Draft Class prepares to make NFL debut

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – For the first time in his life, Corey Ballentine will see an NFL game in person tomorrow night.

And by the way, he’ll be playing in it.

“I lived in Kansas and I had Kansas City, which was in Missouri,” said Ballentine, the cornerback selected on the sixth round of the NFL Draft. “But I was never really a big fan, so I never went to the games. I don’t really know why I never went to a game, actually. I never really got the chance. But I’m excited for (tomorrow).”

So is Dexter Lawrence, the defensive tackle chosen in the first round whose first live NFL experience will also be as a participant when the Giants host the Jets in their preseason opener in MetLife Stadium. Lawrence, however, is used to performing on a big stage. He played at defending national champion Clemson, which last season averaged about 80,000 fans at its home games.

Ballentine’s career was more of an off-Broadway show. He played at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., in Yager Stadium at Moore Bowl, which opened 91 years ago and where the capacity is 7,200, less than 10% of MetLife’s 82,500.

“I’ve never played in front of that many people, been in that big of a stadium,” Ballentine said. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was younger, and it’s just crazy that it’s here. 

“I want to say the most we ever had (for any game, home or away) was maybe 15,000. Maybe. That might be pushing it, I’m not sure. But this one is probably way, way more than that. I’m just going to try to block out the noise and not let it get to me. Then also enjoy the moment at the same time.”

Asked for the largest stadium he’s ever played in, Ballentine said, “When I was at the Senior Bowl, that stadium held I think 40,000 or something like that. (Ladd-Peebles Stadium actually has a capacity of 33,471.) That was probably the biggest. But other than that, I haven’t played in any big ones.”

He’ll play in a big NFL stadium tomorrow for the first time, as will at least seven of his fellow 2019 draft choices: quarterback Daniel Jones, Lawrence, cornerbacks DeAndre Baker and Julian Love, linebackers Oshane Ximines and Ryan Connelly, and defensive lineman Chris Slayton. Tackle George Asafo-Adjei is in the NFL concussion protocol and wide receiver Darius Slayton is recuperating from a hamstring injury.

Although neither the outcome nor any individual statistics count on their official record, it is still a milestone to the young players who will wear an NFL uniform for the first time.

“It is just a dream come true, and an awesome opportunity to be a part of one of those games,” said Jones, the quarterback drafted sixth overall. “But specifically, to be part of the Giants organization, understand the tradition, what this team and franchise has meant to the NFL and just kind of its place in the NFL, it’ll be a really cool moment.”

A Charlotte native, Jones rooted for and attended several games of his hometown Carolina Panthers. At Duke, he played in NFL stadiums in Miami, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Tomorrow, he’ll step onto the field at MetLife and briefly reflect on his football journey.

“The first time I run out there for warmups, I think I’ll probably feel that a little bit,” he said.

Lawrence played on two national championship teams at Clemson, but it is the NFL that has long captured his attention.

“Since I was young. I never thought about college,” he said. “College was just something I had to do just to get to this level. Now I’m here, so it’s just all about making the most of it.

“It’s what you’ve dreamed of all your life. Just to have this opportunity to go out there and prove myself. The first impression is the best impression kind of deal. No stress, it’s just go out there and play football. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”

Cornerback DeAndre Baker, the last of the Giants’ three selections in the first round, played in many high-profile games at Georgia; he intercepted a pass in the 2017 national championship game vs. Alabama. What will it be like facing the Jets?

“It’s going to be big,” Baker said. “The first game of my life. I’ve been dreaming about this day for a long time. It’s finally come true.”

Ximines didn’t play in a Power 5 conference – he is the first player ever drafted from Old Dominion – but he had the same aspiration as the players at the big schools.

“It’s a dream come true,” Ximines said. “Everything you’ve ever dreamed of since you were playing in the backyard is finally coming true. I know it’s going to be really emotional for me, but I’m going to get through it.”

Cornerback Julian Love, a fourth-round selection from Notre Dame, grew up in the Chicago area and has been to numerous Bears games. But that can’t compare to playing in an NFL game.

“Oh, I’m so excited,” Love said. “It’s been a dream since I was a kid. I’m really excited to check out the team, new stadium, the fans. My family will be there. I’m just excited for the opportunity.”

Like most of the draftees, Love said he will take a moment on the field to reflect on his journey and the significance of the evening.

“Some people might tell you to block out everything and focus on what you’re doing,” Love said. “But I think you need to take time to really acknowledge everything around you. I try to always do that, no matter what stadium I’m in. When I first step on the field, just acknowledge my surroundings, the crowd, the atmosphere, and then you get into your game. I’m going to do that here. I’m going to take maybe a second longer to truly enjoy where I’m at and just realize how much work was put into this.”

Linebacker Ryan Connelly’s live NFL viewing experience consists of one Minnesota Vikings preseason game.

“I’ve never been to a regular-season game,” he said. “I’m definitely excited, for sure. This will be the first time in that stadium. I’m just excited to get out there. I’m going to try to be super focused, but I think it will be inevitable just to kind of look around and take it all in.”

And then there’s Ballentine, whose big dreams were never deterred by playing at a small school.

“I’ve been training for it so long. I’ve been around the facility, but this is a game,” Ballentine said. “It’s different. I’ll definitely soak it in, but I’m going to try not to overthink it. Just do my own thing, try to block the noise out, try to make plays on my own and get this win. I’ll be excited before the game, but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that I’m excited. I’m usually locked in. I have my headphones. In my mind, I’m excited, I’m jittered. But I don’t show it. I just like to be calm and not let my nerves get to me. But I’m definitely psyched up and excited to be there.

“I started (playing football) in the fourth grade, and I knew this was what I wanted to do. Even when I was being recruited for college, I told my coaches when we sat down with my parents, this is something I wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to do it. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it, or if it was possible, taking the route I went with Division II. But everything just kind of worked out. I’m excited to be here, excited to get better, learn from the older guys and just continue to build my game.”

Just like his fellow 2019 draft choices.

Keep an eye on these five players during Thursday's preseason opener against the New York Jets.

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