Khalen Saunders had only one scholarship offer coming out of his hometown of St. Louis, and so Saunders became one of the few, the proud – a Fighting Leatherneck at Western Illinois.
Even though Saunders went on to gain a degree of fame with a backflip at the Senior Bowl that went viral, he wants more. Much more.
“I have a chip on my shoulder,” Saunders said at the NFL Combine. “I’m not here just to get to the NFL, but to prove that a Western Illinois kid can get to the NFL and maintain.”
Of course, that’s already been proven here in Pittsburgh by Mike Wagner, who won four rings as a starting safety for the Steelers in the 1970s.
With all due respect to Bryan Cox and Rodney Harrison, Wagner is probably the greatest athlete to ever come out of Western Illinois.
Yes, Wagner was an 11th-round afterthought in the 1971 draft, but he was only a thought because of his workout scores.
“We just took him because of his computer numbers,” Art Rooney Jr. once explained.
Wagner moved into the starting strong safety position as a rookie, tied for the NFL interceptions lead two years later, won the first of four rings a year after that, moved to free safety a few years after that, and finished his career with 36 interceptions.
The total ranks sixth on the franchise’s all-time list, and only one player ahead of him – Jack Butler – played fewer seasons with the team than Wagner’s 10.
Wagner clearly deserved his induction into the WIU Hall of Fame in 1976, as well as the argument that he’s the school’s greatest athlete.
But there’s a hellhound on his trail. And, as Saunders said, that hellhound has a chip on his shoulder.
“I had a chip on my shoulder entering the program,” Saunders said.
Saunders also has his own set of outstanding computer numbers. The 6-0 3/8, 324-pounder ran a 5.01 40 at the combine and showed tremendous explosiveness in the broad jump. Analytics expert Hayden Winks delivered proof that a broad jump of 100 inches is the best predictor of future NFL production for a defensive tackle, and Saunders landed 121 inches from his starting point. Aaron Donald’s combine jump had ended five inches earlier.
Saunders’ explosiveness was there for all to see in his backflip video from the Senior Bowl. Saunders remained in Mobile to dominate practices while his fiancee gave birth to their child, and he then rag-dolled QB Will Grier for a sack on one of the game’s early plays.
It put an exclamation point on a season in which Saunders had 41 solo tackles with 13 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks and 24 QB hurries, primarily as a nose tackle.
Not that Saunders fattened his stats against poor competition. His best game was against North Dakota State, which was on its way to its seventh FCS championship in the last eight years. Saunders had six solo tackles, 11 total tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble in that game.
“That’s one of the best programs in FCS football. We all know that,” Saunders said. “I felt like I was a presence in the middle. I got my job done. I also showcased the athleticism and talent that I can bring in a game.
“I honestly believe that North Dakota State can be in the FBS. They would probably finish with a winning season if they wanted to every season in the FBS. I’ve got nothing but respect for them. That was a great game to see what I can bring to the table.”
Scouts generally agree that Saunders was out of position over the nose, that his athleticism lends itself better to playing the 3-technique. He even played edge occasionally at Western Illinois, and also did his “Refrigerator” Perry imitation by rushing for a touchdown and scoring another on a three-yard pass reception.
Saunders may not fit the Steelers’ perceived height thresholds for a tackle/end, but he’s a powerful, explosive athlete with a high ceiling predicated on better conditioning and gaining more strength in his lower body.
Those are hardly question marks for a player with a chip on his shoulder.
“He’s one of my favorites,” draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said at the combine. “He is so quick. A small-school player like this, Western Illinois, at the Senior Bowl, he was so dominant during the week of practice and had a sack in the game. Neat story.”
Perhaps one that would best be punctuated by the great Mike Wagner announcing the pick.