North Texas has waited longer than any team in major college football to see one of its players selected in the NFL draft — since 2004, to be exact.
Some of the best players in program history who went on to significant NFL careers, including linebackers Zach Orr and Craig Robertson, were passed over and started out as undrafted free agents since.
UNT’s wait for its next player to be selected is all but certain to come to an end sometime this week.
That’s how good wide receiver Jaelon Darden’s prospects of a storybook next step in football appear.
The Houston native is projected to be selected in the middle rounds after the draft begins Thursday night. For Darden, the opportunity comes just months after his father, Manya, died of a heart condition.
“I’m definitely going to shed a couple of tears,” Darden said of what it will be like to hear his name called. “I’ve been working hard and did it with my best friend in my life, 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 plans to watch the draft from home. He’s already solidified his status as one of the greatest players in UNT football history while dealing with his father’s death over the summer.
Being selected in the NFL draft will add to Darden’s legacy. UNT hasn’t had a player picked since the Oakland Raiders picked linebacker Cody Spencer in the sixth round 17 years ago.
That drought has hung over the program like a rain cloud teasing the Mean Green for years. Even the three service academies and their programs that are designed to send their graduates into the military have had players selected since the Mean Green.
“It would be huge,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said of seeing Darden break the program’s drought. “A lot of guys’ aspiration in life is to get to the next level. Seeing a guy come here, put in the work and have an opportunity to not only get to the next level, but to be drafted, shows others that if you come in here and put in the work, they’re going to find you.”
Darden would be hard to miss considering the year he put together last fall.
The 5-foot-8 senior caught 74 passes for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in just nine games in 2020 before declaring for the draft and skipping UNT’s bowl game. That performance vaulted him to the top of UNT’s career receiving leaders list in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38).
Darden didn’t rest on his laurels and started working out with other pro prospects shortly after he declared for the draft. He was impressive at his pro day, where 34 scouts representing 29 teams saw him put on a show.
Darden ran a pair of 40-yard dashes in the 4.47- to 4.48-second range and excelled in other drills.
That was exactly what Littrell expected after seeing him prepare for years for the opportunity.
“I’ve never had a player work like Jaelon has,” Littrell said. “At times I’d tell him, ‘You’ve got to ease up. I need your legs fresh for this weekend.’ But he’s one of those special guys where that never seemed to matter.”
The question now is where Darden will land. Draft projections have him slated to be selected anywhere from the third to seventh round. Pro Football Focus has Darden to be selected in the third round, at No. 100 overall, by the Tennessee Titans.
The second and third rounds will take place on Friday night, following Thursday’s first-round selections. The fourth round will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday when the event will wrap up after the seventh round.
“I’ve been coming to work every day with a chip on my shoulder and focusing on taking that next step,” Darden said.
He’ll make UNT history when he does. The moment has been years in the making.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, wherever he ends up, he’s going to be an unbelievable teammate and give whatever organization he goes to 1,000%,” Littrell said. “He’s going to be highly successful wherever he goes.”