NEW YORK - After threatening Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing record in college, Kevin Smith now can concentrate — or at least dream about — Sanders’ marks with the Detroit Lions.
The Central Florida running back and nation’s leading rusher in 2007 was chosen atop the third round of the NFL draft Sunday. The Lions even traded up two spots with Miami for the privilege of beginning the second day by grabbing Smith.
Last season, Smith rushed for 2,567 yards and scored 29 touchdowns. Sanders’ set the single-season record with 2,628 in 1988, when he won the Heisman Trophy. He went on to a Hall of Fame career over the next decade with the Lions.
Detroit will settle for a semblance of that from Smith, who left the Conference USA school as a junior after first saying he would return to college.
“I never thought of myself as chasing Barry Sanders. He’s a legend,” Smith said. “My numbers might have been close, but I was just thrilled to be close to someone like that. Now I get to play in the same organization, which is a dream come true.”
And enough to make a guy weep.
“The coach told me that they were going to come up to get me, and he put me on the phone with all the coaches, and I just burst into tears,” Smith admitted.
He was one of two All-Americans chosen in the third round. Penn State linebacker Dan Connor went to Carolina 10 spots later.
Connor left Linebacker U as its career tackles leader with 419. In the last few years, the Panthers have lost some starters at the position, notably Will Witherspoon and Dan Morgan. They hit with Jon Beason, their first-rounder last year, at middle linebacker.
“It’s going to be great to be able to learn under a bunch of great linebackers and guys that have experience,” Connor said. “I’m more looking forward to that, taking it all in and learning from guys who have proven themselves every week on Sundays.”
Other third-rounders looking to prove themselves in the NFL will be defensive back Chevis Jackson (Atlanta), running back Jacob Hester (San Diego) and receiver Early Doucet (Arizona), all from national champion LSU. Hester could fill the role of LaDainian Tomlinson’s stand-in previously held by Michael Turner, now with the Falcons, and the Cardinals need another wideout after losing Bryant Johnson to San Francisco.
Texas running back Jamaal Charles was chosen by Kansas City and West Virginia RB Steve Slaton was taken by Houston. The Giants took Michigan’s big-play receiver, Mario Manningham, who could be groomed to eventually replace former Wolverine Amani Toomer.
New England chose San Diego State quarterback Kevin O’Connell, causing one pundit to remark: “Is this the end of the Tom Brady era?”
Another San Diego area QB went late in the fifth round when Josh Johnson of the University of San Diego Toreros was chosen by Tampa Bay, which has as many quarterbacks as some entire divisions.
Tennessee passer Erik Ainge went to the Jets at No. 162 overall, six spots after Oregon’s Dennis Dixon was taken by Pittsburgh. The Steelers are hoping the fast, versatile Dixon can recover from a severe knee injury to make their team.
Utah State guard Shawn Murphy, son of former baseball star Dale Murphy, went in the fourth round to Miami.
The Bengals grabbed Kansas tackle Anthony Collins, another All-American, midway in the fourth round, one spot after Cleveland got Missouri TE Martin Rucker, also an All-American.
Chicago took LSU safety Craig Steltz in the fourth round. Yep, Steltz was an All-American, too.
Cleveland finally got involved after sitting out the first day with no picks. The Browns took UNLV linebacker Beau Bell 104th overall, and soon after went for Rucker.
Safety Dominique Barber of Minnesota, younger brother of Dallas RB Marion Barber, went to Houston in the sixth round. Hawaii’s record-setting quarterback, Colt Brennan, landed in Washington in that round.
Michigan star runner Mike Hart slipped all the way to 202nd overall, to Indianapolis.
PFT: Jets RB Mike Goodson was charged with five gun and drug counts Friday morning, after New Jersey State Police found the car he was riding in parked in the middle of Route 80 in Denville, N.J.
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