to Carolina - and Denver, with the No. 2 pick, will follow by choosing Crimson Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus.

That's strictly guesswork. Carolina has not officially said it is choosing Newton. (It's even possible the Panthers could take Dareus.) But if it does shake out with Newton at No. 1 and Dareus at No. 2, it will be the first time two players from different schools in the same state have gone 1-2 in the actual NFL Draft.

Now, there are a couple of asterisks that accompany that statement. Teammates have actually gone 1-2 in the draft on three occasions, most recently in 2000, when Penn State's Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington were the top two picks (although I have to admit Cleveland's pick of Brown was about the least memorable No. 1 choice of the last quarter-century). Thus, players from 'the same state' have gone 1-2 - just not players from different schools in the same state.

Teams that are bitter rivals have had 1-2 picks, most memorably in 1980 when Oklahoma's Billy Sims went first to Detroit and Texas' Johnny 'Lam' Jones went No. 2 to the Jets. But, rivals though they are, Oklahoma isn't in Texas.

The biggest asterisk of all would come from the dual drafts of 1965, and once again - wouldn't you know it - it was Alabama and Auburn that were involved.

Technically, the top two picks of the NFL Draft in 1965 (which was actually held in November 1964) were Auburn running back Tucker Fredrickson and North Carolina fullback Ken Willard. But there was another prospect out there, one who was the second pick of the American Football League draft: a quarterback named Joe Namath.

The Giants, who drafted Fredrickson, and most other teams in the established NFL, passed on Namath, not because of ability or even two big question marks (bad knees and a bad reputation because of his suspension at Alabama). Namath was, if healthy, a once-in-a-generation quarterback prospect. The issue, though, was 'signability.'

Namath had made it clear that he would command a huge salary, and that he preferred to play in the media mecca of New York. The Giants could provide the spotlight, but not the paycheck. So Namath ended up being the No. 2 pick in the AFL draft and signing with the Jets for a salary of $389,000 and a new green Lincoln Continental. The '$400,000 deal' became part of sports lore.

And, when the NFL and AFL merged - in no small part because of Namath - both drafts were 'recognized' by the league's official historians. That means that, technically, Fredrickson was a No. 1 overall pick and Namath was a No. 2, although it wasn't precisely in the same draft. (By the way, the Giants not only passed on Namath to take Fredrickson. Two other first-rounders in the '65 draft, after the Giants' pick: linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Gale Sayers.)

One other AFL-NFL asterisk of note: Although LSU and Grambling were certainly not 'rivals' in 1963, the two Louisiana schools did have top picks Buck Buchannan of Grambling in the AFL, and LSU's Jerry Stovall, the No. 2 pick of the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals.

Still, if Newton and Dareus should go 1-2 on Thursday night, it will be unique in the 'modern day' draft. It will also be the first time (again, excepting the 1965 technicality and a 1961 draft in which Auburn's Ken Rice was the No. 1 pick of the AFL and Tulane's Tommy Mason went No. 1 in the NFL) that the Southeastern Conference has had the first two picks in the draft since Charley Trippi of Georgia and Paul Duhart of Florida went 1-2 in 1945.

Will this draft be as memorable as 1965? Will Newton, a superior athlete, have a Namath-like impact? Will Dareus, if he winds up as the No. 2 pick, go onto the list of No. 2 choices who have surpassed the player chosen before them in NFL history. (Donovan McNabb after Tim Couch? Neal Smith after Aundray Bruce? Tony Dorsett after Ricky Bell?)

One thing is certain. No matter who goes first, it will -- like everything else on the planet for the past year -- be a discussion point in the all-consuming discussion of Alabama vs. Auburn.


Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0225.


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