From walk on to NFL prospect: Deon Yelder’s journey to pro day

Former WKU tight end Deon Yelder talks to the media following WKU Football pro day on Friday March 30 at Houchens-Smith Stadium. During Yelder 30 games appearance, he averaged 22.9 receiving yards per game.

Alec Jessie

Only a year ago, the thought of WKU tight end Deon Yelder ending up with a legitimate shot at getting picked in the NFL draft was out of the question.

He was a walk-on that had to fund his own education and barely touched the field. Coming into the 2017 season, he had only appeared in 18 games and had yet to catch a pass.

But rather than giving up on the dream of playing professional football, he put his head down and got to work during his final season as a Hilltopper.

Yelder captured the starting tight end job and ran with it. He broke out in 2017, catching 52 passes for 688 yards. He also scored a total of eight touchdowns that year.

Following Yelder’s workout at WKU’s annual pro day, head coach Mike Sanford reflected on how Yelder climbed his way onto NFL draft boards.

“Who would’ve thought that a year ago about Deon Yelder—that this guy most likely has cemented himself as a draft pick,” Sanford said. “A year ago he wasn’t getting scholarship. He had to pay for his own food, room and board and books. Now he’s got a chance to be a mid-round draft pick.”

Sanford was even willing to say that he thought Yelder would have a long pro career.

“I believe Deon is going to have an 8-12 year NFL career,” Sanford said. “I believe that wholeheartedly. I have no doubts in my mind. You want a guy that truly can make a difference by keeping your offense on the field on third down and be viable red zone target and I think that’s exactly who is.”

Even with the impressive 2017 for the redshirt senior, his journey to the NFL Draft was far from over at the end of the season. NFL scouts still haven’t seen much of Yelder, and he had to stand out at the Senior Bowl in late February.

After an impressive week of practice, he topped it off with a touchdown reception in the game while playing primarily a blocking role.

Even with the hard work beginning to pay off, Yelder did not receive an invite to the NFL Combine. He did not let that break his spirit and said he still appreciated what he accomplished in the Senior Bowl.

“To me it’s just everything happens for a reason,” Yelder said. “I played in the Senior Bowl coming off a walk-on. Not too many people can say they did that. That’s a blessing. I took the good with the bad. No combine invite, go to work.”

Without the invite to the combine, WKU’s Pro Day became that much more important for Yelder. This was Yelder’s last chance to impress the NFL scouts.

Sanford thought Yelder’s workout was terrific and stood out among the rest of the pro day performers.

“I think he did incredible stuff for himself,” Sanford said, “Saw him hovering around a high 4.6 in the 40 weighing 255 lbs. Broad jump 10 feet, just a phenomenal workout for a guy that you can tell has put in so much work.”

This time a year ago, no one knew Yelder’s name or even considered him to be in the position he’s in today. The present is great for Yelder after a breakout senior year and multiple impressive workouts in the draft process.

Part of what has helped Yelder’s performance is how serious he has taken the preparation each day.

“I’ve been preparing for this for three months now,” Yelder said. “I’ve been training down in Boca Raton with Mike White, so everything was used to it, so I just continued what I’ve done grinding, doing the same thing we’ve been doing.”

With the draft process almost complete, Yelder appreciates how far he has come, and finally feels like he belongs.

“I feel like now that I’ve put my stripes down, and I feel like I earned this spot now,” Yelder said. “So every day when I go out there I’m more hungry, so I do better every day.”

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie