Griz CB Jimmy Wilson in a game during 2010. (Photo by Greg Lindstrom)
When the game clock in Washington-Grizzly Stadium showed all zeros following a season-ending loss to rival Bobcats in November, 15 University of Montana seniors walked off the football field with their teammates. The game was over. For all but perhaps a select few, another will never start.

For 15 seniors, the waiting began that day: for graduation, for jobs, for a life after football. Or, for a shot at the next level. For some who have a shot at the NFL, this weekend could mark the end of that waiting period.

It is unlikely that a Montana athlete will be picked when the NFL draft commences today at 6 p.m. and the same is probably true of Friday's rounds. But during the last four rounds, picked on Saturday, several Grizzlies will have a stake in the televised action.

"I'm going to be in front of that TV biting my fingernails the whole time," said defensive back Jimmy Wilson, one of three or four Grizzlies listed as prospects on draft boards ranging from Sports Illustrated to ESPN.

The recent success of former UM players in the NFL have opened up more opportunities for current Grizzly prospects to make the leap to the professional level. Pro Bowl seasons from alumni kicker Dan Carpenter, a 2007 grad, and kick returner Marc Mariani, 2010, help a small school like Montana get respect from pro scouts, said Bob Beers Sr., line coach for the Griz.

It's why Montana drew the attention of scouts from 10 professional teams during its pro day workouts in March despite playing in the Football Championship Subdivision, he said. Little-seen gems are buried at smaller schools, late round picks.

"Those fifth, sixth, seventh round picks are the ones that really make your team," said Beers Sr., who acts as liaison between UM and the NFL after working draft boards as a scout for 15 years with multiple league teams.

Five months have passed since the 2010 season ended, but for players hoping to make an impression on pro teams, there really is no offseason. Quarterback Justin Roper took a month to weigh his options for his future before leaving school to hit the training circuit full bore. In January, he flew to San Diego, Calif., to work with quarterback trainer George Whitfield Jr. and Whitfield Athletix. Roper and multiple other draft-hopefuls — including Auburn's 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton — fine-tuned their throwing and drop back mechanics.

Roper's next stop was back home in Georgia, where he threw for Georgia's star receiver A.J. Green at that university's pro day. Green is projected as a top-five pick in the draft.

"I've had some pretty good receivers at Montana with Marc [Mariani] and a couple others…but he's on a different level," Roper said of Green. Since then, Roper has been continuing his workouts in Buford, Ga.

Roper's 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame and arm strength have caught the eye of several NFL teams, including the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, according to Sports Illustrated's Tony Pauline. The main knock on his quarterbacking is inconsistent playing time from sharing snaps at the position, which resulted in just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions last season.

Other players, like safety Erik Stoll, have had to balance a final semester of classwork with draft training. The senior is finishing up his cellular molecular biology degree this spring, while splitting his time between the University and his hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho. He spends Mondays in class while the rest of the week he trains in Idaho, making it "tough to keep up in class without ever even being in class," he said.

ESPN draft sage Mel Kiper Jr. listed the 6-foot, 195-pound Stoll as a potential late round steal in the draft because of his strong work ethic and smart defending. Stoll was the third-leading tackler for the Griz in 2010 and led the team in interceptions.

A handful of other Grizzlies have been working out for scouts and preparing themselves for a shot at the pros but Montana's most touted prospect appears to be Jimmy Wilson. Following the cornerback's strong performance at the UM pro day, Wilson met with the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins. His 4.49-second 40-yard-dash time piqued interest, but questions about his personal life lingered.

In 2007, Wilson was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his aunt's boyfriend. Wilson spent 25 months in a Los Angeles jail before being acquitted and returning to Montana for his senior season. Wilson had a second brush with the law last August when he allegedly bit a woman's leg and was charged with a misdemeanor assault. He eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct.

"I think that most teams like me as a player, but [they worry] about the kind of stuff I've been through," Wilson said. "But mostly teams are real pleasantly surprised once they meet me and get to know me."

Wilson stayed planted in Missoula, working out between trips to see teams. He attracts the scouts because he's "one of the most physical guys coming out of college this season," he said.

But whether he ends up in the NFL or not, Wilson said he plans to finish his social work degree — for both he and his grandmother's sake.

With the current NFL labor dispute, uncontracted players won't be able to sign with teams. Franchises will hold the rights to their drafted players, but free agency will be at a standstill. That means players like Wilson, Stoll, Roper and running back Chase Reynolds will only be guaranteed work in the NFL if they're drafted — at least until a labor agreement is reached.

So for the few NFL hopefuls in the group of 15 senior Grizzly football players, the wait may not be over yet.

"In the draft, it's not up to you as a player," Roper said. "It's just a waiting game. All I can go off of is what I think they think. So I'll be watching [the draft]," Roper said. "And praying. It's my career that I want, so I'll be watching."


05/22/2012 2:52am

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06/15/2013 2:26am

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08/22/2013 3:52am

I do hope that the NFL draft will be out very soon for the sake of players like Wilson, Stoll, Roper and Chase Reynolds. They have a bright future in the games and the government and the clubs should make sure that they have it.


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