Gamecock receiver expected to be a prize catch of NFL draft

Tim Brown of Notre Dame won the Heisman Trophy. Flashy Michael Irvin helped lead the University of Miami to the national championship. Wendell Davis of Louisiana State was a two-time All-American. They have the blue-chip reputations among the wide receivers leaving the college football ranks this year. But the first wide receiver taken in the National Football League draft Sunday may well be none of the above.

Instead, he's quite likely to be a former wingback who scored nearly as many touchdowns running the ball last season as he did catching it: Sterling Sharpe of the University of South Carolina.

Sharpe isn't exactly unknown. They certainly remember him well at Miami and at the University of Nebraska.

Last season he burned the Hurricanes' mighty defense for a spectacular 47-yard touchdown catch on a risky crossing pattern in the second quarter. That score put Miami behind in a game for one of the few times all season.

Against Nebraska a few weeks earlier he helped South Carolina gain the lead in the third quarter with an 80-yard touchdown catch. Both games were nationally televised.

In all, Sharpe caught 56 passes last year for 862 yards and five touchdowns as the Gamecocks won eight regular-season games and earned a bid to the Gator Bowl. (He is the school's career leader, with 163 catches in four seasons.) He added three TDs rushing in 1987.

But what really excites the pros, besides his size (6 ft. 1 in., 200 pounds) are his running speed - he has been timed at 4.4 seconds for 40 yards - his ability to outmaneuver defenses, and the fact that he's a skilled kick returner.

``I would be very surprised if Sterling Sharpe lasted past the 10th pick in the first round [of the NFL draft],'' says Mel Kiper Jr., who analyzes the draft for ESPN, the cable sports network that broadcasts the first seven hours live. ``He's very tough, very consistent. He has big-league ability -- game-breaking-type skills. He's going to be a fine player in the National Football League, a guy with Pro Bowl ability.''

Says Joe Morrison, Sharpe's head coach at South Carolina and a 14-year veteran of the NFL wars, ``I think he'll be one of the top five players drafted.''

In its mock draft, the May issue of Inside Sports magazine speculates that Sharpe will be taken by the Los Angeles Raiders with the sixth pick. In its mock draft, Sport magazine projects him as the No. 2 choice, by the Detroit Lions. The Atlanta Falcons, who pick first, have already signed Auburn linebacker Aundray Bruce.

``Bruce is already gone ... so, hopefully, I'll be one of the next four,'' Sharpe himself says in a tone more modest than his words make it seem. He is still in the market for an agent to represent him at contract time, but he knows that the higher he's chosen the more money he stands to make.

For weeks following the 1987 season, speculation ran high that Brown would be taken first in the draft because he had been awarded the Heisman Trophy. But despite the Heisman, there's a widely reported feeling among NFL scouts that Brown's talents may be overrated. He was held well in check in Notre Dame's final regular-season games against Penn State and Miami. And in the Cotton Bowl, he is best remembered for chasing after and jumping a Texas A&M player who had stolen his towel as a prank.

No one denies that Brown is a gifted athlete, but some say his greatest value in the pro ranks may be as a kick returner rather than as a receiver.

Irvin is considered perhaps the best pure pass-catcher in the draft and, based on his college performance, certainly is the leading self-promoter. He once boasted to reporters, ``The only thing that can cover me is my jersey.''

But Irvin is rated only sixth among wide receivers by one of the NFL's two scouting services and seventh by the other. He was the 12th-fastest at the position as timed over 40 yards, a distance traditionally used for scouting purposes.

LSU's Davis caught almost as many passes in his final two seasons - 152 - as Sharpe caught in four at South Carolina. But he too is rated behind Sharpe by the pro scouts.

Sharpe, a diplomat in such matters, thinks that ``as receivers we're all the same; everybody can catch the ball and everybody can run with it pretty well. Some of us are just faster than others.'' But he says South Carolina's former ``Run and Shoot'' offense, which substituted extra receivers for the tight end and fullback, has given him an edge in being able to ``read'' defenses more quickly than others in the draft.

With the football in the air an average of 38 times per game last season, the Gamecock receivers had to learn to recognize defenses on the run and make split-second adjustments to catch it.

``The Run and Shoot puts a lot of pressure on the position I play,'' Sharpe says. ``We were running backs. We were linemen. We were receivers. So I think that has prepared me for the NFL, because I can take a lick from linemen or linebackers, but I can also avoid contact.''

``He was our big-play guy,'' says Morrison. ``When things got tight, he was the one we were looking to get the ball to. Sterling understood that the defensive folks were keying on him, yet he went out there time after time and made things happen - even when they were putting two and three men on him. He still had the ability to get loose.''

Sharpe, who has earned his degree in interdisciplinary studies, says eight NFL teams - among them Detroit, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay, which have the second, third, and fourth picks, respectively -- have indicated a serious interest in drafting him if he's still available when their turns come.

But he says he won't do as a number of other college stars -- linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Brian Bosworth last year and quarterback John Elway in 1983 -- have done and refuse to report to a team or a city he doesn't like.

``I don't really care who drafts me or where I end up,'' he says. ``I just want to get a chance to play and help a team win.''

Robert Kilborn Jr. is a reporterproducer for MonitorRadio.

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