When it comes to churning out NFL Draft picks, Louisville is in the midst of the most lavish period in program history. Ten UofL were selected in the 2015 draft, the most of any team in the country outside of Florida State, and five Cardinals in the last three years have heard their names called in the first round.
That last number will increase by at least one next month, when Sheldon Rankins' lifelong dream comes true and he is selected with one of the first 30 picks in the draft.
In a 2016 draft class that is particularly deep at the defensive line position, Rankins still stands out. ESPN's Todd McShay has Rankins as the best defensive tackle available, and the No. 7 overall prospect in the draft. In nearly every mock draft available on the Internet, Rankins is being selected somewhere in the top 15, with many predicting he will go to the New Orleans with pick 12.
Rankins doesn't just appreciate the accolades and lofty projections, he embraces them.
"I definitely feel that I'm one of the top, if not the top defensive tackle within the draft," Rankins said. "I feel like my body of work speaks for itself, I feel the way I carry myself speaks for itself, and I hope general managers and coaches take notice and agree with the way I feel about myself."
Working at both nose tackle and strong side defensive end, Rankins racked up 26.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in his final two seasons of college football. While the plays that led to those statistics were all nice, it may have been the big man's only career touchdown that best captured the attention of scouts at the next level.
With Louisville clinging to a 7-0 lead in the 2nd quarter of its Homecoming game against Boston College last October, Rankins got his hands on a fumble by the Eagle quarterback, and found himself in the middle of every lineman's dream. Despite his 6'3, 304-pound frame, Rankins gracefully scooped up the ball, raced down the left sideline, leapt over a tackle attempt by a Boston College defender, and rumbled all the way home for a 46-yard touchdown.
The only thing left was the celebration, but before Rankins had time to bust anything out, he was tackled by teammate Keith Kelsey and the rest of the Cardinal defense. It's a moment that still has the big man wondering "what if" even today.
"I know I would have done something just because I don't get too many opportunities like that," Rankins said. "I probably would've gotten a flag for it. At that point, I probably wouldn't have cared though. I would have have taken the lashing from coach Petrino and just taken it all in stride."
After wrapping up his college career with a win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, Rankins dominated the first two days of practice at the prestigious Senior Bowl before a minor knee injury forced him to pull out of the game. Before that, though, he had proven himself to be nearly unblockable, racking up 10 wins and just two losses in one-on-one pass rush drills and thoroughly standing out on a field full of impressive linemen.
After making a name for himself at the Senior Bowl, Rankins again wowed scouts at both the NFL Draft combine and Louisville's pro day, putting up numbers that men his size aren't supposed to be able to achieve. The three months of work have him set to become a very rich man just five weeks from now.
Even with all this going on, Rankins doesn't want to let any conversation end without voicing his thoughts on the defense that is returning to the University of Louisville for the 2016 season.
"I think they can be dominant," Rankins said. "The defense they have in place right now -- the sky's the limit for them. Everybody already knows each other, everybody already had that camaraderie and knows the defensive scheme. Now it's all about going out and playing ball like they know how.
"I know I'll be watching. I'm going to try to get back for a couple of games and get down there on the sidelines and be a part of that energy again, because I'm definitely going to miss it."