SALT LAKE CITY – Last week’s NFL Draft was a real dirt-dive into reality for Reggie Dunn.
Five months ago he was everyone’s star, coming off a season in which he logged four 100-yard kickoff returns. Every time he touched the ball, it was like Moses parting the sea.
Yet all seven draft rounds passed, with no call for Dunn. His phone had turned to stone. Surely someone could use the guy who made the house his home.
“I wondered (about) that today,” Dunn said on Wednesday, “but I’m not going to hold that against me.”
Somebody must have.
On the bright side, the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed him to a free agent contract.
“During the draft, I was wondering what you have to do to get drafted. I had four 100-yard kick returns, I was All-American, I ran fast at pro day, and so I was wondering. It’s mind-boggling,” he said.
Cue the “Rocky” music.
If the objective is to get in the end zone, Dunn can do that in bunches. From here on, it’s him against the world. But that’s fine with Dunn. Kickoff guys are used to facing 11-1 odds. Now all he has to do is juke and jolt the Steelers into believing in him as much as the Utes did.
“I know I’m a big-time playmaker,” he said.
Not just a one-and-Dunn consideration.
To understand what happened last season at Utah, you have to know where the Utes were. A shaky offensive line and turnover at quarterback combined to produce Utah’s worst season since 2002.
But one of the bright spots was Dunn, who turned kickoffs into amusement rides. The first two touchdowns came in a win over Cal. Quickly he became a magician’s vanishing act — now you see him, now you don’t.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Dunn said. “The Cal game, that first touchdown I scored, it was crazy. I was weaving in and out, getting behind my blockers. The second one I was like, ‘No, this is not happening again.’”
Oh yes it was.
After that, teams started kicking away from him, preferring to put the ball in the concessions booth rather than Dunn’s hands. But late in the year he added field-length kickoff returns against Washington State and Colorado. After the latter, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham marveled: “I can’t for the life of me figure out why they kicked to Reggie Dunn.”
Neither could the Colorado administration, which fired coach Jon Embree three days later.
Each of Dunn’s milestones — for 100-yard returns in a game (2), season (4) and career (5) — tied or set NCAA records. It was more than just lucky breaks. Dunn recorded 4.22 and 4.26 times at draft workouts, and has a nice 36-inch vertical. Although he wasn’t a star receiver at Utah, he did have one touchdown catch and two rushing scores in his career.
But his signature, in big John Hancock lettering, is returning kicks.
“I have to say my first two steps are explosive, but for me, I think the key would have to be my speed and then translating that with my vision,” he said. “Obviously I’m fast, but (vision) isn’t something you can test at the combine. It’s something you see on film, how a guy sees a hole. I can see the field great and move fast at the same time.”
So why not draft him?
Dunn is small (5-feet-10, 172 pounds), and has been characterized as a one-dimensional player. Some teams doubted his pass-catching ability, though he had 12 catches for 74 yards last season. Others felt he didn’t get yardage after making catches.
But he has the anticipation of a chess master and the fleetness of a deer.
And he can smell the end zone from the neighboring county.
“If you can provide good field position, the offense has a much higher chance of scoring touchdowns,” he said. “As long as you’re taking away chunks of yardage for the offense, it’s a great asset. But if you’re scoring touchdowns, it’s just like flipping the whole game.”
Flipping the NFL is what he now has in mind.
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