Leodis McKelvin doesn't take kindly to stereotyping.
McKelvin, rated as the No. 1 or No. 2 cornerback by most teams heading into this weekend's NFL draft, is offended when it's even hinted that his playing time at Troy University may not have been an adequate proving ground for his transition to the pros.
"To me, that's just people second-guessing themselves, being worried about how the fans will think about them if they take a player from a small school," said McKelvin, a 5-foot-11 defender who is regarded by Rivals as having the coverage skills to take on top-flight wideouts right now. "It's just an excuse. But if you really look at the tape and you watch me, you can see I can play."
McKelvin certainly talks like a top-flight NFL cornerback. Now, the question is whether he'll back it up once he's drafted Saturday, possibly as a top 10 selection. If that happens, McKelvin would rank as one of the highest-selected players from a school outside of the Bowl Championship Series' big 6 conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) since 1995.
That year, quarterback Steve McNair of Alcorn State went No. 3 overall to the Houston Oilers. Two years earlier, offensive tackle Willie Roaf of Louisiana Tech was the New Orleans Saints' No. 8 overall pick. Despite the success of Roaf and McNair, who at differing points in their careers were considered among the best players at their position, or Troy alumnus DeMarcus Ware, Lawrence Tynes and Osi Umenyiora – the latter two helping the New York Giants win Super Bowl XLII this past season – there has consistently been a concern by NFL personnel evaluators about taking players from smaller programs.
"The thing you worry about is a guy getting overwhelmed by the bright lights, the big time," former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "There's already a lot of pressure, but then you throw that in and it's worse for some guys. It's a big stage in the NFL and you don't want stage fright."
But the idea he's not ready because he played in the Sun Belt Conference rankles McKelvin.
"There's guys in the NFL from every conference that are great players," McKelvin said. "There are guys from Hofstra who are leading the NFL in receiving sometimes … it's not like I didn't play against top teams."
In fact, McKelvin and Troy faced Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Georgia last season. Troy, sparked by a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown by McKelvin, upset Oklahoma State and played Georgia to a 10-point loss. The games against Florida and Arkansas were lopsided, mostly because Troy couldn't stop the running game of either team.
Even more, McKelvin was impressive during practices for the week of the Senior Bowl, leading many scouts and coaches to believe his transition to the NFL will be smooth. Still …
"If you're sitting there with the No. 8 or 10 pick, do you feel that you can take this kid and stick him in there as the starting left cornerback?" said one general manager who believes McKelvin will go to either the Baltimore Ravens with the eighth overall pick or New Orleans with the 10th. "To me, I like the kid a lot. He's going to make it. It may not be for half a season, but even if that's the case, he's going to help you. He's a really good return man, so you're going to get him on the field no matter what."
Here's the other issue for NFL teams to consider: They may not have much of a choice when it comes to taking a cornerback from a smaller program. If McKelvin isn't the first cornerback selected, it's likely to be Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of Tennessee State. The top cornerback from a traditional BCS-conference school is Aqib Talib of Kansas, but Talib has been dropped off many draft boards, at least for the first round, because he has admittedly tested positive for marijuana three times, according to reports from Pro Football Weekly during the NFL scouting combine.
When it comes to the issue of character, McKelvin may be as good as anyone. He is still in school, hoping to become the first man in his family to graduate from college. He already was the first among two brothers to graduate from high school. Not that it was easy, but that's all part of how he ended up at Troy.
Growing up in Waycross, Ga., McKelvin was considered the top high school defensive player in the state his senior year. He was offered a scholarship to Georgia, but he didn't qualify because he initially didn't pass his graduation exam in high school.
"My SAT was fine and my GPA was good enough to qualify, but I couldn't get past that test until the summer after my senior year," McKelvin said. "Georgia dropped off me and that's how I ended up at Troy. It hurt, but that's fine. I just tucked that one away in all the things I have to prove to people.
"And I will."
- Troy University