NFC South: James Hazelton

The best player not at the combine?

February, 25, 2011
2/25/11
12:21
PM ET
Vidal HazeltonCary Edmondson/US PresswireVidal Hazelton's college career didn't go as planned, but he thinks he has a bright future in the NFL.
If it hasn’t happened already, Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff is going to hear Vidal Hazelton's name at the scouting combine at some point this weekend.

Hazelton, perhaps the biggest draft-eligible name not at the combine, has given his agent, Kelli Masters, some very specific orders.

“Get my name in front of the Falcons," Hazleton said. “Remind them that I’m out there. That would be a dream scenario to end up with the Falcons. They’re the team I always rooted for growing up."

The fact Hazelton has spent much of his life living in Georgia also is a factor. And Hazelton’s biggest fan (more on that in a bit) lives in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

But Hazelton realizes he’s no longer in a position where dream scenarios are likely. That’s why Masters’ job is to also remind 31 other general managers that Hazelton is out there. Hazelton is proof that the NFL and college football are games that move quickly and even the brightest of stars can be forgotten.

“I have no question that, if things had gone a little differently for Vidal, you’d be hearing all about him as a first-round pick during the combine," said University of Cincinnati receivers coach T.J. Weist, who has coached 14 future NFL receivers during a lengthy career in the college ranks. “He’s got the size, he’s got the physical tools, he’s a great competitor and he’s mentally tough and a great worker."

So why wasn’t Hazelton even invited to the combine?

This is where the story veers way off that dream scenario and takes twists and turns that lead back and forth across the country. It could be a tragic story, but it’s not. At least not at this point because Hazelton is adamant that this story is far from over and he's in charge of writing the ending. Before we get to that, though, let’s go back to the beginning.

Let’s go back to 2006, when Hazelton was one of the top college receiver prospects in the nation. He signed with a football factory, the University of Southern California, which has produced plenty of NFL receivers through the years.

[+] EnlargeVidal Hazelton
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIVidal Hazelton's best season came in 2007, when he had 50 receptions for 540 yards at USC.
The plan was to go slowly and let Hazelton spend his freshman season playing behind Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith before making him the main target in the passing game. He led the Trojans with 50 receptions the next year, but things took a strange turn the following season. In the 2008 opener, Hazelton suffered a high-ankle sprain. By the time he returned, Damian Williams, Patrick Turner and Ronald Johnson had emerged and there wasn’t a lot of playing time.

While this was going on, Hazelton’s grandfather, James Hazelton, was diagnosed with cancer. Hazelton wanted to be closer geographically to his grandfather. He transferred to Cincinnati and sat out the 2009 season. In a pass-happy offense, huge things were expected of Hazelton in 2010.

“In camp last summer, he was looking better than ever,’’ Weist said. “He was just exploding off the ball and [NFL] scouts were getting all excited.’’

The buzz lasted for a little over half a game. In the season opener, Hazelton fielded a kickoff return and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

“It happened on a Saturday," Hazelton said. “I cried on Sunday. On Monday, I woke up in good spirits and I haven’t looked back since. My father and my grandfather raised me to never look back and to only worry about the things you can control."

What Hazelton has controlled in the months in between is his knee. He made what doctors have jokingly told him was the quickest recovery ever from an ACL injury. He was even cleared for Cincinnati’s last two games, but didn’t play because there still was the possibility of him being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. That didn’t happen and Hazelton has moved on quickly.

He’s spent the last few months working out at Athletic Performance Institute in the Los Angeles area, along with many other prospects who are at the combine, and he’s actually happy he wasn’t invited.

“I look at it as a blessing," Hazelton said. “I’m almost 100 percent, but this gives me more time to get ready."

The target date is March 28, when Cincinnati holds its pro day workouts.

“I need to prove everything," Hazelton said. “I need to show my knee is back. I love days like that. I’m more anxious than nervous. This whole thing has humbled me and made me more motivated."

It’s Masters’ job to make sure NFL teams show up for Hazelton’s workout, and Weist said he’s been getting a lot of calls from NFL scouts recently. Weist is happy to share here the same scouting report he’s been giving to the NFL people.

“Look at how quickly he’s come back from the injury," Weist said. “That says a lot about his work ethic. You just don’t come back from an ACL in a few months. He showed he’s going to put in the work and he showed he’s got good genetics to be able to recover like he did. People ask me which NFL receiver I’d compare him to and I say T.O. [Terrell Owens]. He’s a thick, powerful and explosive player. He’s right up there with any receiver in this draft in terms of physical ability. But what sets this kid apart is his maturity. He’s been through adversity and he’s very hungry. A lot of guys going in aren’t as hungry. He’s not going to take anything for granted."

Now, let’s go back to the Falcons. Like every other team, they’re not giving away any draft plans right now. It’s obvious Hazelton’s circumstances will push him down into the later rounds or perhaps make him a potential undrafted free agent.

Any chance with the Falcons would be a dream come true for Hazelton and for someone else. James Hazelton lives in Alpharetta and is a lifelong Falcons fan. James Hazelton is still battling cancer, his grandson said.

“He’s doing all right and he’s fighting," Hazelton said. “He keeps telling me he’s not going anywhere until he sees me play in the NFL."

The Falcons have needs at wide receiver, where not much is certain after starters Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Two other NFC South teams, Carolina and New Orleans, could be in the market for a developmental receiver in the later rounds. Even if it’s not in Atlanta or anywhere in the NFC South, Hazelton believes he’ll be in the NFL soon. He’s not showcasing his talent at the combine, but he’s hoping to, once again, grab the attention that slipped away from him when he works out in Cincinnati.

“I’m totally confident I have the ability to play in the pros," Hazelton said. “But next month my job is to go out and show the pros that I can play. I have to make sure they haven’t forgotten about me."

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