DeKALB – David Bryant hears it. Mike Salerno sees it. Both try to ignore it.
But NFL dreams and, more important, NFL draft buzz, take being ignored like a 3-year-old takes a timeout.
Bryant, a senior in only his second year at safety at Northern Illinois, has drawn some nibbles from NFL scouts. Most draft boards online have Bryant listed in that murky area known as “7th round/undrafted free agent.” But he knows what one season can mean for a player with NFL hopes.
“That’s why you play the game,” Bryant said. “I think it’s everyone’s motivation to some extent.”
Salerno, a year after walking on from Winona State, is a senior on the Lou Groza Award watch list and ranks among the top five among kickers by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper.
“It’s definitely a dream that I have,” Salerno said.
As far back as the spring, when much of DeKalb was abuzz over where defensive end Larry English would be picked, NIU coach Jerry Kill had his eye on the 2010 NFL Draft.
That’s when Bryant first was mentioned.
“Bryant’s had a great spring and I think he’s a guy that has a chance to play at the next level without a doubt,” Kill said at the end of spring football practice.
Bryant heard those words, and it was hard not to feel good about them.
“I hear coach said something about it but I don’t want to look too much into it yet,” Bryant said. “I know a good season plays a big role in that. My future pretty much depends on that so I want to play the season out.”
Salerno read Kiper’s ranking and couldn’t help but dream. Like Bryant, though, he wants to remain focused on this year, knowing a bad game or two could derail those hopes.
“It’s always nice to hear your name out there but I also know there’s a full season left to be played,” Salerno said. “It’s good to get recognized and that people are watching out but I still have a season left to play.”
A big difference
A year ago, very few outside the NIU locker room had an idea of what Bryant and Salerno could accomplish.
Bryant played some running back in Kill’s first spring football in DeKalb before asking to move to safety. It’s his third position in college football after linebacker and running back, but he found a home where his uncle, Henry Jones, played 12 years in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons.
“That was always my hope from Day 1,” Bryant said. “But it was always a different position. I know when coach Kill came in, they wanted guys to compete. I knew that if I had a chance to switch I would.”
All Bryant did in his first season was lead the team in tackles with 83 and force three fumbles.
But even with a breakout season, the rest of the world is seemingly still catching up to Bryant.
Electronic Arts still put Bryant at running back in this year’s version of its “NCAA Football ‘10” video game.
And Bryant, an avid video game player, has to adjust his NIU roster when he plays as the Huskies.
“My guy at running back, his tackling and all that is up there as if he were a safety,” Bryant said. “I don’t look too much into it. It’s only a game. It’s not that big of a deal to me.”
Salerno has become a big deal to the Huskies in one season.
After tying a school record with a 52-yarder last season and making the game-winner against Bowling Green, Salerno was named second-team all-Mid-American Conference. That kind of distinction is suppose to be an honor, especially for someone who came out of nowhere like Salerno.
How Salerno finished second behind Toledo’s Alex Steigerwald and not first is still beyond Kill.
“I’ve been very outspoken about that,” Kill said. “No disrespect to anybody in the league but I think he’s as good as there is in our conference. He proved that last year.”
This summer, Salerno worked with NIU strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein to design a workout specific to him.
It involved more running and plyometrics to build leg strength. He took his summer classes in May and stayed in DeKalb for most of the summer to focus on football.
What pushes Salerno ahead of most of the kickers on most draft boards is his versatility. He can punt and he led the MAC with 16 touchbacks and a 64.9 yards per kickoff average.
“Kickoff wise, that’s what kind of sets you apart if you’ve got a chance in the NFL or not,” he said. “If you can’t kickoff, you’re not going to make it.”
By the time he got to a summer kicking competition at Wisconsin-Whitewater, he was ready for the season to start.
Competing against some of the same names he’ll be up against when the draft comes in April, such as Hunter Lawrence from Texas and Andrew Aguila from Central Michigan, Salerno won the field-goal competition.
He punctuated his first-place finish by connecting on one of two 60-yard field-goal attempts. His miss had the distance but bounced off an upright.
“It was kind of surprising,” he said. “It definitely went well, it got my name out there a little more.”
With one more season in DeKalb, both Salerno and Bryant are hoping their names can get out there a little more by focusing on what’s directly in front of them.
“I know there are only 32 spots but if it can happen,” Salerno said.