KENT, Ohio – When the St. Louis Rams traded up in the first round of last April’s NFL Draft to select West Virginia speedster Tavon Austin at No. 8, Dri Archer was watching.
Archer, though, kept getting interrupted by phone calls and text messages. He had lots of people telling him that he could be in Austin’s position next year.
After coming from obscurity and a year away from football to post ridiculous numbers playing a variety of roles at Kent State last year, Archer was thinking the same thing.
Austin is listed at 5’9, 174. Kent State lists Archer at 5’8, 175. Austin ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last February after a 17-touchdown season as a utility man in a wide-open West Virginia offense that knew if it could get Austin into space, he wouldn’t be caught.
If anybody, anywhere, was getting from Point A to goal line last year faster than Austin, it was probably Archer or Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas.
Archer finished the 2012 season with 2,577 all-purpose yards and 24 total touchdowns. He made several All-American teams as a return man even though Mid-American Conference teams just stopped kicking to him at mid-season; they also started gearing their defenses to recognize where he was first, worrying about everybody else later.
When Kent State’s season ended, Archer had a decision to make. He submitted paperwork to the NFL Draft’s underclassman advisory committee, a group of scouting-community types who evaluate potential prospects and use their connections to try to pass along the best possible information.
A low-round grade came back to Archer. Through other avenues came word that the eyes of the NFL wanted to see him improve his receiving skills and punt-return ability and prove he wasn’t a one-year wonder. Archer talked to his mother, to his coaches and to his teammates. He’d really only been seriously recruited out of high school by Kent State, had missed 2011 due to an administrative academic issue and to suddenly have the opportunity to go to the NFL, he admitted, “was overwhelming.” And certainly worth losing sleep over, which he did.
“I weighed my options, and it came down to what came back from the committee wasn’t what I wanted to hear,” Archer said. “I had some unfinished business at school anyway, so I’m cool with it.
“I thought about my degree, and I’m probably getting that this December. I thought about how Kent State wanted me when no one else really did. I’ve been through three coaches (at Kent State), through the good and the bad. The NFL, that’s a dream and it’s incredible. But deep down seeing it through in Kent was something I wanted to do.”
Making the decision more complicated was that Kent State went through its second coaching change of Archer’s time as Darrell Hazell left for Purdue. Hazell, who had experience with underclass draft entry from his time as wide receivers coach at Ohio State, told Archer to make his own decision but thought he’d benefit from another season of college football.
“I usually tell guys that if they’re going to be picked in the first or second round, they should go,” Hazell said. “I knew Dri had a tough decision, but I think he made the right one. He still hasn’t played a ton of football, and one more season isn’t only going to make him a better and smarter player but it is going to give those NFL evaluators a longer look at just how special he can be.”
More NFL scouts started stopping by Kent State last fall, curious to get an in-person look at the guy who was running past just about everybody on tape. How exactly they graded him then will remain a secret.
Here’s how new Kent State coach Paul Haynes graded his return for 2013: As an absolute recruiting coup.
“It’s huge, but I had nothing to do with him coming back,” Haynes said. “I came in and didn’t know him, so anything I would have told him meant nothing. All I told him was that if he did come back, I wanted him to come back with the mentality that he’d work to be even better. We’re talking about a really special player who still can get a lot better.
“The hype is legit. This kid is as good as anybody. He’s even better than was advertised to me. He’s an electric player.”
A year ago, Kent State was trying to get to its first bowl game in 40 years. Because he’d been sidelined the previous season, Archer was probably the nation’s best-kept secret.
“I knew he had rare speed,” Hazell said. “I probably didn’t know then how tough he was. He has a pretty rare skill set.”
Kent State won 10 straight games, won the MAC East and climbed as high as No. 17 nationally. Archer had scored 14 touchdowns by mid-October, before the Flashes won at then-ranked Rutgers and cracked the polls themselves. The final numbers from last season show Archer rushed for 1,429 yards, had 561 receiving yards, covered 591 yards on kick returns, and even threw a 24-yard touchdown pass.
No coach who wants to keep his job will kick to Archer this season, but Haynes said he’s been working with his staff on ways to both showcase Archer’s talents and maximize them. He’s gladly opened the doors at practice to NFL scouts, who know Archer will be draft eligible next April.
They’ll see a player who can play tailback, in the slot, as a receiver and one who probably will end up being the most underutilized return man in college football.
“Hopefully teams kick to me this year,” Archer said. “But I think I know better than that.”