When Mike Pouncey decided to return to Florida for his senior season, his primary goals were to earn his degree and improve enough to become a first-round draft pick.
He has the degree. Pouncey hopes to fulfill the other dream when the NFL draft begins Thursday night.
"I know a lot of people wondered why I decided to come back, but I knew it was the right decision for me," Pouncey said. "I think overall I had a great season, and I think it has paid off for me in the end."
Pouncey is following in the footsteps of twin brother Maurkice, the 18th overall pick, by the Steelers, last year out of Florida. At 6 feet 5, 303 pounds, Mike is considered the top interior offensive line prospect by most draft analysts. But where he'll end up will likely depend on whether teams consider him a center or a guard at the next level.
In his latest mock draft, ESPN.com's Mel Kiper has Mike as a No. 19 selection by the Giants. Todd McShay, ESPN.com's director of scouting, believes he could surprise a few people and be taken at No. 15 by the Dolphins.
"He can play guard or center, gets to the second level very well and should help the Giants in the running game," Kiper said. "I'd slot him in at guard to start and only look for help at center in a backup role, but he's easily the top interior lineman in the draft."
Both agree that Mike is a different player from his brother.
"The problem with (Mike) is that he's compared to his brother, and (Maurkice is) on a different level," McShay said.
"(Mike is) not Maurkice, and I think that's the most important thing to realize with the brothers," Kiper said.
The inevitable comparisons have been coming since the two began playing as small children, so Mike is used to it by now. He jokes that he has to be picked higher than his brother — whom he calls his best friend — or "I'll never hear the end of it."
Still, over the past several months, the idea of getting another version of Maurkice Pouncey has become more appealing to teams.
"You definitely take that into consideration because obviously they're very similar," Jaguars general manager Gene Smith said last month during UF's pro day. "Both guys could play center or guard, and versatility equals value."
Mike, a Lakeland native, said he would love the opportunity to play for his "hometown team," the Bucs, and relishes even more a chance to rejoin his brother. But because the Steelers don't pick until No. 31, he doesn't expect a reunion to occur.
"I'm not going to last that long," he said confidently. "It would be nice, but I honestly believe I'll be gone before that."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.