North Carolina will once again hear at least one of its former players taken in the first round of tonight's NFL Draft, and it could very well be a year in which two or more Tar Heels go in the first round.
"I'm very proud of these guys (getting drafted)," said head coach Larry Fedora in a recent interview with Tar Heel Illustrated. "They're going to help any team be better. They're going to be good citizens on the team. They're not going to have to worry about them off the field. And they're going to help them win."
All-American offensive guard Jonathan Cooper has worked himself into position to be possibly either the first or second interior offensive linemen taken tonight, while Sylvester Williams' stock has risen dramatically in recent weeks to where he's being looked at in the bottom half of the opening round.
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"Jonathan has probably got the chance to go highest at this point, and then you're looking at Sylvester and Gio in that next area, and Kevin Reddick," said Fedora.
Giovani Bernard and Kevin Reddick may not hear their names announced in Round One, but certainly they'll have reason to celebrate in the coming days when they find out their NFL Destinations. Those guys could get taken anywhere from the second to the fourth rounds.
Others, including Brennan Williams and Travis Bond, are late-round possibilities, while still a couple more could be free agent pickups after the Draft.
But for the purposes of Thursday night and the Draft's opening round, we focus in on Cooper and Williams, the two former Tar Heels most likely to hear their names called.
Cooper likely won't have to wait very long to hear his name called tonight. He'll almost certainly be the first Tar Heel called, and he could very well be taken in the first half of the Draft if things work out certain ways.
While Mock Drafts and projections for the first round often quickly go by the wayside after the first few picks, there has been some recent consistency among many respected national NFL Draft experts ranging Cooper anywhere from No. 7 to No. 11 overall.
Not bad for a three-star recruit out of Wilmington (N.C.)'s Hoggard High, who didn't even receive a scholarship offer from the Tar Heels until the summer prior to his senior year.
"Overall it just makes me proud," said Fedora of Cooper. "It makes me proud for Jonathan and his family to know that all the hard work that he's put into it, all his dreams are going to come true. And then obviously it helps us as a football team (having players like Cooper)."
"He was not a heavily-recruited young man---he wasn't a five-star athlete---and he turned himself into a first round Draft choice."
There's been a lot of recent chatter that Cooper is a good fit with the Buffalo Bills at No. 8, who are looking for an impact interior lineman, and he's also been discussed quite a bit for a few months at the No. 11 spot with the San Diego Chargers.
If he goes past San Diego he may fall down a bit (Dallas would possibly love to see him fall down to No. 18), but at the same time, the Chargers may be thrilled to get him at No. 11 if Buffalo or the New York Jets at No. 9 don't snag him first.
For Cooper, who will be in the Green Room tonight in New York City's Radio City Music Hall, he's glad the process is finally concluding, and no matter where he gets taken, he's soaking in this unique moment in his life.
"I've just decided that I'm going to try to enjoy the process (Thursday night in New York)," Cooper told Tar Heel Illustrated. "If I'm there all day (in the Green Room), then what the heck? I'll be there with my family, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I'll be fine."
"It was a pretty tough process. It was tiring, but it was fun. It is a test, they (the NFL franchises) kind of push you and prod you a little bit just to see who you are and what you're made of. I've enjoyed the whole process, and I'm thankful I'm able to do what I've been able to do," Cooper added.
One of the things that makes Cooper attractive to a great number of NFL teams---particularly those in the early first round needing help along the offensive front---is his versatility and ability to potentially play more than one position.
NFL teams are even more roster-limited than college football programs, so a guy like Cooper, who can play either left and right guard or perhaps even center if a team was desperate enough to need him there, is quite a commodity.
Which is why all of a sudden Cooper has been discussed as the first interior lineman off the board tonight---even higher than Alabama standout Chance Warmack.
"I feel comfortable being center, right guard, left guard. It is what it is," Cooper told us. "They (NFL coaches) like the versatility, since they only take seven linemen to the games that dress out. If you can play multiple positions, that helps myself out just as much as it helps the team."
"(I've been working on) just trying to continue to finish blocks. Be a physical player. So putting on weight (during the offseason), that was one of the big keys."
COOPER'S LATEST NFL DRAFT PROJECTIONS
No. 7 Arizona Cardinals (Mike Mayock, NFL.com)
No. 8 Buffalo Bills (Mel Kiper, ESPN)
No. 8 Buffalo Bills (Kansas City Star)
No. 8 Buffalo Bills (Pete Prisco, CBSSports.com)
No. 9 New York Jets (Brian Costello, New York Times)
No. 9 New York Jets (Steve Serby, New York Times)
No. 10 Tennessee Titans (Peter King, Sports Illustrated)
No. 11 San Diego Chargers (Pat Kirwin, CBSSports.com)
No. 11 San Diego Chargers (Mike Florio, Yahoo! Sports)
No. 18 Dallas Cowboys (Dane Brugler, CBSSports.com)
No. 22 St. Louis Rams (Greg Cosell, Yahoo! Sports)
While Cooper has justifiably gotten his fair share of attention as one of the top interior linemen in this year's Draft, Williams has been one of the biggest upward movers in recent weeks, working his way into a pretty good shot at hearing his name in the opening round.
It's not assured for the former Tar Heel defensive tackle---several outlets don't have Williams projected in the first round whereas pretty much everyone at this point has Cooper going in the opening round---but Williams himself believes he's improved his stock a lot in recent weeks.
"I've been hearing a lot about the first round. I'm just waiting for the Draft day to see where I get picked. I don't want to put my name in a certain slot and it doesn't happen," Williams told THI.
"I definitely feel like I've helped myself since the season ended. I've done everything right. Every time I've been in front of scouts I've worked hard and progressed every time. I feel like I've gotten better."
Williams recently got to spend some time working with and learning from one of the newest members of the NFL's Hall of Fame class, Warren Sapp, during filming for a reality show in California.
The former Tar Heel quite quite a compliment from Sapp, who played in seven Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2003.
"He (Sapp) told me I reminded him a lot of himself in his younger days," Williams said.
Sapp instructed Williams that the keys to being a high-impact defensive tackle in the NFL was concentrating on getting off the ball quickly and using good footwork and technique to elude blockers.
"He (Sapp) told me the five steps to the quarterback is key. You don't want to spend a lot of time dancing on the line. You don't want to spend a lot of time engaged with the offensive linemen. You want to get off that ball, get in the backfield and make plays," Williams said.
With the NFL geared so much towards speed and becoming more of a passing league over the past several years, big defensive linemen that can move have become even more of a premium.
"The NFL has changed. It's more of a passing league, but they also run the ball. So they want athletic defensive linemen that can run and get to the passer," he said.
Williams has concentrated on preparing to play in either the 3-4 or the 4-3 scheme, and being able to play multiple positions such as the nose tackle or 'three technique' in a 4-3 scheme if necessary.
"Actually, I feel I can play both (the nose tackle or three-technique). I feel like I can run or get to the passer. One of the strengths of my game is being versatile. So I feel like I can play both of them," he said.
Like Cooper, Williams has come a long way in a very short period of time to get to this point.
The former Missouri high schooler could have barely imagined a few years ago when he was at a Kansas Junior College that he'd be preparing to be a possible first round NFL Draft selection.
"I feel like I've done everything I can to be drafted as high as possible. So I look forward to it (tonight)," he said. "For me it's been exciting, because a few years ago I never saw myself in position to be here today. Here at Carolina the last two years were a blessing. So I take advantage of everything I get a chance to do, and it's a blessing."
"I look at it as for me, it's about proving people wrong. For myself, I knew I could do it all along and I had the ability to do it. I feel like I'm a great player and I'll bring a lot to a team," Williams continued.
WILLIAMS' LATEST NFL DRAFT PROJECTIONS
No. 14 Carolina Panthers (Pat Kirwan, CBSSports.com)
No. 15 New Orleans Saints (Peter King, Sports Illustrated)
No. 18 Dallas Cowboys (Mel Kiper, ESPN)
No. 20 Chicago Bears (Dane Brugler, CBSSports.com)
No. 22 St. Louis Rams (Greg Cosell, Yahoo! Sports)
No. 24 Indianapolis Colts (Kansas City Star)
No. 25 Minnesota Vikings (Mike Mayock, NFL.com)
No. 25 Minnesota Vikings (Steve Serby, New York Times)