Five local players have sights set on NFL through draft or free agency

Austin Tennessee transferred to Stevenson from Division II Concord University in West Virginia after the 2012 season because he believed in the nascent program Ed Hottle was building and wanted to play college football closer to home.

Tennessee's father had died suddenly several years earlier and the former Atholton standout wasn't comfortable being so far away from his mother, Bettie, who lived in Columbia.

"She was able to come to all my games," said Tennessee, a four-year starting defensive back for the Mustangs. "Going to Stevenson was the best decision of my life. I went in as a boy and left as a grown man."

As he looks to take the next step in his football career, Tennessee continues to draw inspiration from his mother. Bettie Tennessee died in late February while her son was preparing for what he hopes will be an opportunity to make an NFL roster.

"I always wanted to make this happen for my mom. She was my everything," said Tennessee, who had 14 interceptions and five blocked kicks and started every game in his Stevenson career. "To be able to make my dreams come true, it's just an honor. I'm blessed to be in this position. My mom always taught me to stay focused on my plan and my plan was to get to the NFL."

Every year, a handful of players with local ties make the jump to an NFL training camp, either as a drafted player or a college free agent. The latest class of hopefuls includes Tennessee; Towson University running back Darius Victor; Delaware offensive lineman Connor Bozick, a Severn native; Marshall wide receiver Deon-Tay McManus, who went to Dunbar; and Bowie State wide receiver Nyme Manns, a former Patterson High basketball standout.

There's a chance that none of them will have their names called during the three-day NFL draft, which gets underway on Thursday. However, all five players are confident that, at the very least, they'll be signed as an undrafted free agent and awarded an opportunity to impress an NFL organization at a rookie minicamp or training camp.

"I know I'll get my opportunity whether it's the NFL, CFL or the AFL," Tennessee said. "Wherever I'm playing, I'm going to be OK with it and I'm going to make plays wherever I go."

The Ravens took a look at Tennessee, Victor, Bozick, McManus and Manns, along with other players, at their local pro day earlier this month.

"It's been like living a dream," said Victor, who rushed for 3,309 yards and 41 touchdowns in four seasons at Towson. "I've been thinking about this all my life and I'm enjoying the process. Most people don't get to live these days that I'm living, so I'm just taking it all in."

Victor's draft stock would certainly be higher had he not sustained a toe injury that limited him to just four games this past season. He was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA to play another year at Towson, but he decided he was ready to take on a new challenge. He's been working out with Ravens starting running back and former Tigers star Terrance West, who Victor backed up as a freshman and considers a brother.

"I think right now, there will at least be some priority free agent deals for me. I would love to get drafted, but coming from a small school, and I did get hurt ... ," Victor said. "Any opportunity to practice in front of a coaching staff, I'm looking forward to that. I've been through a lot on and off the field. I would never do anything to jeopardize my opportunity."

While Victor has leaned on West, McManus has been counseled by fellow former Poet Tavon Austin, a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams who was drafted eighth overall in 2013. McManus said he wanted to go to Dunbar because of Austin.

He also initially committed to play at West Virginia, which is where Austin went, but he couldn't get cleared academically and instead enrolled at Atlanta Sports Academy before moving on to Marshall. In three seasons at Marshall, McManus, who is 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, had 101 catches for 1,209 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"Baltimore is everything to me," said McManus, whose ability to play wide receiver, tight end and fullback could make him a late-round draft pick. "I grew up in Baltimore city and saw guys like Tavon that made it. But there are a lot of guys that don't make it who are very talented, because they get caught up in the streets or not getting good grades. I'm just blessed to have a chance to further my career."

Manns grew up in Baltimore dreaming of being the city's next basketball star. He was a key component of Patterson's Class 3A state champion hoops team in 2012. However, after just one year of high school football, he committed to play the sport at West Virginia Wesleyan. Manns ultimately wound up at Bowie State and this past season, the 6-foot-4, 212-pound receiver caught 83 passes for 1,241 yards and eight touchdowns.

"I'm an exciting athlete and I bring a lot of hunger to the game," said Manns, who also worked out for the Washington Redskins. "I feel like I'd be a mismatch for a lot of DBs because they usually aren't my size. Basically right now, it's just a waiting process. I just want to see what team will give me an opportunity."

Bozick chuckled when he was asked about the possibility of joining the Ravens, who have selected a Delaware player in three of the past nine drafts, taking Joe Flacco in 2008, Gino Gradkowski in 2012 and Nick Boyle in 2015. Bozick's father, Ken, grew up in Mount Lebanon, Pa., which is just outside Pittsburgh, and is a huge Steelers' fan.

"Somebody asked him, 'Hey, Ken, what's going to happen when your son gets picked up by the Ravens?' And we started laughing," Bozick said. "He said, 'I'm going to be the biggest Ravens' fan you've ever seen.' He'll be all on board."

Bozick, who played his high school football at DeMatha, started the final 24 games at Delaware and has experience at tackle, guard and even center.

"I can look in the mirror because I know I've worked my [butt] off. I've tried my best," Bozick said. "I'm not anxious or nervous. I'm not worried. I'm just very optimistic that come draft day or shortly thereafter, I'll have a team willing to give me an opportunity."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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