Ivy League Gets NFL’s Eye as Princeton Aims to End Draft Drought

Most Ivy League psychology majors move on to a suit and tie after graduation. Mike Catapano’s attire after he leaves Princeton University includes a helmet and shoulder pads.

The 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end is seen becoming the first Tigers player taken in the National Football League draft in 12 years, dating back to offensive lineman Dennis Norman’s selection by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round of the 2001 draft.

If Catapano makes it, he’ll be among a small group of Ivy Leaguers in the NFL -- six players from the conference appeared in an NFL game last season. Five, including Catapano and Harvard fullback Kyle Juszczyk, are projected to be selected today or tomorrow in rounds two through seven in the NFL Draft. Only seven have been taken since 2004.

“No question it’s a good year for the Ivy League,” said Ross Tucker, a former Princeton and NFL offensive lineman who provides analysis of Ivy League football games for the NBC Sports Network.

Catapano is ranked as the 18th-best defensive end in the draft and projected as a sixth or seventh-round draft pick, according to the CBSSports.com draft prospectus. The Minnesota Vikings worked him out as a linebacker during a private workout in March, said Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel and now a senior analyst for NFL.com.

‘Real Athlete’

“He’s a great player; a real athlete with very good speed,” said Brandt. “He’ll get drafted. Teams are trying to figure out if he can play with his hand on the ground and also in space.”

Catapano, 22, a third-team All-American, won the 2012 Bushnell Cup as the Ivy League defensive player of the year last season after leading the league with 12 quarterback sacks and ranking second with 15.5 tackles for a loss.

Scouts from 12 NFL teams attended a private workout at Princeton this spring, where Catapano’s 4.75-second 40-yard dash and 37.5-inch vertical jump compared favorably with players projected higher in the draft, Brandt said.

The Ivy League hasn’t had a player selected in the top three rounds of the NFL draft in more than a decade, though Brown University linebacker Zak DeOssie was taken in the fourth round of the 2007 draft by the Giants.

Harvard’s Juszczyk, rated the top fullback by CBS Sports, might go as high as the third round, according to the network. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, he caught 52 passes last season for 706 yards and eight touchdowns. Some scouts say he could play tight end. The others who may be drafted, according to NFL DraftZone.com are Cornell University guard J.C. Tretter; Cornell receiver Luke Tasker, the son of former seven-time Pro Bowl special teams player Steve Tasker of the Buffalo Bills, and University of Pennsylvania defensive lineman Brandon Copeland.

No Scholarships

The eight Ivy League schools play in college football’s second level. No athletic scholarships are given and they don’t participate in the national championship tournament.

Tucker said Ivy Leaguers are getting more respect in the NFL thanks to players including former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, a Harvard graduate who retired after his team won the Super Bowl; Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (Harvard), New York Giants guard Kevin Boothe (Cornell) and Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (Harvard).

“There are enough Ivy League guys who have proven they can start in the NFL that it’s given more credence to the league as a whole and they are starting to get more looks from the scouts,” Tucker said in an interview.

NFL Invitations

Much of Catapano’s size came in the past two years. The former high school fullback weighed 210 when he started at Princeton.

“I’m really excited to see what is going to happen,” Catapano said in an interview. “I sleep well at night knowing that I work hard every day, and I’ve tried to make the most of every opportunity to this point.”

Several teams invited the native of Bayville, New York, to private workouts at their team facilities to give their coaches a better look. They include the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals, according to Catapano.

Princeton coach Bob Surace, a former All-Ivy center for the Tigers, spent eight seasons as an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals and said Catapano has the talent and intelligence to make it in the NFL.

“Relentless, unbelievable motor, extremely physical and tough,” Surace said in an interview on the Princeton campus. “He’s a low-maintenance guy who understands the game. He could be a guy who makes it and sticks.”

Catapano had plans for law school until NFL scouts started arriving at Princeton last season, changing his primary goal to playing in the NFL. If that doesn’t work out, he said, he’ll pursue a coaching job at the high school or college level.

Asked if he’s nervous about the draft and the pressures of making it in the NFL, Catapano was emphatic.

“I don’t think nervous,” he said. “Confident, prepared and excited is more the word.”

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