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Tuesday, April 22, 2008 | So here, in the final days before this weekend’s NFL Draft, was Kevin O’Connell seated in a players lounge at the Aztec Athletics Center.

The San Diego State quarterback, who arrived from nearby La Costa Canyon High with no stars attached to his name in the 2003 recruiting class graded by Rivals.com, was answering questions during a media gathering at the invitation of SDSU’s Sports Information Department.

Entering college, O’Connell had heard about five-star guys like Kyle Wright (Miami) and four-star guys Tommy Grady (Oklahoma) and Marcus Stone (North Carolina State). All three of them — not to mention others — were ranked ahead of him entering college. Now, they’re ranked behind him on NFL draft boards.

The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder was a sleeper among draft prospects until he rebounded from a thumb injury that derailed his junior year to put together an impressive senior season. He earned second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors. Then he followed up with strong performances in two all-star games and at the NFL Combine. His NFL stock soared.

Now he’s waiting for the NFL Draft this weekend, and word is some NFL teams that had him targeted early on as a steal in the fourth-through-seventh rounds are nervous. They’re afraid too many teams know about him. They’re wondering if they better pull the trigger in the second or third round to get him.

So if you’re Kevin O’Connell and you’ve heard all this, do you wonder how much higher your draft stock would have climbed if you had played for a winning program — SDSU hasn’t put together a winning season or gone to a bowl game since 1998 — or if you had gone to a higher-profile school.

O’Connell says he doesn’t ponder the question for a second.

“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else,” O’Connell said. “I had a tremendous experience here, and I met a lot of good people. Everybody here was always working hard. I got my opportunities here. At other places, you never know what would have happened.”

Here, O’Connell knows, and he’ll take that over the unknown, even if he didn’t enjoy a bowl trip.

Maybe at Colorado, a school he turned down, his career would have been mired in the program’s on-and-off-the-field turmoil and he never would have gotten a proper chance.

O’Connell said he didn’t arrive at SDSU planning on an NFL career, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t competitive.

“I came here with a chip on my shoulder knowing I can play with anybody out there,” O’Connell said. “The rankings are about whose been recognized on websites or newspapers, but that’s never been me. Even coming into the draft, I was looked at as an unknown.”

With so much information and speculation coming at O’Connell so fast, he’s burned up phone minutes with Aztecs head coach Chuck Long, a former first-round draft pick in the NFL.

“When he first got the job here, he said it would be an advantage for all the players on the team that he has coached and played at a high level,” O’Connell said. “I’ve continued to use that as a resource.”

O’Connell wonders if early attention eventually stunts the growth of athletes that receive too much attention too soon.

“Other people might have been focused on other aspects, but I was focused on throwing the football and becoming a leader,” O’Connell said. “Hard work pays off if you do your due diligence, and anything can happen with your dreams and goals.”

O’Connell won’t make that mistake, even in the final week before the draft when he can relax. He wants to be ready for mini-camp workouts and first impressions. Depending on the team that drafts him, mini-camp can come within a week.

“I’ve got three or four workouts planned here the week of the draft,” O’Connell said. “It doesn’t matter what round they take you. You’ve got to be to come to mini-camp and make good throws and good decisions with the ball.”

O’Connell will get drafted Saturday or Sunday. And he’ll be a pro quarterback next fall. NFL teams don’t cut quarterbacks that get drafted, even if they didn’t have any stars coming out of high school.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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