Emil Igwenagu at the East-West Shrine Game (Getty Images)
MARTINSVILLE, N.J. — Could tight end Emil Igwenagu be the next NFL star to come from the UMass program?
Just two years removed from his collegiate career at UMass, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is enjoying a stellar start to his NFL career. An injury limited Cruz to just three games and no catches in his rookie season, but he rebounded to lead the Giants in catches and receiving touchdowns this past year, including the first touchdown of their Super Bowl win. But the success of Cruz in the NFL, along with that of New England Patriots linebacker James Ihedigbo and New York Jets offensive lineman Vlad Ducasse, means that the Minutemen have formed a small pipeline to the league.
Igwenagu is the next in line to possibly taste that success.
"There was a bit more buzz about the team — I'd say there was a bit more of the buzz. I definitely think the success of Victor and the other guys — those guys made a statement for UMass — it definitely helps with perception, with how [NFL] teams look at us," Igwenagu told Yahoo! Sports. "The whole thing with those guys got more exposure, them making it big on the big stage was a good thing for us looking at the NFL."
Much like bigger programs from BCS programs that have a legitimate standing in the eyes of NFL teams, UMass is certainly gaining respect on draft boards. One NFC scout told Yahoo! Sports that the program is now viewed differently than in years past.
"When you look at the number of guys they've placed in the league, UMass is now a program that is sending players into the NFL regularly," the scout said. "And they're guys making an impact, guys starting and contributing. You have to look at these players now."
Igwenagu should get some long looks from teams in the middle rounds of the draft. He's got good size at 6-1 and 245 pounds, and he has shown outstanding mobility; his invitation to the NFL combine is a testament to just how far the UMass program has come in just a few short years. His time in the 40 is expected to be in the 4.68-4.71 range and he looks to put north of 20 repetitions on the 225 pound bench press.
He will be running with the tight ends at the combine.
Two years ago, it was a bit of a shock when Ducasse was invited to the combine before eventually being taken in the second round of the draft. Now, it's almost commonplace that Igwenagu would get a nod, especially given his strong track record in the FCS.
"I wouldn't say I expected it at all, not a lot of people get invited to the combine. But it's definitely exciting and means a lot to me. Do I expect the success of the others from the program who have gotten drafted? No, not really. It is different people, different skill sets and that is what matters the most — so their success doesn't mean my success," Igwenagu said. "But it definitely shows me that there is a way to the league from UMass."
He calls the program "the right fit for him," and UMass' location an hour away from his Bolyston, Mass., home was a big part of the appeal. There was recruitment from BCS programs such as Boston College and UMass but while on his official visit in Amherst in December, the high school senior said it "felt right" and he committed shortly thereafter.
Now, just days away from being able to solidify himself as a draft prospect, Igwenagu can admit that he didn't have NFL dreams when he went to UMass. But the enormity of the moment has dawned on him, as has the expectation that the journey and the real work has only just begun. He's been training at TEST Sports Clubs in Martinsville, N.J., since the end of the football season, shedding down time on his 40-yard dash and getting ready for the combine.
Ironically, TEST is the facility that Ducasse went to in an effort to solidify his draft status.
"I've always been a hard worker, but definitely it is about being focused and putting in the time. In school, you need to balance classes and football," Igwenagu said.
"Now it's going to be big for me to put in the extra hours watching film, getting in an extra workout, taking care of my body the right way so that I can maximize everything that is given to me."
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer