Jonathan Cornell never has doubted what path his football career would take after graduating from Bishop Amat High School in 2006. It’s basically been NFL or bust.
Fresh off four seasons in the SEC as a middle linebacker at Ole Miss, Cornell is ready to make his vision a realization in next month’s NFL draft.
“It would be a dream come true, but at the same time, without trying to sound cocky or arrogant, it’s something I’ve been working for since ninth grade,” said Cornell, who grew up in Azusa. “It’s just part of a grand strategy.”
According to current projections, it’s a 50-50 proposition as to whether Cornell will hear his name called during the draft. He’s on the tail end of some inside-linebacker projections and completely left out of others.
Cornell also is fighting the uphill battle of not having been invited to the NFL combine to audition for scouts in the various drills prospects are put through, but Cornell, who left Amat at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, is now 235 pounds of solid muscle with speed to burn.
He showed that Tuesday at Ole Miss’ pro workout day, when he ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash, posted a 32-inch vertical leap and bench pressed 225 pounds 25 times, an amount typical of only bigger defensive tackles.
“I was shocked I didn’t get invited to the NFL combine,” Cornell said. “I felt I put together a decent-enough career to get invited, but that’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it.
“I just have to make the best of the situation. Without a doubt, I’m on the same level as the guys who got invited.”
Cornell went into Tuesday’s workout calling it feast or famine for his draft chances, but had to bow out earlier than expected after suffering a hamstring injury. Nonetheless, he said scouts were impressed and informed him they’d be following up for private workouts between now and the draft.
Working out, though, is only part of the process for prospects such as Cornell.
His preparation started shortly after Ole Miss’ season ended Nov. 27. The first order of business was getting an agent.
After consulting with former Amat standout and current Lancers assistant coach Daylon McCutcheon, who had an eight-year career in the NFL, Cornell settled on Marty Magid of MRM Sports in Pennsylvania.
Magid is hesitant to say his client is being overlooked, and projects Cornell to go somewhere in the fifth to seventh round.
“The thing is, we won’t know if he’s being overlooked until draft day,” said Magid, who represents eight prospects this year. “He’s a whale of a linebacker. He has all of the characteristics of somebody who should have been invited to the combine. Sometimes you just get shortchanged, and the other factor is that some of the guys who go to the combine actually end up hurting themselves.
“I’m hoping (rounds) five through seven – that’s where I have him projected, based on people I’ve spoken to and who has needs for linebacker – but if he doesn’t get drafted, I’m sure he’ll be in camp.”
Cornell already has a degree in political science and is close to receiving another in English. His on-the- field accomplishments include being named second-team All-SEC at linebacker this past season.
For Cornell, the decision to leave Southern California after graduating from Amat has been what he calls the best move he’s ever made, though the social setting in the South took some getting used to. And Cornell, never shy in high school about expressing his opinion, was more than happy to tell the folks back home about his first school day at Ole Miss.
“I had taken my California learning and experience to Mississippi, and this is what really struck me my first day here,” Cornell said. “I was looking for a building and went up to a white girl and said, `Do you know where I can find the Hume building?’ And she looks at me, rolls her eyes, points and walks off.
“It was because I’m black. At the time, I didn’t know it; I just thought she was being rude. If you’re going to talk to a white girl here, you’re either going to keep it on the down low, or she’s going to have a very different set of friends. That’s the social dynamic here. I’m not saying everybody is like that here, but for the most part.”
And Cornell’s first-day experience soon got even better.
“Then after that class, I go to another class and I ask this black girl where the next building is and she says, `Why don’t you go ask your white girlfriend? I saw you talking to her.’ ” Cornell said. “It really struck me.
“I was like, `You really feel like that?’
“I really can’t understand anything of that nature. But you know what? As much as people want to say about the South and its ways, you still have racism everywhere you go, and I hate it when people act like racism is specific to the South.”
Although far from home, Cornell’s heart still was with his former team, and he’s been keeping an eye on Amat’s football resurgence all the way from Oxford.
“I keep up with Bishop Amat. What else is there in the SGV to keep up with?” Cornell said with a laugh. “Every Saturday morning I would wake up and go to the Tribune website and check out the score. I would be like, `We’re 9-0? We’re 9-0? We rule the Valley.’
“We underachieved my senior year, but now, I couldn’t be any more proud, any more excited, and I’m talking trash to everybody back home. Every guy I’ve ever met from Long Beach Poly or City Section guys – I know a lot of City Section guys.
“Everybody I know from California who plays football, I tell them they can’t hang with Bishop Amat. I’m talking trash for Bishop Amat from the South to the North to the East to the West. Everywhere.”
These days, though, Cornell doesn’t have much time to do anything but follow a strict workout regimen that starts in the morning and ends in the evening, with only a couple of hours of rest in between.
Whether the hard work pays off April 28-30 remains to be seen, but Cornell is confident a prosperous pro career awaits.