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Rocket players make history with selections

04/30/2017, 12:13am EDT
By By BRIAN BUCKEY BLADE SPORTS WRITER

First time any Toledo players were taken since 2 were picked in 2008


Former Toledo tight end Michael Roberts, left, and running back Kareem Hunt were two of three players selected in this week’s NFL draft. It’s the first time any Rockets players were picked in the draft since 2008. BLADE/JETTA FRASER

When University of Toledo running back Kareem Hunt found out college teammate Michael Roberts was selected by the Lions with the 127th overall pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft Saturday, his mind immediately shifted back to Toledo and all the talented players he shared the field with.

Roberts joined Hunt, who was picked with the 86th selection in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday and Treyvon Hester (244th pick in the seventh round to the Oakland Raiders) as the first Toledo players to be selected in the draft since 2008 when John Greco went in the third round and Jalen Parmele was taken in the sixth round.

For just the third time in program history, and the first time since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994, three UT players were picked in the draft. In 1963, a record four Rockets were taken (Frank Baker, Larry Campbell, Ed Scrutchins, and Jim Bogdalek), while three were selected in 1968 (John Schneider, Ray Hayes, and Tom Beutler).

In Hunt’s mind, this should be the new normal for Toledo in producing NFL talent.

“It means that Toledo is finally getting out there,” Hunt said of having multiple UT draft picks. “We have great football players, and we all are competitors. We still have great football players at Toledo right now that around this time next year are definitely going to be hearing their names called and it’s going to be a life-changing situation. It’s just a lot of excitement.”

VIDEO: Four Rockets headed to NFL

Since 2008, the Rockets have produced standout NFL players like Barry Church, Jayrone Elliott, and Greg Mancz, but each of them went undrafted and caught on with their teams as free agents.

“We’ve had a lot of tremendous teams here,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “When we took this thing over last December, the two main focal points that we preached to the team were that we wanted to win the MAC Championship, and we wanted to see guys get drafted in the National Football League. As good as we’ve been in the past, we haven’t had a draft pick here in a long time and we have not had a championship here in a long time. We now have one of those two goals in place.”

Hunt knows he has big shoes to fill as a running back for the Chiefs, but that doesn’t make him any less excited for the opportunity that presents itself.

Hunt, the all-time leading rusher in UT history with 4,945 career rushing yards, will join a roster with a notable name not in the mix. In February, Kansas City released Jamaal Charles, also a third-round draft pick and one of the best backs in franchise history.

“Jamaal Charles leaves some big shoes to fill,” Hunt said. “I definitely think I can get out there and fill those shoes. I feel like I can do it all. I’m a good pass catcher and I’m good running through the tackles. I know Jamaal Charles is a possible Hall of Famer and it’s just great to be in his shoes now.”

The Chiefs, who still have Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West on the roster, showed a clear desire to make sure they could get Hunt in the third round. They traded up 18 spots to grab the Toledo standout, giving up their third-round, fourth-round, and seventh-round picks in this year’s draft.

“It shows that they really believe in me, and it shows that they know that I’m a player worth trading for,” Hunt said. “They really had a lot of interest in me to trade up and give up picks in the draft. They definitely got a steal and I’m ready to come in and give the Kansas City Chiefs everything I got.”

Hunt was a three-time All-MAC running back for the Rockets, including first-team honors in 2014 and ’16 and second-team honors in 2015. Hunt is the fourth-highest draft pick in UT history behind Dan Williams (No. 11 overall in 1993), John Greco (No. 65, 2008), and Curtis Johnson (No. 81, 1970).

Hunt watched the draft Friday with friends and family at the Barley House in downtown Cleveland. He said being drafted really hit home after Friday was a bit of a whirlwind.

“I really had no idea who I was going to,” Hunt said. “I knew it was my chance to go off the board. Honestly, I was just excited to hear my name being called. It was like a dream come true. I was very emotional and I had all my close family and friends there with me.”

The Roberts pick might not be surprising as Lions head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Bob Quinn personally made the trip to Toledo for the Rockets’ pro day.

While many assumed they had their eye on Hunt, Roberts’ showing that day might have set the wheels in motion for his selection.

“I thought I would go somewhere between the third and fifth rounds,” Roberts said. “I’m very happy with how it worked out. Detroit is a great opportunity for me. It’s probably the best possible situation for me. It’s also great that it’s so close to Toledo. I might be able to come back and watch some games this year.”

After limited playing time his first few seasons at UT, Roberts had a breakout senior year in which he caught a school-record 16 touchdown passes. Roberts finished the season with 45 catches for 533 yards and was named a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America and was first team All-MAC.

Roberts will step into the mix for the Lions alongside talented pass-catcher Eric Ebron.

“I’ve been a fan of Eric Ebron, you know, since he was back in N.C.,” Roberts said on a conference call with reporters. “I’ve watched him closely while he was in college, I watched him while he was in Detroit. You know, he’s a great athlete. I’m very excited to work with him.”

Roberts could serve as a big red-zone target for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“Yeah, he’s a gunslinger,” Roberts said of Stafford. “He’s a precise quarterback. It’s crazy, I was having this conversation the other day about Matthew Stafford. He’s just a great quarterback and I think he’s really laying the foundation and is just looking to win games.”

Hester said despite being selected late in the draft, he will work hard to be a consistent contributor for the Raiders.

“They are going to get a lot of great teamwork from me,” Hester said. “I’m a team guy. I am going to be able to give them my all out there and give them my last. I’m going to battle and try to become dominant and be a consistent player.”

Hester, like Hunt, thinks this year’s crop of Rockets picked in the draft should only be the start of UT players getting drafted in the near future.

“You know Rocket Nation, we are on the rise,” Hester said. “I just really want to thank Rocket Nation. It’s a blessing to be able to see a couple of my guys get picked up in the draft. It just goes to show that we have a lot of talent on that team and that we have a lot more talent coming out.”

NORTON SIGNS WITH LIONS: Toledo offensive tackle and former Whitmer standout Storm Norton signed as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions.

Norton was a first-team All-MAC performer in 2015 and ’16, and last season anchored the offensive line for the conference’s top offense.

BG FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: Former Bowling Green State University receiver Gehrig Dieter signed a free agent contract with Kansas City following the draft.

Dieter transferred from BG to Alabama as a senior after leading the Falcons with 94 receptions in 2015, good for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns. This past season, he caught 15 passes for 214 yards and four TDs as the Crimson Tide advanced to the Football Bowl Subdivision title game before losing to Clemson.

Also, former BGSU quarterback Matt Johnson signed a contract with the Hamilton TigerCats of the Canadian Football League. Johnson did not play last season after earning Mid-American Conference MVP honors as a senior in 2016, throwing for 4,946 yards and 46 touchdowns.

Receiver Ronnie Moore signed a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. The Florida native caught 42 passes last season for 513 yards with one touchdown. In 2015 Moore had 72 receptions good for 951 yards and six scores.

Defensive tackle Izzah Lunsford signed a free agent contract with Green Bay. Last season the Cincinnati native finished with 48 tackles, tied for sixth-best on the team, with 3.5 tackles for loss.

BG long snapper Greg Hohenstein has signed a contract to take part in the Los Angeles Chargers’ rookie minicamp.

John Wagner contributed to this report.

Contact Brian Buckey at: bbuckey@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.

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