The NFL Draft class of 2022 persevered through an awkward and often painful COVID pandemic that threatened careers.
In DaRon Bland’s case, who would have guessed that his personal journey would lead him to America’s Team?
The former Central Catholic High star, after successful stops at Sacramento State and Fresno State, was drafted in the fifth round (No. 167) by the Dallas Cowboys. Bland, only the 11th FSU cornerback to be drafted, has a chance to make hismark at the game’s highest stage.
“The Cowboys were my first visit. It’s a surreal moment at this stage,” Bland told DallasCowboys.com. “I worked very hard for this. I’ve spent most of my life trying to get to this point.”
Two other players from the area also will receive up-close-and-personal looks from NFL teams.
Talolo Limu-Jones, the explosive receiver from Grace Davis High, was one of 13 to sign as undrafted free agents by the Carolina Panthers. And defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson, the talented Turlock High graduate and Modesto Junior College product, received a training-camp invite from the Atlanta Falcons last week.
Bland, 6-foot-0 and 197 pounds, figured to be a third-day draftee, but his selection brought smiles to the faces of knowledgeable Cowboys fans.
He no doubt emerged last fall in his only season at Fresno State when he started the final nine games, then later shined during his Pro Day by running 4.42 in the 40. His other measurables also were impressive: 32-inch arms, 6½-foot wingspan and a 35.5-inch vertical leap.
Before his time with the Bulldogs, Bland started for two seasons at Sacramento State and was named to the All-Big Sky Conference team in 2019. Then came the virus and Bland’s eventual switch to Fresno State.
Dallas was attracted by his athleticism and also by his workload as a hardworking player on special teams.
“Throughout my college career, I played punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return,” Bland said. “It pretty much played it all.”
This came as no surprise to the coaches at Central Catholic who remember Bland as a major contributor to the Raiders’ CIF state titles in 2014 and ’15. The latter was a 16-0 blitz and Bland’s fingerprints were all over it: 48 tackles, five interceptions (three for touchdowns), four receiving touchdowns and one kickoff-return TD.
“He was the most athletic guy I’ve ever coached,” CC coach Roger Canepa praised.
Limu-Jones, 6-4 and 220, enhanced his future with an impressive 2021 season at Eastern Washington. He accounted for 1,122 yards and six touchdowns during an injury-plagued year and, for his EWU career, totaled 2,573 yards and 17 TDs. He ran a 4.5 40 at his Pro Day despite tweaking his hamstring two weeks before the session.
“I’ve always had to prove myself, so going there (to Carolina) will be regular for me,” Limu-Jones said. “It’s not such a bad thing for me.”
For further inspiration, Limu-Jones can look to Kendrick Bourne, another undrafted free agent out of Eastern Washington. Bourne turned that opportunity into a career with the San Francisco 49ers and, today, the New England Patriots.
“I met him during my redshirt year when he was a senior,” Limu-Jones said. “And he’s made it.”
Johnson, 6-2 and 290, is undersized at his position. The Falcons saw enough potential in the CU graduate, however, to invite him to their mini-camp beginning Saturday. He’ll have a chance to make their 90-man roster.
Johnson has been excellent at each stop —Turlock, MJC and Colorado. He impressed immediately at Boulder in 2018 (8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for losses) and eventually earned two All-Pacific 12 Conference selections, the latter last fall after going undrafted in 2021. He was granted the fifth year of eligibility due to COVID.
“He’s had elbow and ankle injuries but he’s finally healthy,” Turlock coach James Peterson said. “I think he has a real shot.”