NFL Draft: Players with Hudson Valley ties hope dreams come true

Florida State offensive lineman Menelik Watson runs a Florida State offensive lineman Menelik Watson runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. (Feb. 23, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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An Englishman who is still new to football. A selfless son who gave up the game he loved to help his ailing mother. A brainiac who is already helping in the fight against cancer. And an exciting athlete who is hoping to be released from his military commitment so he can pursue his NFL dream.

Of the handful of football standouts with Hudson Valley ties who are hoping to be selected in this week's NFL Draft, most have intriguing back stories.

The first round of the draft will be held Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. The seven-round draft will continue Friday and Saturday.

Newsday takes a look at some of the NFL hopefuls.

THE BRITISH NATURAL

Menelik Watson, a native of Manchester, England, spent two years on Marist's basketball team. After being redshirted his first season and then averaging just 4.7 points and 3.3 rebounds the next year, he decided against returning to Poughkeepsie. Meanwhile, a passion for football, a sport that was literally foreign to him as a child, was burning inside him.

A year later, Watson found himself on a football field for the first time, playing for Saddlebrook, a junior college in Mission Viejo, Calif. Coaches were wowed by his size and athleticism, but he was so raw that he didn't even know how to line up in a three-point stance.

Watson, now 24, picked things up quickly, earning a starting job at right tackle and then parlaying his opportunity into a football scholarship at Florida State. For the Seminoles last season, he started 12 games and allowed just one sack.

Watson, who is 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, is projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick in the NFL Draft

DREAM ON HOLD

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After graduating from Saunders High School in Yonkers, Gilbert Pena took four years off from playing football to care for his mother, who was battling cancer.

During that layoff and in the years since, however, Pena ballooned from 265 pounds to 334 and consequently morphed from a tight end into a nose tackle. He resumed his football career at ASA College in Brooklyn before landing at Ole Miss.

Pena, 26, is projected to be selected in the late rounds or become one of the first undrafted players to be snatched up as a free agent. During his senior year at Ole Miss, he had 34 tackles (6-1/2 for losses) and two sacks.

THE GENIUS LINEBACKER

NFL scouts might have some concerns about drafting Brandon Hepburn this week. His intelligence and character are not among them.

Hepburn, 23, an inside linebacker who played at North Rockland High School and Florida A&M, already has graduated with a degree in biochemistry and even discovered a way to kill certain cancer cells in rats using copper-loaded nanoparticles. He's also a devout Christian who has served as president of Florida A&M's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Hepburn's draft stock has snowballed since he amassed 132 tackles and eight sacks as a senior at Florida A&M. He was invited to play at the Raycom All-Star Classic in Montgomery, Ala., where he batted down a pass, intercepted it and then had a long return. That helped land Hepburn an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine.

The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder then had an impressive workout at Florida A&M's Pro Day, when 21 teams showed up to watch him run the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds.

Like Pena, Hepburn is expected to selected in the late rounds or be an early undrafted player to be picked up as a free agent.

EXCEPTION TO THE RULE?

As of now, Trent Steelman has a commitment to serve in the Army next year. But the former Black Knights quarterback has made it clear he'd rather be lacing up cleats than combat boots this fall.

Thanks to a 2008 directive by the Department of Defense, Steelman could forego his military obligation and play in the NFL if it is determined that his talents can bring favorable media exposure or help recruiting efforts for the Armed Forces.

Steelman, however, is no lock to be drafted at all this weekend. If he reaches the NFL, it will be as a slot wide receiver, a position he is still learning. He could get his chance by signing with a team as an undrafted rookie. The Jets are one team that has expressed interest in him.

ON THE 'FAST' TRACK?

Marist wide receiver Mike Rios may or may not get drafted, but his speed should help him land on some team's roster when training camps open.

Rios, the Red Foxes' record-setting deep threat, worked out for pro scouts last month at Florida International University's Pro Day in his hometown of Miami, running the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.38 seconds. That time was faster than the times recorded by all but three wide receivers invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

He participated in private workouts for the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears and also has reportedly drawn interest from the Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers.

Two other former Red Foxes are candidates to be signed as rookie free agents: Safety Nick Mainiero, who is from Croton, and defensive end Terrence Fede, who is from Nyack.

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