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From farm to NFL's table: Hard work paying off for SMU's Courtland Sutton

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BRENHAM, Texas -- In two months, an NFL scout will stretch a measuring tape across Courtland Sutton's hands at the scouting combine to assess the wide receiver's most valuable asset. It'll be done in about two seconds.

The measurement will be taken from the tip of the thumb, across the palm, to the tip of the pinky finger, and from that point on, Sutton's hands will become just a number. It will get lost amid hand measurements for more than 300 other draft prospects, all recorded with the same rapid-fire brevity, and booked into record by all 32 NFL clubs.

From that number, they'll know exactly how much pigskin will fit into the hands of the Southern Methodist wideout.

But they'll know absolutely nothing about what else Sutton's hands can do.

SUTTON'S HOMETOWN OF BRENHAM, located just south of College Station, halfway between Austin and Houston, is known as the baseball capital of the state. Former Milwaukee Brewers slugger Cecil Cooper is from here, and the Brenham High Cubs have proudly notched seven state titles.

The Blue Bell creamery serves as the economic heartbeat for the town's 17,000 residents, and Sutton played football just down the street from the massive ice cream factory, which also sponsors the school's athletics.

There is plenty of farming in the area, too.

And long before Sutton became a three-sport athlete for the Cubs, he was introduced to farm work by his father, Ryian Marshall.

On the outskirts of Brenham, near the Brazos River, the Marshall farm has been in the family for generations, and Sutton spent his share of weekends there as a kid. Located in an area called Old Washington, the ranch includes 60 head of cattle, some hogs, and an endless list of chores. When he was younger, it was more of a place to goof around with cousins and have fun, but as Sutton got older, he built his work ethic with some of the most physically demanding tasks on the property.

"I'd give him post-hole diggers and have him go three feet deep, into hard ground. It was hard enough work that anything else he came across was going to be a piece of cake compared to it," said Marshall, a lineman for the electric company. "My father did the same for me, and I turned out alright. I didn't go to school and get an education, but I could work with my hands. The good Lord makes doctors, lawyers, and us laborers, too. And that's OK. But I'm glad Courtland went to school and got a degree. Now he's got both."

Fence-mending. Cattle-feeding. Building water gaps. T-post-driving. Young Courtland learned a variety of skills, and none of them were much fun.

"You know what a mesquite bush is?" Sutton asks with a grin, because he knows the answer will almost certainly be no. "It's a big thorn bush that can grow into a thorn tree. My grandfather tried everything to get rid of them. We'd cut them down, we'd get the tractor and mow them down, and then they just grow back stronger."

When the farm chores were done, and not a minute sooner, Sutton would turn to his favorite hobby: fishing. Right on the farm, he could hook bass, crappie and perch, but the bass were his favorite. His father taught him to cast a line, and he could reel them in for hours on end, either with his family, or with his best childhood friend, Jacob Deramus, who now runs cross-country at Stephen F. Austin.

Asked if he's been city-fied by four years in Dallas, Sutton calls himself "still 75-percent country boy."

When he first arrived at SMU, however, he quickly learned fishing wouldn't come easily. He'd open maps of the Dallas area, look for anything blue, and drive there with his pole -- only to find the water was on a private golf course where fishing wasn't permitted.

Then, he and Myron Gailliard, a fellow fishing enthusiast and Mustangs wide receiver, stumbled into a honey hole.

"We found a secret place that doesn't even show up on a map. There are huge fish there, and they bite hard. And we don't tell anyone where it is," Sutton said. "It's in the Dallas area. I'll just say that."

Sutton clammed up on the topic from there, like any self-respecting fisherman. It doesn't matter that his NFL destination -- unless it's his childhood favorite Dallas Cowboys -- will force him to explore new spots of blue on an entirely different map. What matters is that, whenever he makes his way back to his secret Dallas fishing hole, it's remained untouched since his last visit.

Asked about his biggest catch ever, he holds his hands about a foot and a half apart, then separates them a little farther.

"I'm not into weighing them. Maybe 8, 9 pounds?" he responds. "Fishermen never tell the exact truth on that."

IF TRUTH BE TOLD, Sutton wasn't the highly sought-after recruit one would expect of an eventual elite NFL draft prospect. In 2013, Texas and Texas A&M passed on the three-star prospect. He took an official weekend visit to Colorado, only to be told the team was out of scholarships.

"When he took his official visit to Colorado, at that time, your parents had to pay your way," said Brenham High coach Glen West. "They flew back in from Denver for the team banquet that Sunday night, and I remember how disappointed they were."

How Sutton slipped through the recruiting cracks is a complicated tale. For one thing, he was a late bloomer physically. He's grown three full inches since arriving at SMU, and back in his junior year of high school, when most firm scholarship offers are distributed, he was about 6 feet and 190 pounds.

Not only that, but he was a 6-foot, 190-pound tight end. Brenham was loaded at the receiver position, and Sutton's role was as an undersized, hand-on-the-ground tight end whose primary job it was to block. And 190-pound blocking tight ends don't stand out to college recruiters on film, no matter how well they block.

"I used to have to watch film with the O-line," Sutton said with a laugh. "I knew that wasn't where I was supposed to be, but it's what the team needed."

Just a year earlier, he had caught 22 TD passes for the JV team. A year later, as a senior, he was a prolific receiver for a Brenham squad that reached the state championship game. But by then, scholarships had long been offered to and claimed by others.

As a three-sport athlete -- football, basketball and baseball -- he didn't have time to attend many camps. And when college coaches came to Brenham to evaluate prospects for spring practice, Sutton was often on the baseball field.

His one option was BYU, and it didn't appeal much.

The week before signing day, SMU came to Brenham in a scramble. One of its commitments had backed out, and the Mustangs were looking to fill the spot.

"BYU was going to be a bit much on momma, losing her baby that far away," said Courtland's mother, Phelicia Marshall. "SMU was a prayer answered. It was, ‘Send us a good school, a close school, here in Texas.' SMU came the week before signing day and we went up for a visit that weekend."

SMU's coach at the time, June Jones, started Sutton off at safety, a position Sutton also played in high school. A back injury in his third game forced him to take a redshirt year. The following spring, Chad Morris, who had coached the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins as Clemson's offensive coordinator, took over the program and saw a much different future for Sutton.

"(Morris) texted me one night and said, ‘Gosh, I'm in love with Courtland Sutton. What's he doing here?' " said West. "Chad's offenses always feed their best receiver, so that was a perfect storm. I don't know if his career would've taken off like it did if it weren't for Chad Morris. He started featuring him right off the bat."

In the four years he was at SMU, the Mustangs won 1, 2, 5 and 7 games. A huge part of the program's resurgence under Morris, Sutton left SMU as a three-time team captain who amassed the third-most receiving yards (3,152) and second-most touchdowns (31) in school history.

The redshirt junior declared early for the draft after the Mustang's 51-10 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Frisco Bowl. With a degree in sports management in his back pocket, there wasn't much left for him to prove. The NFL beckoned.

JUST A FEW WEEKS AFTER Sutton's breakout season at SMU in 2015, in which he caught 49 passes for 862 yards and nine touchdowns, word came down from legendary basketball coach Larry Brown. The Mustangs hoop squad needed practice players because NCAA sanctions had left Brown's team short on numbers. The football roster was a natural place to start the search, and Morris was willing to help.

Sutton got the call, and answered it, even though he wasn't exactly suited for the role at 6-foot-3. The Mustangs needed help in the post, and Sutton battled the tallest players on the team for rebounds in practice. He credits the experience, in part, for helping him learn to shield defensive backs from contested passes and make tough catches in traffic.

"I was having to muscle up 6-8 dudes to get any rebounds," Sutton said. "The players were like, ‘Court, quit banging like that. I'd say, ‘Look, I'm 6 inches too short in here, I've gotta do something."

Current SMU basketball coach Tim Jankovich, one of Brown's assistants at the time, remembers a remarkably quick learner.

"If you're a football player and you start on Day 1 with a basketball team, that's tough enough. We're on Day 116 by the time he got done with football and came out for us, and I was blown away by how fast he picked everything up," Jankovich said. "A lot of guys in the same situation would just get in the way until they could catch up. Courtland was the opposite."

Sutton endeared himself to the program enough that Brown eventually decided to put him on the team. And on Feb. 7, 2016, near the end of a 92-58 thrashing of South Florida, Sutton played the first two of his four career minutes with the Mustangs basketball team. He hit a 3-pointer in the game's final minute for a highlight he'll never forget.

"The shot clock was going down, and I'm hearing people say, ‘Shoot it', but apparently coach Brown was saying, ‘Don't shoot it'," Sutton recalled. "But I didn't hear him. He had the softest voice on the bench. The shot clock was running down and I wasn't about to have the only stat of my career be a turnover. So I shot it and it went in."

The bench erupted.

Sutton was considered part of the team, not just a practice body, and SMU strength coach Tru Carroll eventually found out why.

"He'd come and do the winter conditioning with the football team early in the morning. And we'd get after it. Then he'd go over with coach Brown, practice basketball, and if they had weight training, he'd train with the strength coach over there," Carroll said. "So I had to sit him down and say, ‘Look, I can't let you over-train yourself.' He'd say, ‘Coach, if the basketball team is in there grinding, and I'm on the basketball team, I'm grinding in there with them.'

"With some guys you have to say go. With Courtland, you have to say whoa."

At season's end, Morris made it clear he wanted Sutton to hang up his high tops, and Sutton didn't put up a fight. By that point, both player and coach knew a pro football career was in the offing.

IT'S BEEN 32 YEARS since an SMU player got a first-round call in the NFL draft, when cornerback Rod Jones (Tampa Bay) and running back Reggie Dupard (New England) were taken with the 25th and 26th overall picks in 1986.

Not only is Sutton expected to end the drought in 2018, but he also has a shot at being the first wide receiver off the board. NFL scouts see his size creating mismatches with smaller cornerbacks, with hands as reliable as the Texas heat.

In SMU's final regular-season game, he made one of the best catches of the college season against Tulane, leaping high to snag an overthrown pass with only his right hand, and securing it before falling out of bounds.

His hands -- the same ones that gained strength through arduous work on the family farm -- are as soft as Charmin, and combined with his physical presence, they make him a dangerous threat on the field at all times.

"He's got such a big body, and knows how to use it, that he's going to be a problem in the red zone, on the back-shoulder throws, and obviously on jump balls," a scout for an AFC team said. "If he's not one of the first two or three receivers picked, I'll be surprised."

Sutton puts his size to use on every down, not just when he's thrown the ball. He's a relentless blocker, so much so that he's drawn three personal fouls in his career for driving defensive backs off the field and continuing to block out of bounds.

"He had one every damn year I've coached him," said former SMU receivers coach Justin Stepp, who has since followed Morris to Arkansas. "Coach Morris would get pissed, and I'd say, ‘Well, coach, at least he's blocking his tail off.' "

The lone question scouts might have on Sutton is his speed, and it will be more of a mystery entering the combine than it will be for most other prospects. Carroll doesn't disclose 40-yard dash times -- not even to his players.

The good news for Sutton is that, at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he doesn't even need a blazing 40 to be drafted high. In 2015, Panthers WR Devin Funchess (6-4, 225) ran a slow 4.70-second 40 at the combine and was still selected in the second round. A year earlier, those same Panthers spent a first-round pick on another huge receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, who ran a pedestrian 4.61.

Still, Carroll has no doubt Sutton's speed will impress NFL scouts when the time comes. SMU uses the Catapult system, featuring GPS technology that expresses speed in miles per hour. Sutton has been recorded as fast as 21.57 mph.

"A 20 is really fast. A 21 is elite. We only have one player over 22," Carroll said. "So, for a 220-pound guy to be at 21.57, that's special. Everyone else we have over 21 is a small guy."

The Catapult score doesn't exactly translate to the 40-yard dash, however. The GPS mph reading measures a player's top-end speed, but not initial burst -- how quickly he can reach top speed -- which is not only crucial in the 40 but has truer football application.

Sutton's release at the line of scrimmage doesn't jump off his game film. By another measure of explosiveness, the vertical jump, he's tested at 34 inches, which would have rated in the middle of the pack among receivers at last year's combine.

Nevertheless, his confidence is unyielding; the receiver with 6.4 percent body fat even documented a freakish 60-inch box jump.

"I know for a fact, I'm going to show everybody at the combine, I'm going to run 4.4. It's going to happen," Sutton said. "It's going to shock a lot of people, but it won't shock me or anyone who trains with me. They know the type of work I put in."

It wouldn't shock Stepp, either.

For three years, Sutton was fast enough to play the same position -- the boundary or "9" receiver -- that Watkins and Hopkins played in Morris' offense at Clemson.

"A lot of first reads for our quarterbacks was the boundary safety, and if he's on or inside the hash, we can take a shot to our best player one-on-one to that side," Stepp said. "That's why we put him over there. If you're going to play a safety inside the hash with Courtland, you'd better have a hell of a corner over there."

SUTTON KEEPS A PHOTO of his mom and dad in his locker at SMU. It's been there since his arrival at the school four years ago, and when he arrives at his first NFL locker after the draft, it'll be the first item he finds a place for.

It's both a tribute and a reminder of all the time and money they invested in him -- the rides, the camps, the gear and equipment -- along with the work-first-play-later ethic they instilled in him from an early age.

Nothing was given, and nothing came easy.

There's a parking lot next door to the Sutton home in Brenham, but when Courtland was a kid, it was a grass lot he used to practice football and baseball. With a push mower, he personally kept it groomed and ready for play.

"Wherever he goes, whoever drafts him, he'll do something to help that community prosper," said Brenham coach Glen West.

When it comes to inspiration, Sutton looks to God's hands, not his own. Grounded in family and faith, he writes two biblical scriptures on his tape before games:

» First Corinthians 15-10: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them —yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me."

» Psalms 27-1: "The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?"

"The first one reminds me that it's not about me, and that everything I do is God working through me. It reminds me that I'm second," Sutton said. "The other one puts me in the frame of mind, before a game, that I fear no man. I fear only God."

Sutton practices what he preaches.

Last August, when the Mustangs finished up each day during fall camp, the players would cut off their athletic tape and sit in cold tubs lined up beside the field for 10-15 minutes before showering. When they were done, tape was strewn on the ground, and Carroll was left to clean up the daily mess. Sutton noticed that one day -- only because he'd stayed late after practice to work on his craft -- and helped Carroll collect the trash and throw it away.

A day later, there wasn't a scrap of tape on the ground after practice.

"He went into the locker room, said something to the team, and I haven't had to pick up tape since," Carroll said. "He's what you call a servant-leader."

As NFL scouts made their way through the SMU campus the last couple of years, inquiring about Sutton, stories like that circulated and built the backbone of what will be a first-rate character evaluation for the draft.

Like the time Assistant Athletic Director Mike Morton found Sutton squeegeeing water off the floor of the athletic department's new hydrotherapy room, a job Sutton knew normally came at the end of a 12-hour day for Morton. Or the time he waited until after practice, in private, to tell Morton that a new sports drink flavor had bombed with the team.

"He said he wasn't going to tell me that around other players," Morton said. "He knew if he said something openly, it would just create more negativity."

Then there is Stepp, whose wife will deliver their first child in March, a boy the couple is planning to name Courtland.

"He's the main reason I came back here to coach the bowl game, honestly, instead of just leaving for Arkansas right away," said Stepp. "I wasn't going to have anyone but me coach him in his last game at SMU."

When his football career is finished, Sutton wants to take his degree in sports management -- he graduated Dec. 16 -- and work in college football as a director of player development. Steve Stigall holds the role at SMU, and Sutton has a keen understanding of the demands.

"Young guys' heads are spinning when they first come in. A lot of guys get redshirted and don't know how to handle it. And the next thing you know, they're gone," Sutton said. "I want to be that guy that they can talk to, help them understand the process. Players have each other to turn to, but that can be the blind leading the blind sometimes. I've been through two coaching changes, a tough recruiting situation. I could be hands-on helping guys through all the things that come up."

There are those hands again.

They can mend fences and feed cattle.

They can hook bass all day.

They can even play a little music now, thanks to a piano class he took at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts in his final semester (appropriately, for his final exam, he played "Lean On Me").

And they can most definitely catch footballs.

Asked how they'll measure up at the combine, Sutton looks down at them with a puzzled glance.

"I don't know, to me, size-wise, I think they're about average," he says. "But they know how to work."

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