Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Before the start of the 2014 NFL Draft on April 8, North Augusta’s Matt Hazel said he didn’t know when, or if, he’d be selected during the seven-round, three-day event. He was just looking for the opportunity to become an NFL player.
On Saturday, the Miami Dolphins provided Hazel with that opportunity.
The AFC East team selected the North Augusta and Coastal Carolina product with the 190th overall pick, early in the sixth round.
“It’s hard to put in words. This is probably the best day of my life,” Hazel said. “It’s overwhelming to see a lifelong dream come true.”
While Hazel was projected as being drafted anywhere in the later rounds to going undrafted and signing with a team as a priority free agent, the biggest surprise wasn’t where he was picked, but rather the team that picked him.
Hazel said he had worked out for Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, New England, Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington leading up to the draft, and he also had contact with them – among others – at the NFL Combine. But Miami was never on his radar.
“The Dolphins, I never had any contact with them,” Hazel said, adding that he neither spoke with anybody from Miami at the East-West Shrine Game, nor did they send a representative to his Pro Day. “They snuck up on me, I was very surprised. When I got the call, I saw the Florida number, I was like ‘the Dolphins?’ Then I got the call and got the good news.”
Surprise pick by the Miami Dolphins
Hazel said he actually expected to be picked by the New York Jets. He knew they had interest, as well as three picks in the sixth round. He recalled that the first of those Jets’ picks were 10 away when his phone rang and his caller ID displayed a Miami area code.
The Dolphins were surprised Hazel was still available, as he said they told him they expected him to be picked in either the fourth or fifth round.
“They didn’t think I’d last that long,” Hazel said, adding he was told he’ll have the chance to compete for playing time. “They said it’s wide open.”
Miami’s move shows that there was a good amount of interest in Hazel.
Much of that is because of his performance at Coastal Carolina, where he owns the program record for receptions with 183 and was a four-year starter. He’s coming off a season where he helped lead the Chanticleers to their best results ever, recording 70 receptions for 990 yards and nine touchdowns.
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. raved about Hazel, commending his ability to catch the ball.
“Body control is excellent. I love the way he tracks the ball when going vertically,” Kiper said during ESPN’s draft coverage. “He’s got good hands, decent speed. ... He will make Miami’s football team.”
Hazel's not just a small-school guy
The level at which Hazel has competed has been a big deal in his evaluation.
Hazel was looked at differently because he’s the product of a small school and didn’t compete much against the elite-level players that are also employed in the NFL. He uses that as motivation, he said.
“A lot of people label me as a small-school guy who shouldn’t be drafted. That keeps me hungry,” said Hazel, who at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds isn’t the prototypical size for an NFL receiver. But just like his school, Hazel is fueled off dispelling any preconceived notions about his ability to play football at the highest level. “I’m ready to compete against the big boys. ... I’m ready to compete with anybody.”
He’s passionate about football
Hazel has been dedicated in preparing himself to join an NFL team, and now that the Dolphins have drafted him they can expect him to push even harder.
“They’re getting a guy who’s going to come in and work hard and do what’s best for the team,” Hazel said. “They’re really going to get a guy who’s passionate about football.”
That desire is clear to anyone who has the chance to spend time with Hazel.
The Dolphins saw it, and it definitely played a part in using a draft pick on him. Kiper also saw it, allowing Hazel to stand out among the hundreds and hundreds of players he evaluates each year.
“It’s good to see a kid like Matt Hazel, who’s so productive at Coastal Carolina, get a chance with a sixth-round pick with the Miami Dolphins,” Kiper said.
Hazel said he’s received a lot of support, especially from family and friends at home in North Augusta.
He said he’d like to serve as a role model for kids.
“I’m the first person from North Augusta to get drafted,” Hazel said. “I want to be an example to young kids to keep working, stay humble and anything is possible," even making a dream of joining the NFL come true.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.