Next stop for Redhawk athletes is the NFL

Southeast Missouri State senior defensive lineman Josh Avery (90) moves in for a tackle during the OVC championship game against Murray State this past season at Houck Stadium.
Southeast Missourian file

Success on the football field is breeding awareness and that has been evident in recent springs, as the Southeast Missouri State program is beginning to build a pipeline to the NFL.

In each of the past two years, the Redhawks had players drafted into the NFL and though no players were selected in the Draft this year, two players immediately signed free agent contracts with teams upon the conclusion of the 2020 Draft Saturday.

Redhawk wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson signed with the Tennessee Titans, while defensive tackle Josh Avery signed with the Seattle Seahawks.

“The coronavirus and (the lack of) pro days really hurt FCS players,” seventh-year Southeast coach Tom Matukewicz said. “That’s because all they had to go on was the (game) film. So (the NFL) is hesitant because of the competition.

“Whereas if the FCS (programs) had all of the pro days that they would have had, I think a lot more would have been drafted.”

To Matukewicz’s point, the Redhawks conducted their Pro Day on March 13, right when the impact of the pandemic was beginning to spread and of the five NFL/CFL teams scheduled to attend, only the Baltimore Ravens showed up to watch the Southeast athletes perform.

There were 13 players from FCS programs drafted this season, which was the lowest in 17 years.

At the Pro Day, Wilkerson ran a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash, which was topped by just 10 other wide receivers at the 2020 NFL Combine.

“I can’t wait to see him (at the NFL level),” Matukewicz said of Wilkerson. “I’ve always felt like he is a great player. It will be interesting to see how that translates to the NFL.”

Wilkerson is the most productive pass-catcher in Southeast history. He holds Redhawk marks for receiving yards (3,540) and receiving touchdowns (33).

The Memphis native caught 219 passes with an average of 16.2 yards per catch during his college career. At 6-foot-1, 214 pounds, Wilkerson was also a four-year starter who also broke the school's single-game record with 263 receiving yards at UT Martin in 2018.

“His ability to high-point a ball,” Matukewicz continued, “strength of reception point, all of those things that made him good here, I assume will make him good in the NFL too.”

Wilkerson was signed by Titans’ general manager Jon Robinson, who played three years at Southeast before serving one season as a graduate assistant in 1998.

In the case of Avery, Matukewicz said you can’t teach size.

“He fits well in (Seattle’s ) scheme,” Matukewicz said. “He is a very, very big man.”

Avery is 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, and Matukewicz explained how that size will pay dividends at the next level.

“His ability in the run game on first and second downs is what (Seattle) liked in him,” Matukewicz said.

The Nashville native recorded 41 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in three years with the Redhawks.

At the Redhawks’ Pro Day, Avery bench pressed 225 pounds a total of 31 times, which was a number that only three other defensive linemen at the NFL Combine beat.

He also showed athleticism by running a 5.1 in the 40-yard dash. That time would have placed him close to the top 10 times at the Combine.

“People just don’t understand just how good the football at the FCS (level) is,” Matukewicz.

Southeast players Kendall Donnerson (linebacker) was selected in the seventh round by Green Bay in the 2018 Draft, while offensive lineman Drew Forbes became the second-highest selection in Southeast history a year ago when Cleveland picked him in the sixth round.

Overall, 15 Redhawk players have been drafted by the NFL.

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