In making points about his team's strengths, Morgan State coach Stump Mitchell surprised even a player he was praising.
Out of nowhere, while introducing quarterback Donald Green and strong safety Warner Herndon, he told those at a luncheon last week that Herndon, a junior, was thinking about leaving school after this season to go to the NFL.
It was almost enough to make Herndon choke on his dessert during the media luncheon for the Towson-Morgan State game tomorrow night at Towson.
"I was [shocked]," Herndon said. "I'm not even thinking about thinking about that right now."
And yet, Mitchell -- who enjoyed a lengthy professional career with the NFL's Cardinals -- genuinely believes that the Sacramento native could be a prime prospect in the next NFL draft.
Such proclamations seem bullish for a player who was fourth in tackles last year on a 3-7 team. But Herndon, at 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, brings size as well as speed to safety.
"I don't know if I could compare Warner to anybody to be perfectly honest," Mitchell said. "I don't know that a lot of safeties cover as well as Warner, some of them hit as much as Warner, but he's a big-time player."
Rarely are such words heard in NCAA Division I-AA. Even great I-AA players with designs on first-round draft status usually must wait until after their senior season.
Of Herndon's possible early exit, Mitchell said: "That's nothing I look forward to, but Warner feels that he can play at the next level right now and there's no question in my mind that he can play at the next level."
But Herndon, who doesn't see much of the NFL because he doesn't watch television, prefers not to look ahead.
"I'm thinking about playing this season," he said. "And if that's the way the cards fall, that's the way I have to play them.
"It's weird because in high school, I didn't even think about going to the NFL. But that's all the coaches are talking about. I've been trying to tell the coaches, 'Nah, coach, I'm not trying to look that far ahead.' "
The fact that Herndon would try not to take anything for granted is in keeping with his past. Groomed as a defensive lineman at Valley High School in Sacramento, Herndon was overshadowed on teams that featured several Division I-A prospects, including Rae Carruth of Colorado, the Carolina Panthers' first-round draft pick in 1997.
Herndon only made his way East through the efforts of Allen Roe, an academic counselor for a Fair Oaks, Calif.-based youth organization. Roe had sent several athletes to Morgan State in the past -- including former women's basketball stars Kaira and Karla Warfield -- and sent tapes of Herndon to the school's football staff.
After making his campus visit during the blizzard of 1995, which meant a closed campus, Herndon decided to come anyway and started as an outside linebacker during the 1996 season.
However, Herndon was switched back and forth as a sophomore during the 1997 season, playing both linebacker and strong safety. Any flashy stats he could have compiled were gobbled up by star linebackers Willie Thompson and James Hall.
Herndon said any frustration at being yanked to and fro was short-lived.
"At beginning of my sophomore year, I was sort of thinking like that," Herndon said, "but after a while, I liked it because it shows that I can play anywhere I want."
To assist Herndon's NFL vision, Morgan State will have to find success that has been missing in the 18 seasons since a 9-2 finish in 1979.
"If we win the games we're capable of winning -- the guy from Hampton [safety Cordell Taylor] last year got drafted in the second round -- there's no question in my mind that Warner can be a big-time player and a high draft pick."
All of the usual suspects in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference should be strong again -- Hampton, Florida A&M, Howard and South Carolina State.
Still, after suffering countless near-misses, Mitchell says he believes that Morgan State is prepared to improve on its 2-5 conference record. His optimism is based mainly on special teams improvements, including the acquisition of place-kicker K.C. Cody Vasquez, a transfer from Phoenix Junior College.
"We've won in a lot of games offense or defense, but we've lost in special teams," Mitchell said. "So I can't emphasize how important that is for us."
Coach: Stump Mitchell (third season)
Last year: 3-7
Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic
Radio: WEAA (88.9 FM)
Stadium: Hughes (10,000)
Offense: Pro I/Option
Top returning players: QB-P Donald Green, WR Anthony Collins, OT Sidney Brown, OG Claron Etherly, SS Warner Herndon, LB Levar Patterson.
Top newcomers: K K.C. Cody Vasquez, RB Ali Culpepper, RB Jay Hinton.