University of Florida

UF DBs Vernon Hargreaves, Keanu Neal chosen in first round

Vernon Hargreaves III shows off the jersey of his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night.
Vernon Hargreaves III shows off the jersey of his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night. AP

Vernon Hargreaves III wanted to go home.

He repped custom Under Armour cleats with “Tampa Bay” spray-painted on the sides at the NFL Combine and he openly talked about wanting to live “down the street from Mom” after his Pro Day at Florida.

His dream came true on Thursday.

The former three-time All-American cornerback at UF went No. 11 overall to the Buccaneers in the 2016 NFL Draft, fulfilling Hargreaves’ hope of playing for his hometown team.

“As soon as I started playing football, I thought about making the NFL,” the former Wharton High star said in March.

“That’s just how I thought, that’s what I wanted to do. I feel like that was the only way, but now that I’m here, I’m just excited and happy with what I’ve done so far. I know I’ve still have a lot of work to do.”

Hargreaves was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2015, recorded 10 interceptions and 38 pass breakups in three seasons at Florida.

“He’s the best corner maybe I’ve seen in two or three years,” NFL Network Mike Mayock said Thursday.

“Now he’s only 5-foot-10, but he’s thick. Great feet and change of direction. He finds the football in the air.”

Hargreaves was the third cornerback selected Thursday, as Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey went No. 5 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Ohio State’s Eli Apple was surprisingly picked No. 10 overall by New York Giants.

Hargreaves managed to end up in Tampa Bay after the Bucs’ trade with Chicago, but he slid out of the Top 10 because of concerns over his size, closing speed and competitiveness.

Still, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, Tampa’s former Super Bowl winning head coach, was smitten with the pick.

“Area 813. Tampa kid goes home to play for the Tampa bay Buccaneers. I love this pick,” Gruden said.

“He doesn’t have the ideal size that you’re looking for. He doesn’t have the ideal speed, but when you turn on the film, this kid knows how to play football. ... When he’s on, he’s on.”

Just six picks later, Hargreaves’ secondary teammate safety Keanu Neal went No. 17 to the Atlanta Falcons.

The hybrid linebacker-safety skyrocketed up draft boards following a solid junior season, reconnecting with former UF defensive coordinator and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn.

Three months ago, many draft projections slotted Neal as a late second- or early-third-round pick, but after a solid showing at Florida’s Pro Day, the strong safety quickly became a hot commodity.

CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora tweeted early Thursday that Neal was “a player who could be selected way, way higher than anyone in media is projecting.”

He was right.

“This kid is a big hitter. He’s an explosive athlete,” Gruden said, as Neal had 96 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 2015.

“He’s somewhat of a liability in man-to-man coverage but when he fills the alley he’ll sting you. … He’ll be hard man to deal with.”

It was the ninth time in the last 10 years Florida had at least one first round pick, as the Gators lead the SEC with 48 first-rounders since the draft’s modern era (1967). Thursday also marked the first time in school history the Gators had two defensive backs selected in the round one.

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