Draft has Huskies hoping

By Matt Stacionis

Justin McCareins has been trying to focus on school, but it’s been hard. The former NIU receiver, along with other players from the graduating class, is turning his eyes to this weekend’s NFL draft in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong quest.

“You think about it every few minutes,” said McCareins, who will spend draft weekend at his parents’ Naperville home. “I’ll probably be nervous in a couple of days.”

McCareins is slated to be drafted around the fifth or sixth round, while offensive tackle Ryan Diem, listed as a draft gem in USA Today, has been a recurring name for the third round. Also mentioned in the draft hype are Huskies offensive center McAllister Collins, defensive backs Buster Sampson and Jermaine Hampton and linebacker Cameron Saulsby.

Diem and McCareins both competed in the NFL combine, and each helped his draft chances, said coach Joe Novak.

Specifically, Diem scored highest in the nation on an intelligence test given to all prospective players, and McCareins was listed higher on lists from Mel Kipper and the Sporting News after his performance.

NIU hasn’t seen a football player drafted since Leshon Johnson in 1994, and has not had two players selected in the same draft since 1987.

“I think in the draft there’s a lot of scenarios,” said NIU receiver coach Sid McNairy. “The biggest thing for Justin is that if he gets drafted, it’s a great honor. … He’s the first guy I’ve ever coached through his whole career. It’s a lot of pride for me, too. He’ll be fine that way.”

McCareins looks at Saturday knowing there’s nothing else he can do. As a receiver, he believes his combined scores were high enough to bolster his draft status, but now he plays the waiting game with other players like UCLA’s Freddie Mitchell and Michigan’s David Terrell.

“I think I helped myself,” he said. “I showed people that I’m just as good as some of those guys. You see those kids that played on national TV every Saturday and realize that they are kids just like you.”

Novak regards the players who have a shot at being selected as he always has — as the ones who showed the most dedication.

“The guys who are getting looked at are all kids who came here for four years and worked their tails off,” Novak said. “They are going to have a chance and it’s because they worked their tails off to get in that position. And I’m glad to see them have that opportunity.”

McCareins hopes his own draft will help players like receivers P.J. Fleck and Darrell Hill, running back Thomas Hammock and quarterback Chris Finlen & all of whom have the next shot at stardom.

If both McCareins and Diem are drafted, NFL scouts might visit NIU more often, as was the case this past season when a variety of teams were represented at every game.

“I really hope Ryan and Justin have their dreams come true,” Fleck said. “They’re really great guys and I’m great friends with Justin. It’s not even in their hand anymore. It’s up to the NFL guys. They’ve done all they can do. They’ve represented the university well. I wish them the best.”

Returning Huskies say they will monitor the draft eagerly.

“I think both those guys have a great future ahead of them,” Finlen said. “They’ve worked hard enough and we’re all going to sit around and watch. Hopefully, they’ll both go on the first day. I think they have a great chance.”

No one has yet predicted which teams would pick up any NIU players.

Novak said he’s received phone calls from nearly every team about one of the six possible picks & and he, too, will watch the draft closely.

Even if some Huskies happen to slip through the cracks of draft weekend, McNairy is confident in their chances for professional football careers.

“Terrell Davis got drafted late,” he said. “Sterling Sharpe was a 192 pick. The good teams know where the talented guys are. Unfortunately, if they know they can get them late, then they’ll take them late.”