Darden draft lead

North Texas wide receiver Jaelon Darden pulls away from UAB defensive back Dy’jonn Turner during a game at at Apogee Stadium in the 2019 season. Darden became the first UNT player selected in the NFL draft this week.

The North Texas draft drought is finally over. Jaelon Darden, a diminutive wide receiver whose rare combination of talent and drive made him one of the best players in Mean Green history, etched his name into program lore yet again on Saturday.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Darden with the 24th pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft, bringing one of the more baffling slumps in college sports to a close.

UNT had not had a player selected since the Oakland Raiders picked linebacker Cody Spencer in the sixth round in 2004.

Jaelon Darden

Jaelon Darden

Hundreds of players have pulled on a Mean Green uniform since, including linebackers Zach Orr and Craig Robertson as well as running back Lance Dunbar. All three UNT legends are among a host of players who went on to the NFL after their time with the Mean Green.

And yet, it was Darden, a 5-foot-8 slot receiver with blazing speed, elite quickness and an insatiable work ethic who finally broke the longest draft drought in major college football.

It almost seemed fitting.

Darden has been an underdog throughout his career and overcame the odds again.

The Houston native wasn’t highly recruited when he signed with UNT in 2017. Four years later, there is no denying he is one of the best to ever play for the Mean Green after he was selected in the draft.

Darden looked forward to that moment in a pre-draft press conference earlier this year when he spoke about his father, Manya Darden, who died of a heart condition over the summer.

“I’m definitely going to shed a couple of tears,” Jaelon Darden said while looking forward to the moment he was selected. “I did it with my best friend in my life, which is my dad. That’s going to be the hardest part. I can’t share that moment with him, but I can share it with my mom and my little brother.”

Darden planned to watch the draft from his home in Houston, where he began his football journey.

He posted a simple message on his Twitter account shortly after the Buccaneers traded a sixth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks to move up eight spots in the fourth round to select him.

“Nothing But God,” Darden wrote. “Love You Pops.”

Darden thanked the Buccaneers for their faith in him in a video posted to their official website a short time later.

“It shows how much they trusted me,” Darden said. “They loved what I was doing. I am shocked that I was picked by the Super Bowl champs.”

Darden started his football journey playing in the backyard with his brother.

“He played receiver as well, so I kind of want to follow his footsteps,” Darden said. “I saw the work ethic he had at a young age. I told myself that if I keep that work ethic, there isn’t anything stopping me.”

That turned out to be the case. Darden made an impact from the jump at UNT, catching 32 passes as a freshman.

By the time he declared for the draft after UNT’s win over UTEP in the Mean Green’s regular season finale last fall, he’d rewritten the program’s record book.

He caught 74 passes for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in just nine games as a senior. Only DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, caught more touchdown passes last season with 23.

“Jaelon has been a huge asset to our program not only as a player, but also as a great leader overall,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “He elevated guys around him with the way he works and the effort he puts in every single day.”

That work ethic and his production on the college level landed Darden on the radar with NFL teams. His performance during a pro day workout in March solidified his status as a prospect.

Darden ran a pair of 40-yard dashes in the 4.47 to 4.48 second range and excelled in other drills.

At that point, it seemed like the question had changed from if Darden would be drafted to when.

That answer came on the third day of the draft.

Littrell is confident Darden will maintain the work ethic that led to his success on the high school and college levels as he makes the transition to playing in the NFL.

“There’s no doubt my mind, wherever he ends up, he’s going to be an unbelievable teammate and give whatever organization he’s with 1,000 percent,” Littrell said. “He’s going to come to work every day. He’s going to be highly successful wherever he goes.”

Darden will look to capitalize on his potential in Tampa Bay, where he’ll join an offense that features a pair of NFL legends in quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Darden looked forward to that time not as the end of the Mean Green’s draft drought but as the beginning of another chapter in his journey.

“I want to come into an organization and give everything I’ve got,” Darden said.

That’s exactly what Darden did at UNT, an approach that helped him make history again on Saturday.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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