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Will Rackley to the NFL, Part Two: The NFL Draft

(Photo Credit: Bruce Winter/The Express-Times)

"If you believe sites like NFL Draft Scout, OL Will Rackley - Lehigh's massive tackle out of Riverdale, Georgia - could be picked in QB John Skelton territory in the NFL draft," I crowed back in August.

Nine months and a 2010 football season later, the future has changed for the best offensive lineman in Patriot League history.

It's changed, um, a whole lot.

From the junior blind side tackle who played hurt most of the season to the dominant senior lineman who earned the respect of everyone he faced - including Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler - Rackley is going to be heading to Radio City Music Hall on the first round of draft day.(more)

Could it happen?  Will getting drafted in the first round?

It seems unlikely - but not impossible - to expect the best lineman in Patriot League history to hear his name called Thursday in the first round with the likes of QB Cam Newton and RB Mark Ingram.

(Don't just take this crazy fan's word for it.  At least one mock draft has Will in their first round.)

That we're even talking about Will getting drafted in the first round shows how highly the Riverdale, Georgia native is regarded in NFL circles.

Last year, Fordham QB John Skelton was the dark horse of the NFL draft, and he went in the fifth round to the Arizona Cardinals.  He, along with former Lehigh DE Rich Owens, were the highest-round NFL draft picks in Patriot League history.  (Owens was the 152nd pick in the 1995 NFL draft, when he was taken by the Washington Redskins.)

This year, Rackley's "draft stock has been climbing and climbing", according to this Steelers blogger who was enthusiastic enough on him to make a graphic of a Steeler Rackley jersey, even if he DID call us "Lehigh College."

Skelton territory?  Try Mark Ingram territory.

It's not just bloggers that have taken notice, either.  Gil Brandt of NFL.com went to Will's Pro Day in March with a bunch of NFL scouts and former coaches.  His conclusion back then was that Rackley could be a third-round pick.

Not bad for a player who just entered the radar of most NFL scouts at the end of his junior year.

More recently, Brandt put him in his "50s" category - which might place him at the end of the second round.

And former NFL head coach Bill Parcells reportedly has Rackley listed as a third-round prospect as well.

Third round? Second round? First round? What is making Will shoot up draft boards?

It's not just his NFL size and speed for a big man (6'3, 309 lbs), nor his ability on sweeps to dominate other FCS linemen, even on the move.

It's his work ethic, and how he's just continued to work hard and improve.

To a person - coaches, teammates, or NFL scouts - what seems to have stood out the most in Rackley's Lehigh football career is his near-relentless work ethic.

And his hard work did not stop at the end of his Lehigh football career with a FCS playoff setback at Delaware.

It all started with the East-West Shrine Game back in January.

*****

In Florida, Will impressed a whole lot of people with his willingness to play any position on the "O" Line asked of him, whether it be guard, tackle or center.

And a lot of folks noticed.

As I reported in the run-up to the all-star game, Will's workouts were making NFL folks pay attention:

Lehigh OL Will Rackley displayed some natural body control, fluidity and change of direction skills during one-on-one drills today and what was even more impressive was the fact that he was playing at right tackle — the opposite side where he played his college ball the past four seasons. He looked a bit uncoordinated with his punch and didn’t do a great job really extending his arms and gaining leverage on his target. But, his natural movement skills were impressive in my view and I expect him to continue to get better and better throughout the week. He’s an intriguing small-school guy with some upside who can make a roster and possibly fight for playing time with some development.

...

Rackley was a very competitive blocker Wednesday, using his length and punch to lock on and sustain blocks, particularly in the running game. He doesn’t have the classic size and elite athleticism of an NFL tackle, but he is a coachable player and has the attitude NFL teams covet.

...

Lehigh OT William Rackley is a sleeper to watch in the coming months. He has been solid throughout the week in drills and doesn't look out of place while competing against players from big schools. Although he is better suited to move inside (guard or center) at the next level, his ability to effectively play right tackle this week will certainly push him up draft boards around the league.

During the NFL Network broadcast of the game, commentator Mike Maycock led one of his segments with a blurb about Will, saying he "made money" with his performance in the run-up to the all-star game. While his East team would win 19-6, it wasn't the final score that was important - it was the word from the broadcast, and the buzz from the draftniks, that would make the difference.

The East-West Shrine game was the first introduction to the NFL world that Will had what it takes to be an NFL player. They found out what Lehigh coaches, players and fans knew for a while: nobody would outwork him, and he's not intimidated by any challenge.

"I think it's about how you play, not where," Will told me, who felt similarly about being coached by super bowl winner Dan Reeves in that game. "I feel like coaching is coaching no matter who its coming from," he told me after the game.

While Will expected the process of the run-up to the NFL draft to be crazy, since the All-Star game Will's life has been filled with training at IMG in Bradenton, Florida, appearances at the NFL Combine, a special Lehigh Pro Day in front of NFL scouts (the first ever at Lehigh), team visits, and a host of private workouts with NFL teams.

"All while balancing school," Will reminded me.

It's not like Will stood still, either, saying one round of workout numbers were plenty. The Brown & White reported that he improved his vertical leap by four inches from the NFL Combine to Lehigh's Pro Day - the type of thing that impresses scouts to no end.

"I have high expectations for myself," Rackley said at the time. "I knew that I could improve in every area and I showed that today. I have a handful of private workouts coming up with some teams, and I expect to improve my performance in those workouts."

"He warrants the interest," head coach Andy Coen said after Will's pro day. "You only do something like this when you have a special player and that's what he is. I can't say enough about Will as a person and how hard he has worked. He's got himself in a great position and hopefully things go well for him."

Will said that Lehigh's coaching staff "helped him a great deal" in the run-up to the draft as well. "They were there whenever I needed anything."

“It has been an exciting but hectic experience,” Rackley told Lehighsports.com about the run-up to the draft. “It has definitely been busy, but I’ve just been trying to go with the flow. Going to Florida and training for the combine and then going to the combine and seeing all the other guys [like Missouri State G David Arkin, Slippery Rock C Brandon Fusco and IUP OL James Brewer] and taking the medical exams and interviews doing all the stuff that people don’t see on TV. Going from there to the pro day and the individual workouts and then adding in school it has kept me really busy.”

*****

The craziness - the folks around the Lehigh Valley recognizing him in the street, the workouts, the flights across the country - will be ending sometime over the next three days, where Will could be picked anywhere from the first through the fifth rounds.

(A good bet about where he might go comes from this final mock draft from NFL Countdown, which has Rackley as the 80th pick going to the Jacksonville Jaguars. My fearless prediction? I think he's going to go at the very end of Round 2, with the 64th pick, to the defending Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers.)

Will will be headed to Radio City Music Hall with his father today, "just in case he's picked at the end of Round One", his mother, Wanda Rackley, told me.

After Thursday, he'll be headed back home Friday morning with his dad to Georgia to attend a draft party with family and close friends, including his siblings Volnerius, Yolanda, Brandon and Aaron Rackley.

As for Lehigh fans, coaches, and players, they'll be watching the NFL Draft on both ESPN and NFL Network tonight, starting at 8:00 PM.

They'll hoping to hear the name - and see on the podium - a guy from Georgia they all know make Lehigh history.

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