NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Former Oklahoma tight end Trent Smith has some advice for the Sooners players about to learn their NFL draft destiny: "Check your attitude and how good you think you are at the door, because it's a different world up there."
Smith, who caught more passes than any tight end in school history, can speak from experience about how tough it is to make it in the NFL. He was a seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft and got to play in only five games over the next four years.
"Here you might be one of the best players in all of college football," said Smith, who returned to Owen Field this month for a flag football game between former Oklahoma players. "You get up there and you're just one of the better guys on one team.
"You're going against the best of the best every single day in practice and on the field. Even the practice squad guys have the potential to go on and be All-Pros. It's just ridiculous the amount of talent."
In Bob Stoops' first nine years as Oklahoma's coach, the Sooners have had 36 players drafted — an average of four per year. But college stardom has not necessarily been an indicator of NFL success.
Tailback Adrian Peterson and lineman Jammal Brown were each named to the All-Pro team in their first two seasons, and defensive tackle Tommie Harris was a second-team pick in 2005. But during a stretch that has produced six Big 12 titles, a national championship and five other BCS bowl appearances, many of the team's best players haven't blossomed at the next level.
Jason White, the 2003 Heisman Trophy winner, and Josh Heupel, the 2000 Heisman runner-up, never played a snap in the NFL. White, who had two surgically repaired knees, didn't even get drafted while Heupel was a sixth-round pick who got cut before the season started because of an injury.
Antonio Perkins was the 2003 All-America all-purpose player, the same spot filled by Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew the following two years, but never really made an impact in the NFL and played in only six games after being a fourth-round pick in 2005.
Derrick Strait, an All-America cornerback regarded as a standard-bearer in Norman, started only five games in his three seasons after being drafted in the third round in 2004.
The bottom line is that only the elite players make it in the NFL. Larry Birdine, a defensive end who had seven sacks in the Sooners' run to the Orange Bowl five years ago, is now toiling away on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad in hopes of making the roster.
"It's fun but it's a lot of work," Birdine said. "You've definitely got to come prepared every day and be consistent if you plan to stay. All you need is a fair shot, and if you get that, the rest is up to you."
Coming out of college, a first-round pedigree starts a career out in the right direction.
Of the eight first-round picks in the Stoops era, seven have become fixtures in their team's starting lineup and the other, safety Andre Woolfolk, started 12 games in a four-year career plagued by injuries.
Success by lower draft picks is harder to come by. Linebacker Clint Ingram has become a starter for Jacksonville after being a third-round pick, but former Butkus Award winners Teddy Lehman and Rocky Calmus have played mostly as reserves.
This year's outgoing class should be prepared to overcome the odds. There's no surefire first-round pick after quarterback Sam Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham and offensive tackle Trent Williams all decided to stay for their senior seasons. Linemen Duke Robinson and Phil Loadholt, along with receiver Juaquin Iglesias, are the best bets to go in the first two rounds of the draft Saturday.
Higher draft choices, because they get heftier contracts and signing bonuses, are more likely to get chances to perform than lower picks who can be cut more easily.
"Obviously going to that level, there's a business side to it and everything," former Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson said. "I was with a couple teams briefly and saw what all it entailed and wasn't as excited as maybe going into it. You see that it's a different lifestyle."
He added that players should "understand that it is a business, so things happen sometimes. ... In general, there's a lot of stuff that you can't control, which can get kind of frustrating."
Despite the success in getting players drafted, Stoops said there's nothing specific that he tries to do to prepare players for the NFL.
"We don't sit here and develop them for a draft," Stoops said. "It's more developing them to be as physical and athletic as they can be and teaching them to be team guys, to win as a team and to be unselfish. To me, it's just building a player.
"Fortunately, we've had guys talented enough that have worked well enough to put theirself in position to be drafted and to have those kind of careers."
No draft position, high or low, guarantees success or failure in the league, though.
"Look at how many guys get drafted high and then just get burned out, just fall off to the wayside," Smith said. "You've got to have a little something special in you to make it through that."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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