For Antonio Allen, it was a case of better late than never.
Travian Robertson, though, landed in the spot close to where most analysts expected he would go.
Allen and Robertson, two of USC's most reliable defensive players for the past two seasons, were selected seven picks apart in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft on Saturday, becoming the fifth and sixth former Gamecock players to hear their names called in the annual disbursement of the top college football players among the 32 NFL franchises.
They joined Stephon Gilmore (1st rd, No. 10 overall to Buffalo), Melvin Ingram (1st rd, No. 18 to San Diego), Alshon Jeffery (2nd rd, No. 45 to Chicago) and Rokevious Watkins (5th rd, No. 160 to St. Louis) as former Gamecocks ready to pursue their NFL dreams when training camps open in late July.
Allen, taken by the New York Jets with the 35th selection of the seventh round (No. 242 overall), earned a third-to-fourth round grade by most analysts because of his athleticism and playmaking ability. Yet, he had to wait until the bottom half of the seventh round late Saturday afternoon before the Jets finally grabbed him.
"It's been a long week," Allen told Jets reporters on a conference call shortly after being picked. "This is the most I have stayed in tune to the draft. I've been watching everybody go. It's been exciting and I'm just happy I got chosen when I did. I had heard things from late second to early third, and I was hoping to get drafted then, but it doesn't matter. I got drafted in the seventh round and I am here."
Moved to the hybrid spur position during fall camp in 2009, Allen flourished. Three years later, after compiling an impressive 198 career tackles, 20.0 TFL, four interceptions and six forced fumbles in 40 career games, Allen was considered an excellent strong safety at the next level.
In fact, at one point in March, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. rated Allen as the second-best safety prospect available behind Mark Barron of Alabama and continued to keep him among his top five players at the position.
However, several strong safeties rated below Allen were chosen instead until the Jets finally took his name off the board early Saturday evening.
Allen believes his lack of experience playing a true strong safety position hurt his draft prospects.
"I think mainly because of my position," Allen said when asked why he felt he had fallen in the draft. "It's not a traditional safety spot. I'm not 12 yards deep covering the post every play. I'm up on the line of scrimmage tackling people for a loss."
Invited to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine, Allen impressed NFL scouts enough over those two weeks in Mobile, Ala., and Indianapolis, respectively, by showcasing the physical skills necessary as a strong safety. NY Jets head coach Rex Ryan attended USC's Pro Day and liked what he saw from Allen as he worked through the drills.
The Jets were pleasantly surprised - and thrilled - to get a player possessing third or fourth round skills so deep in the draft.
"We were a little shocked. The big deal was he played as a box safety. He almost looked like a linebacker at times. He was almost unblockable in one of the games I watched," Ryan exclaimed in a Saturday night press conference. "He forced six fumbles in his career, made a ton of tackles, was all over the field and he had three interceptions this year.
"He's just an outstanding football player. Maybe he doesn't have experience as a true deep safety right now, but as he's learning to play that I'm sure he's going to have an excellent chance to be a good player for us on special teams. We took a great football player. South Carolina has an excellent program. A lot of players came through there and this guy was one of the most impressive players there."
After leading USC with 88 tackles (7.3 per game; seventh in SEC) in 2011, Allen garnered second-team All-America honors and second-team All-SEC honors from Rivals.com and the Associated Press. He was the only SEC player to rank among the league's top 10 in tackles, fumbles forced (4) and fumbles recovered (3).
He totaled 10 or more tackles in four games, including a career-high 16 in the 2011 season opener at East Carolina when he had 16 stops and stripped the ball from an ECU ball carrier and returned the fumble 25 yards for a touchdown. The following week, he scored his second TD in as many weeks with a 25-yard interception return at Georgia.
He finished his career on an upswing by leading the Gamecock defense in tackles with seven against both Clemson and Nebraska (tied for team high). In 2010, his second full season at spur, Allen was second on the team in tackles with 70 despite missing the first two games with a hamstring injury.
Prior to moving to spur in the fall of 2009, Allen got a look at strong safety and even outside linebacker until the coaches determined the demands of the spur spot squarely meshed with Allen's skill set. They were right.
Like Allen, Robertson changed positions after arriving at USC in 2007. He was recruited by Brad Lawing as a defensive end. But by 2009, he was playing defensive tackle. By the time his senior year ended with the Capital One Bowl victory over Nebraska, Robertson was a powerfully built 6-foot-4, 303-pounder.
Yet it was his leadership skills that caught the attention of the Falcons, which selected him No. 249 overall. Robertson was one of four team captains for the 2011 Gamecocks team that won a school-record 11 games.
"He's a stout, good looking, just a thick nose tackle type," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Saturday night in an interview on the Falcons web site. "He has deceptive athleticism about him. He's fairly light on his feet and he has the agility to play inside through clutter. But also has the stoutness to hold the point. We're hoping he develops and can be in the mix for our interior defensive line and compete."
Robertson was projected as a late-round selection or possible free agent by most draft analysts, so going so late in the process wasn't unexpected. He became the second USC defensive lineman in consecutive years to be drafted by the Falcons in the final round, joining former teammate Cliff Matthews in Atlanta.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity," Robertson said. "South Carolina has produced a lot of tough players. My coach (Lawing) taught us to be leaders, be tough and go hard every play. That's what I'm ready to bring to the Falcons right now."
Robertson participated in the NFL Combine in late February and impressed scouts with his brute strength by lifting the 225-pound bar a total of 30 times. He worked out again for scouts on Pro Day on March 28. He was timed in the 40 at 5.32 seconds.
Like a lot of anxious players around the nation, Robertson started viewing the draft at noon Saturday when the fourth round started, yet had to wait until after 7 p.m. before learning his fate.
"It's been a very long day," Robertson said. "But when I woke up this morning, I felt like I gave it my all. It was pretty much in God's hands. I don't think I could be in a better place than the Falcons. I'm thankful I got the phone call, but I know it's not the end of the road. I'm going to come in and work hard. I know I have a lot of work to do to show that's where I belong."
Except for season-ending torn knee ligaments suffered in September of 2009 during the national televised upset win over then No. 4 Ole Miss, Robertson showed up at the stadium for work every week, appearing in 56 games overall, second most in school history (one less game than former LB Rodney Paulk), and starting 26 of the 27 games during the 2010-11 seasons.
He totaled 123 tackles, 21 TFL and 6.5 sacks in his career. He had a career-high 49 tackles in 2011, seven more than in 2010 when he collected 10.0 TFL.
Robertson is happy to be reunited with Matthews, a former roommate at USC. The duo, together with DE John Abraham, gives Atlanta three former Gamecocks on the defensive line.
"He always gave me pointers about how things would work out with the Falcons," Robertson said. "Now we'll be playing together and I'll be there with him. It doesn't matter to me where you get picked. It's just a matter of how much effort you give when you get there. I'll be there ready to work every day."
USC PLAYERS SELECTED IN 2012 NFL DRAFT:
1. Stephon Gilmore - Buffalo (1st Rd, No. 10);
2. Melvin Ingram - San Diego (1st Rd, No. 18);
3. Alshon Jeffery - Chicago (2nd Rd, No. 45);
4. Rokevious Watkins - St. Louis (5th Rd, No. 150);
5. Antonio Allen - NY Jets (7th Rd, No. 242);
6. Travian Robertson - Atlanta (7th Rd, No. 249).
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