Johnny Mitchell (1990-91) was the first. The two-time, first-team All-Big tight end left Nebraska following his sophomore season, as a first-round draft pick of the New York Jets.
Mitchell wasn’t eligible to compete at Nebraska his first year out of Chicago’s Simeon High School because of the NCAA’s Proposition 48, which required a minimum grade-point average and standardized test score. It was established in 1983 and because of it, some athletes attended junior college. Mitchell opted, instead, to work and enroll at Nebraska part-time in order to preserve eligibility.
His freshman year with the Huskers he caught 11 passes for 283 yards and seven touchdowns, setting a school record by averaging 25.6 yards per catch. He was the co-Big Eight Freshman of the Year and just the second Husker freshman to earn first-team all-conference recognition. He also set a school record by catching five passes for 138 yards in the 1991 Citrus Bowl against Georgia Tech.
Mitchell caught 31 passes for 534 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore before moving on. The 31 catches were a school tight end record. Mike McNeil broke that record in 2008 (32), and Tyler Hoppes currently holds it after catching 34 balls in 2017.
The New York Jets made the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Mitchell (who was timed at 4.65 in the 40-yard dash) the 15th pick in the 1992 draft, one spot after the Giants selected Notre Dame senior tight end Derek Brown. Mitchell played five NFL seasons, the first four with the Jets, starting 43 games – 39 of the starts in the second through fourth seasons – and catching 159 passes for 2,103 yards and 16 touchdowns. He caught one pass for 17 yards in four games with the Cowboys in 1996.
Eleven Huskers with a season of eligibility remaining have since left by way of the NFL draft. At this point, two members of Mike Riley’s third Nebraska team have indicated they will bypass their senior season under Coach Scott Frost: quarterback Tanner Lee and offensive tackle Nick Gates. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. opted to return.
The deadline for declaring is Jan. 15.
Here are those Huskers who have followed Mitchell early to the NFL, with a quick look at how they fared according to pro-football-reference.com:
Derek Brown (1990-91-92), I-back, two-time All-Big Eight – 4th round, New Orleans Saints: Four seasons, 56 games, 21 starts
Calvin Jones (1991-92-93), I-back, two-time All-Big Eight – 3rd round, Oakland Raiders: Three seasons, 16 games, Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI champions roster
Lawrence Phillips (1993-94-95), I-back, All-Big Eight – 1st round, St. Louis Rams: Three seasons, 35 games, three teams, 20 starts
Dominic Raiola (1998-99-00), C, two-time All-Big 12, consensus All-American, Rimington Trophy – 2nd round, Detroit Lions: Fourteen seasons, 13 as starter, 219 games, 203 starts
Toniu Fonoti (1999-00-01), OG, All-Big 12, consensus All-American – 2nd round, San Diego Chargers: Five seasons, three teams, 40 games, 33 starts
Fabian Washington (2002-03-04), DB – 1st round, Oakland Raiders: Six seasons, two teams, 81 games, 58 starts
Josh Bullocks (2002-03-04), DB, All-Big 12, All-American – 2nd round, New Orleans Saints: Six seasons, two teams, 90 games, 53 starts
Brandon Jackson (2004-05-06), IB, All-Big 12 – 2nd round, Green Bay Packers: Five seasons, two teams, 54 games, 16 starts
*Randy Gregory (2013-14), DE, two-time All-Big Ten – 2nd round, Dallas Cowboys: Suspended, two seasons active, 14 games
*Maliek Collins (2013-14-15), DT – 3rd round, Dallas Cowboys: Two seasons, 32 games, 30 starts
*Vincent Valentine (2013-14-15), DL – 3rd round, New England Patriots: Injured reserve, one season active, 13 games, two starts
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.