It came as no surprise that two USC football players were picked high in the first round of the National Football League’s draft of college players Tuesday. The surprise was that Jack Del Rio was not picked until the third round.
Del Rio, a celebrated linebacker for the Trojans, had to wait until the third round to hear his name called by the New Orleans Saints. Linebacker Duane Bickett had been drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts--he was the No. 5 pick overall--and offensive tackle Ken Ruettgers had been drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers. He was the seventh pick, overall.
“It was tough waiting that long,” said Del Rio, who watched the draft on television from his uncle’s home in Castro Valley. “I didn’t expect to have to wait so long. I definitely feel I’m a first-round quality linebacker. So now it’s up to me to show the Saints that they got a good deal and to show the other teams that they missed out.”
Asked if he had any theories on why his stock had dropped, Del Rio said, “I guess because I didn’t have good (40-yard) times in Tempe (where NFL scouts gathered to assess top prospects). I haven’t played against the pass drop--I’m going to have to work on that.
“And I didn’t have a very good senior season. That was because I was an unselfish team player. I did what was expected of me. They didn’t stunt me a lot and they didn’t cut me loose like they did before.”
If Del Rio was disappointed, though, imagine the frustration of UCLA’s top players. The first Bruin picked was quarterback Steve Bono, who went to Minnesota in the sixth round. Wide receiver Mike Young was picked in the sixth round by the Rams, and cornerback Ronnie Pitts was picked in the seventh by the Buffalo Bills, the team for which his father, Elijah Pitts, is an assistant coach. By then there had been three Trojans drafted, including defensive tackle Brian Luft, who went in the fifth round to the New York Jets.
Daren Gilbert of Cal State Fullerton, the second-round pick of the Saints, earned the distinction of being the highest drafted player in the history of his school and highest picked offensive lineman in the history of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Gilbert, however, is expected to sign with Edmonton of the Canadian Football League.
Bono was especially disappointed Tuesday because he had expected to be chosen in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was so sure of it that he went home to Norristown, Pa., near Philadelphia, to await the announcement with his parents. According to Dennis Gilbert, Bono’s agent, the Eagles’ director of player personnel, Lynn Stiles, a former Bruin, had told Bono outright that the Eagles were interested in him.
Gilbert said: “The Eagles literally lied to him. The quote was, ‘If Steven is still around in the second round, I don’t see how we can’t take him.’ And then they didn’t take him.”
Instead, the Eagles picked quarterback Randall Cunningham from Nevada Las Vegas.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Gilbert said. “In the pro rating system, they had Bono rated at, I think, 6.02 and Cunningham rated 5.5. I probably shouldn’t be saying all this, but I’m just so upset.”
Young said that he was just as shocked as Gilbert. “I could not believe it,” said Young, a longtime friend of Bono. “That’s what I think is wrong about teams talking to players before the draft. It sets up so many expectations.
“I was starting to get a little worried before the Rams called me, but at least I didn’t have any big expectations. I think I might have gone a little higher if I had had better exposure my senior season and in the postseason, but I’m really very pleased to be drafted in the sixth round by the Rams. I was ecstatic when they called. I’ve always wanted to play for the Rams, but I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity.
“I know it will be hard to make the team. They have two great young receivers--I played in high school against Henry Ellard--but the more I think about it, the more confident I am that I’m a good enough athlete to find a place on the team. Special teams would be fine. I worked out for them, and I think they liked what they saw. I’m just going to have to set my mind to getting it done.”
Although the draft left some bitterly disappointed, it was quite an ego boost to others, Ruettgers for one.
It turns out that Ruettgers made a great move when he decided to spend a fifth year at USC. He was a freshman in 1980, and although he did not play that season, freshmen were not allowed to redshirt. He finished what would have been his final year of eligibility in 1983, having missed most of the season with a knee injury. His pro chances didn’t look good.
But then the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. changed its rules in January, 1984, allowing freshmen to redshirt, and he decided to make his freshman season a redshirt year retroactively so that he could come back for one more season.
Even after having a great season, however, Ruettgers was surprised to find himself the No. 7 pick of the draft.
He said: “I was in Bakersfield, sitting there and watching the draft with my family. We saw Duane Bickett get drafted, and we were excited. We knew Detroit was interested in Bickett, so we knew an offensive lineman was possible for the next pick. Detroit picked and Buffalo was next. I knew they’d trade and I’d have a chance. Green Bay called and asked me if I’d like to play there, and I said, ‘Great.’ ”
Until then, Ruettgers thought that his highest possible pick would be the No. 9 pick of Philadelphia. “I thought that was going to be my best shot, but one thing I’ve learned is that you can never predict the NFL draft.
“Who’d have ever thought Green Bay would trade up for me? You can even look at the other trades and picks--you would never have thought Chris Doleman would have gone No. 4 to Minnesota. So you can never tell. But I was pretty impressed and excited that Green Bay would trade for me.”