ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A senior wide receiver who finished his college career with 51 catches in four seasons normally wouldn't be an NFL prospect. But Georgia Tech's Darren Waller isn't a normal wide receiver.
First of all, most wide receivers don't have family members who are famous musicians. That's not the case with Waller, whose great-grandfather was legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller. Of more importance to NFL fans, though, is that Waller is 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, with an upside as big as his body.
Waller started 22 games in his career at Tech, with most of the starts (10) coming when he was a sophomore in 2012. But he had just eight receptions that season. He had 17 catches in 2013, then had a career-high 26 receptions for 442 yards (17.0 yards per catch) and six TDs this season. (He missed the first two games of the season after he says he tested positive for marijuana in the offseason.)
Georgia Tech is a triple-option team and never has a true "go-to receiver." But even with that caveat, Waller always had been a clear and distinct No. 2 guy until the final two games of his career. DeAndre Smelter, a baseball player-turned-wide receiver, was Tech's top wide receiver the past two seasons, but he suffered a knee injury in the regular-season finale against Georgia.
Waller responded with two of the best games of his career; he tied a career-high with five receptions, good for 73 yards and a TD, in the ACC championship game loss to Florida State. He then had five receptions for a career-high 114 yards and another touchdown in the Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State.
Waller's strong play at the end of the season has carried over to the first three days of practice for the East-West Shrine Game. He has overpowered smaller defenders in drills, and NFL Media analyst Charles Davis noted that "even when he is covered, he has 'uncovered' himself" because of his sheer size and strength. Fellow analyst Lance Zierlein said scouts look for elite traits in prospects and that Waller's size is an elite trait.
While Waller does not have top-flight speed, he is a long strider who can eat up chunks of yardage, and he also is quick off the line, especially for a guy of his size.
There are some negatives. He has had some unsightly drops during one-on-one drills, though Zierlein said he usually shows "soft, comfortable hands." Despite his size -- and despite playing for a triple-option team -- Waller is just OK as a blocker and actually is more of a "shielder" in that facet of his game. Analysts also have dinged him for a passive demeanor, and Waller agrees with the assessment; he says he has to get to the point where the "passion for the game is just there rather than having to think about it."
And while he played a lot at Tech, he still is relatively raw as a receiver. Georgia Tech doesn't exactly have a sophisticated passing attack, with Waller noting the routes he ran at Tech mostly were "comebacks, posts and curls."
In addition, Zierlein noted that because of the Yellow Jackets' style of offense, opposing cornerbacks generally were more concerned about what was going on in the backfield rather than concentrating on jamming receivers at the line. That obviously is going to change, but Waller has the physical attributes to be able to deal with that. He said that during one-on-one drills this week, opposing corners have commented often about his size and bulk.
Still, there is no doubt he can be a useful weapon, and Zierlein says he has enough of an upside that some teams might consider taking him on the second day of the draft.
As for his great-grandfather, Waller says he is a big fan and listens to his music often. He said most of his teammates were unaware of the family connection until they took a "Jazz History" course last summer. The teacher had Waller talk about his great-grandfather during class one day, and Waller said his teammates were stunned to learn about his famous family member.
If everything breaks right, Waller has the potential to become famous in his own right.