- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Solomon Patton is the quintessential NFL draft underdog.
A year ago he was a virtual unknown at Florida, having caught all of eight passes for 79 yards in his first three seasons.
Then he exploded with a senior season that put him on the map, leading the Gators in receiving yards (556), catches (44) and touchdowns (6).
It turned out to be just the beginning of his struggle to get the attention of NFL scouts.
"I'm always posting on Instagram, hashtag underdog," he said with a laugh.
In January, Patton played in the inaugural Medal of Honor Bowl in Charleston, S.C. He caught three passes for 50 yards, ran once for 33 yards and returned a kickoff 15 yards to earn MVP honors for his team.
That performance earned Patton an invitation to a bigger showcase -- the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile, Ala.
"I got the invite last minute," he said. "I was pretty mad about it, but I went ahead with it. Obviously it's a good opportunity with a lot of scouts there. It hit home because I'm from here."
Patton's homecoming turned out to be a big success and a big boost to his confidence.
He met a lot of team representatives, had a solid week of practice and was honored with a "Solomon Patton Day" parade and pep rally at Murphy High School. He followed that up by making the most of his limited opportunities in the Senior Bowl with one punt return for 15 yards and a kickoff return for 27 yards.
Then the bottom fell out when he heard he had not been invited to the NFL draft scouting combine.
"It bothered me," he said. "At the time I didn't feel that my agent was doing much for me. Something's got to be wrong. I'm not hearing anything from teams. So I just made the decision to switch agents."
Patton described the switch as "a big mess," but once it was settled his next opportunity was a pro day back on Florida's campus.
Representatives from all 32 NFL teams were there. But so was a sky full of rain clouds.
Patton ran a couple of 40-yard dashes indoors, clocking a blazing unofficial 4.31 seconds in bare feet. Then it was time to brave the weather.
"I didn't expect for it to pour like that when we were outside running routes," he said. "The rain hit you in the eyes. I just made sure I focused when it came to catching the ball and running my routes."
Patton put on a show on the rain-slicked artificial turf.
"[He did] really good," Florida coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "Caught the ball well, crisp in his route-running, caught everything off his body, which is what they want to see. Especially in these conditions, I thought he did an outstanding job."
Patton got the same kind of positive feedback from his agent and scouts, while Muschamp seemed incredulous at the thought of one of his best players going undrafted.
"Oh, there's no question he's going to find a role," the coach said. "It's just fit. Where will he fit in? He's a guy that can play in the slot and has return skills, big-time kickoff returner and great special teams guy. He's one of the better kickoff cover guys I've been around, and then you look at the amount of blocked punts he's had since he's been here.
"So he is a guy that's going to make a team. It's just a matter of the fit and the right situation for him. And what a wonderful young man that represents our university in a first-class manner."
Patton's wild ride has gotten considerably less bumpy since that day. He's worked out for the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. He's confident he'll be drafted.
Looking back over the last year, Patton has taken an uphill battle for attention and turned it into a positive.
"I always have this chip on my shoulder," he said. "It motivates me. I'm just ready to show whatever team I go to that I can be a big-time player for them."