For the third straight year, Michigan State has a first-round NFL draft pick.
Left tackle Jack Conklin, who gave up his final season of eligibility, was selected No. 8 overall by Tennessee, which traded up from No. 15 with Cleveland to obtain the pick.
“It was definitely emotional for me,” Conklin said. “I told myself I wasn’t going to cry — I couldn’t do that. But even now I am sitting here thinking, ‘No. 8 pick of the Titans in the NFL draft, coming from being a walk-on.’ I couldn’t be more excited. I want to be a Titan for life now.”
Not only was Conklin the third consecutive Spartan to go in the first round — cornerback Trae Waynes went No. 11 last year to Minnesota and cornerback Darqueze Dennard was taken 24th in 2014 by Cincinnati — he was the first offensive linemen taken in any round under coach Mark Dantonio.
“I think he’s the No. 1 offensive lineman in the draft, hands down,” ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said. “The kid is nasty. He can play left tackle, he can play right tackle, he can play guard.
“If you like nastiness and finishing and people that can punk you, you like Jack Conklin. I love this pick. Way to go Tennessee.”
Conklin said he had his heart set on playing for the Titans.
“I was nervous, because I didn’t want to go anywhere else honestly,” Conklin said. “I set my heart in Tennessee, and fell in love with the place. I feel like it is a great fit, and a place I can really excel. They play the type of football I love — hard-nosed, physical football. I know that is what they are hoping to build there. When a team plays Tennessee, they should remember it. … I’d say I’m a mauler. I want guys to remember they played against me.”
Conklin (6-foot-6, 325) earned first-team All-American honors in 2015, as well as being named first-team All-Big Ten. He is the first Michigan State offensive lineman since Flozell Adams in 1997 to earn All-American honors.
Conklin’s first-round selection is the highest for a Michigan State offensive lineman since Adams went in the second round (38th overall) to Dallas in 1998. The last Spartans offensive lineman to go in the first round was Tony Mandarich, who went No. 2 overall to Green Bay in 1989.
“There’s no doubt that he’ll be an outstanding tackle at the next level,” Dantonio said. “He’s well prepared to transition into the next chapter of his life, and we wish him nothing but the best as he chases his dream of playing in the NFL. He’s not only been a major contributor over the last three seasons, but he’s also been a tremendous ambassador for our football program.”
A former walk-on, Conklin started 38 of 39 games in his career, with 35 coming at left tackle and three at right tackle. Some have projected he could begin his NFL career at right tackle before ultimately moving over to the left side.
“This notion that he is an underachiever is ridiculous,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He has great athleticism, incredibly long arms and went up against a lot of top players. He’s a throwback, a guy that will bloody your nose, get after you. He’s gonna be a great run blocker and more than adequate as a left tackle in pass protection.”
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock thinks Tennessee’s current left tackle, former Michigan player Taylor Lewan, will stay on the left side for now.
“I think Lewan stays on the left side and Conklin goes to the right and you have your bookend tackles for (quarterback Marcus) Mariota,” Mayock said.
Said Conklin of playing with Lewan: “We’re both Titans now.”
Conklin is the highest pick in the Dantonio era, bettering Waynes. The third straight first-round selection is also the longest streak for the Spartans since they had a player go in the opening round from 1986-91.
“Jack Conklin is a hard-working, tough, dedicated player,” Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “There’s nothing that (he) won’t accomplish when he puts his mind to it. I remember the spring of his redshirt freshman year when he put on his O-line goal sheet that he wanted to be a first-team freshman All-American and he hadn’t even secured a starting position yet. Three years later, he added first-team All-America honors to his resume, and now, we can call him a first-rounder.”
Tennessee made a bold move to get Conklin, making the trade with Cleveland then passing up Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss, who plummeted to No. 13 as questions about his character were running rampant.
The Titans entered the draft holding the No. 15 pick but moved up to No. 8 after making the deal with the Browns. The Titans also received a sixth-round pick (176) in this year’s draft, and in return, the Browns received the 15th pick from the Titans, a third-round pick (76) this year and a second-round pick in 2017.
“We’ve liked Jack for a while here now,” Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson said. “I mean he was a former walk on at Michigan State and earned everything that he was given there. He played for a very tough program.
“If you look at (Michigan State’s) program, they are a physical football team offensively and defensively. They are a disciplined football team. They run the ball; they had a good quarterback there this year; they’ve had good backs there so I just think stylistically from an offensive line standpoint we were able to evaluate all of the skillsets that we are going to ask him to do in our offense, so it made it a really, really good fit for us.”