Waller among intriguing UGA and Tech draft prospects

In pre-draft interviews with NFL teams, former Georgia Tech wide receiver Darren Waller answered questions about playing in the Yellow Jackets’ unorthodox offense. He was asked about his interest in shifting positions to tight end.

He also had to demonstrate to teams — two of which flew Waller to their headquarters — that he had learned from two suspensions for testing positive for marijuana.

“I should have dealt with the issue a lot earlier than I did, but the fact is that I learned a lesson,” Waller said Wednesday. “I wouldn’t be here (in the draft process) without it.”

Beyond possibly becoming the first former Tech player to be selected in the NFL draft, which begins Thursday night with the first round and continues through Saturday, Waller is among the most intriguing prospects from Tech and Georgia. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper pegged him as a potential third- or fourth-round selection.

Another potential mid-round selection is All-American guard Shaquille Mason. Safety Isaiah Johnson could be a late-round pick, as could wide receiver DeAndre Smelter. For linebacker Quayshawn Nealy and B-backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, the route may be as undrafted free agents.

As for the first selection from Tech or Georgia, draft analysts expect that player will be Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley. Some mock drafts include Gurley among the top 10 picks and most include him among the first 20. Teammate Chris Conley recorded staggering numbers at the NFL combine in February, and his draft potential has climbed steadily since.

Bulldogs linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera rank among the players likely drafted, and cornerback Damian Swann, center David Andrews and defensive lineman Ray Drew probably are long shots.

Waller was suspended for the season opener in 2013 and the first two games of the 2014 season. He said his response at the time was that people were out to get him.

“I was really immature,” Waller said. “Looking back, they were looking out for me.”

The second suspension finally caught Waller’s attention. By the athletic department’s policy for drugs and alcohol, a third strike would have meant removal from the team. Waller said he was impacted by “just kind of seeing my future flash in front of my eyes, seeing how much it hurt my teammates and coaches — those guys are like family — seeing how selfish it was.”

Waller finished the season with 26 catches for 442 yards and six touchdowns and particularly showed his worth in the final two games after Smelter suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the Georgia game. In the ACC championship game and the Orange Bowl, Waller caught 10 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns.

With the combination of the strong close to his career, his frame — 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds with 33-inch arms — a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and a strong showing at the East-West Shrine Game, Waller moved up draft boards. Arizona and San Francisco brought him out to their team offices for interviews, particularly noteworthy since teams are only permitted 30 such visits. The Falcons, Cincinnati, New England and Tampa Bay put him through private workouts.

His size makes him a possibility as a tight end. Waller said teams have shown interest in him at both positions. Barring the unlikely scenario of him falling through the draft, he will follow Demaryius Thomas (first round, 2010, Denver) and Stephen Hill (second round, 2012, New York Jets) as the third Tech receiver to play for coach Paul Johnson to be drafted. He will further undo the pigeonholing that has often accompanied Johnson’s spread-option scheme. Smelter may be selected also.

“It feels great,” Waller said. “I went through a lot and it kind of shows I didn’t just fold up completely. I got knocked down a few times, but just knowing I got to this point, it shows a lot about how I handled adversity and was able to keep moving.”