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Behind the Line: From TSU to the NFL
Monday, May 11, 2015
Behind the Line: From TSU to the NFL

“I don’t think I do anything different than anyone else,” Tennessee State offensive line coach Russ Ehrenfeld admitted when asked about his coaching philosophy. If it isn’t that, then there must be something in the water on the TSU campus to explain what happened on May 2, when a pair of former Big Blue linemen were selected in the NFL Draft.

Robert Myers was taken in the fifth round (No. 176) by the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders drafted Anthony Morris in the seventh (No. 218) to give TSU more draft picks than any other team in the FCS including defending National Champion North Dakota State.

For Myers, being drafted was almost a foregone conclusion. He was a preseason and postseason All-American, was one of the few FCS players to participate in the Senior Bowl and was invited to the NFL Combine.

Everyone thought that Myers would be selected somewhere, but his coach knew that Baltimore would take him before everyone else saw his name scroll across the screen on draft day.

“With Robert, I knew that the Ravens had a sincere interest in him. [Baltimore Offensive Line Coach Juan] Castillo sent me a text saying he was very high on Robert. The Ravens personnel said that they were really looking into drafting Robert in the fourth or fifth round, so when the fifth was winding down on draft day I told my daughter that this is where he was going to go. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened,” Ehrenfeld said.

Those talks between the two coaches came to fruition when the Ravens used the very last draft pick of the fifth round to take Myers. It was a compensatory pick Baltimore received when Michael Oher left the franchise, and the club made good use of the pick in selecting what could be its next unit stalwart. 

For Morris, his road to the NFL was paved with slightly less gold as the Memphis native entered his senior season with only a couple of spot-starts. He then battled injuries in his final year, but cobbled together enough tape to send to scouts.

In hindsight, Morris might not have needed that tape because at six-foot-seven and 320 lbs., he was going to draw interest no matter what he was doing. Still, his collegiate coach had a plan for him, too.

“Mickey Marvin, the scout that covers the Raiders really fell in love with Anthony and he told me that more than once,” Ehrenfeld said.

Despite what Ehrenfeld may have heard, a team is only given so many draft picks, so Morris’s selection was still up in the air at the opening of the seventh round. The Raiders wasted no time on acting on their “love” and snatched up Morris with the very first pick of the round, much to the delight of Ehrenfeld. 

“My wife sent me to Walmart to pick up some groceries and I had to stop first at a gas station. I was sitting in my car at the station and a friend of mine who works for another NFL team told me that Anthony had been drafted. I was shouting and pumping my fists, so if anybody saw me they would have thought that I was crazy.”

We may be the crazy ones for not seeing this coming.

The selections of Myers and Morris came on the heels of former TSU offensive linemen Kadeem Edwards and Demetrius Rhaney both being drafted in 2014. And those 2014 picks were preceded by two other TSU lineman signing pro deals in Rodgers Gaines and Sherman Carter.

So how do six offensive linemen from an FCS Historically Black College get picked up by pro teams in the span of three years?

“Kadeem and Rhaney saw what Sherman and Rodgers did. Then Robert and Anthony saw what Kadeem and Rhaney did. So they have learned from the past and each year the new group wants to carry the torch and do better than the last group,” Ehrenfeld said.

While the one-up philosophy does work, something had to happen to start the trend. The players all have one thing in common – they all learned and responded to Ehrenfeld’s no-nonsense coaching style.

“If you play for me, you are going to be coached hard. I won’t elaborate too much, but you are going to be pushed and I am very demanding, but that’s how I learned to coach,” Ehrenfeld said.

A 33-year vet of the coaching ranks, Ehrenfeld has seen it all. He has developed a rapport with players, coaches and especially the NFL scouts. 

“Some of the same people who come to evaluate players are the same people that have been coming for the last 20 years. The scouts will ask me ‘how does player A from 20 years ago compare to player B today?’ I always give them a straight, honest answer,” Ehrenfeld said.

It helps when you have many successful players to compare including names like Cornelius Lewis (Colts), Cecil Newton (Ravens), Bennie Anderson (Ravens), Michael Thompson (Falcons), Lawrence Smith (Bills) and Antoine McNutt (Rhein Fire). Ehrenfeld’s success at churning out a string of pro products at Tennessee State has not gone unnoticed; just go out to a practice and look over at his unit.

“It’s kind of neat when we come out for a practice and there are seven scouts looking at one position group. The players see that and it motivates them to play well.”

That “neat”-ness has paid dividends for TSU over the past two years to the tune of four draft picks. It has also helped the players make a name for themselves even as underclassmen.

“After Robert’s sophomore season, a New Orleans Saints scout called me to talk about Gaines, and we started talking. He told me that we have a bunch of athletic guys, and he asked specifically about No. 70. I laughed and told him he’s just a sophomore, but the scout told me that he would be back.”

That scout was back along with ones from the other 31 NFL teams. The exposure and teaching that the TSU players received during their time does not go unnoticed and immediately after he was drafted, Morris said: “all the credit goes to Coach Ehrenfeld”.

“On draft day, Anthony shot me a text that basically said that same thing, and I have saved it. I am a very emotional person so when I saw it, I started crying. It meant so much to me that he would say what he said. It was very kind of him, but Anthony put the work in and busted his tail every day in practice and that’s why he is where he is right now,” Ehrenfeld said.

Where Morris is right now, is across the country chasing a dream that wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Ehrenfeld and TSU.

The difficulty of producing just one draft pick – let alone two – cannot be overstated considering that the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State, even with all of their resources did not produce a single selection.

“Truthfully, I really don’t care about those schools. I love Tennessee State and I love working for Coach Reed. It definitely fills me with pride to see guys that I have coached reach the highest level, but the most important thing for me is are they leaving TSU good people, good husbands, good fathers.”

So if the trend continues, this story should be revisited this time next year when TSU has two more offensive linemen achieve the honor of being selected in the NFL Draft.

“Shaq Anthony and James Lewis are our two seniors this year, so we will see…”