Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — One missed flight, one delayed flight and 10 hours in an airport behind him, Shane Ray arrived in Kansas City around 8 p.m. Tuesday, having won a bowl game and enjoyed a family vacation in Florida.
Wednesday, he made an announcement, twice rescheduled, which many saw coming months ago.
Ray’s next destination is the NFL.
The consensus All-American and Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, who set a school record with 14 sacks this season, will forgo his senior year at Missouri to enter April’s NFL Draft.
“I’m ecstatic for Shane,” defensive coordinator Craig Kuligowski said. “We’re very proud of him. I know he’s grown physically, but he’s grown as a man since he’s been here, and he’s gone about this whole process in an extremely professional way. I think it bodes well for him in the future.”
Ray was one of four Missouri underclassmen whose names were submitted to the NFL to be evaluated as a draft prospect. The five to seven teams that looked at Ray all gave him a first-round grade, which Pinkel told Ray after Missouri’s 33-17 New Year’s Day defeat of Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl.
“We want to put a picture of him up on that board outside,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said, referring to the large banner in the Missouri Athletic Training Complex with larger-than-life photos of former Tigers, many of whom were drafted in the first round. “And so, that’s real important, to get the right information to make an intelligent decision.”
With that grade in hand, Ray wanted to make a decision with his mother, Sebrina Johnson — something he was able to do once he finally returned to Missouri.
“I told everyone I was going to sit down and talk to my mom about everything,” Ray said. “And we just weighed out all the pros and the cons and just talked about the goals I had set to accomplish this year and everything I was able to do, and we felt that it was the best decision for me to move on.”
For Johnson, the grade helped solidify the idea her son could leave school early for the NFL.
“My eyes, like, popped,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious?’ To think that all these teams look at your kid from Missouri as one of the top players, an elite player — I mean that is amazing, because most of these kids come out of Florida, Alabama and those places. He’s from Kansas City, Mo. He went to Mizzou. It does so much for the program, I think. It says so much for him and his hard work.”
Pinkel encouraged Ray’s decision to leave after his junior season.
“Coach Pinkel is so genuine, and he just told me, ‘If you’re my son, I would tell you to go,’” Ray said. “And with the grade that came back, he said, ‘Shane, I think it’s a good idea for you to move on and we support you here.’ Your head coach telling you that, you expect some head coaches to be like, ‘Please, you need to come back. Forget that.’ But coach Pinkel supported my decision, and that makes me feel even better.”
That’s not to say it was an easy decision.
“The only thing that I can compare to being as tough as making this decision was not being able to play the second half of the Alabama game, not being out with my team,” Ray said, referring to his targeting ejection in the SEC Championship Game. “That’s something that’s important to me and all the guys in the locker room. They supported me this whole year. They supported me with my decision, and I mean, even though it’s a new chapter in life, it’s hard for me to let all those guys go and all the memories we’ve made here, all the people I’ve met.”
Ray said he has not yet decided on an agent and plans to decide by the end of the week where he will train for the NFL Combine, which begins February 17.
Though Ray played defensive end at Missouri, some professional teams might expect the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder to play outside linebacker or as a hybrid of the two.
“I’m more than capable of playing outside linebacker. I’m more than capable of keeping my hand in the dirt,” Ray said. “It’s really whatever system they think I fit the best, and I’m just going to make sure that I’m the best guy for whatever system that is.”
Ray said he dropped into pass coverage more last season than he ever had in his career. He improved his 40-yard dash time each year at Missouri, setting a best of 4.44 seconds a year ago, and that speed is a big reason for his first-round projections.
Ray won’t be going through the draft process alone. Fellow defensive end Markus Golden, who graduated in December, is also expected to be drafted this spring.
“It’s awesome, especially with how close me and Markus are,” Ray said. ” … How many people get to say they had a year like this with somebody they’re so close with and then be able to go train and go train for the NFL (together)? It’s going to be a great experience, and I wish him the best in everything.”
Ray is the ninth Missouri player to leave early for the draft since Pinkel has been coach. He would be the 11th Missouri defensive lineman to be drafted during that time and the 17th Missouri player ever drafted in the first round.
Ray said he spent time in Florida with close friend Sheldon Richardson, the most recent Missouri defensive lineman to go in the first round.
“He gave me a good idea of what I should expect, what I’m going to be going into,” Ray said, “So I’ve kind of got my mind wrapped around it, and I’m ready.”
First-round picks typically receive four-year deals, and 2014 first-rounders’ salaries ranged from $6.8 million to $22.2 million.
“It’s not a bad job coming out of college. That’s the way I always look at it,” Kuligowski said. “I don’t know if any of us could make that much money the first year coming out of college.”