2015 NFL Draft Prospects You Need To Know: Small Schools
When I watched the receivers work at the Combine back in February, there were four guys I thought helped themselves as much as anyone: Donte Moncrief tested surprisingly well, displaying more athleticism than I thought he had; Mike Evans gained separation from Kelvin Benjamin and established himself as the best big receiver in the draft; Brandin Cooks was dynamic in everything he did.
And then there was John Brown.
The man with the most ordinary name at the draft's most flamboyant position showed off some extraordinary abilities. He ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash (his 4.34 was one-hundredth of a second slower than Cooks), ran his routes with precision and caught everything thrown his way. By the end of his time in Indianapolis, John Brown had made a name for himself.
Which was not easy to do, considering the unprecedented depth at receiver. And the fact that so few scouts and coaches were familiar with him heading into the Combine. Anyone talking about the receiver from Pittsburgh was referring to Devin Street, not Brown, the receiver from Pittsburg State, located in the southeast corner of Kansas, about two hours from anywhere you've ever heard of.
Brown was too much for most Division II defenses to handle. He led the Gorillas in receiving three straight seasons, caught 34 touchdowns, returned punts and kickoffs. After he lit up the Combine, Brown made the leap from off-the-radar to the third round. Now, it looks like he might supplant Ted Ginn as the Cardinals' starting slot receiver, making him Carson Palmer's third option after Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
It happens more often than you think, a prospect from a small school making the big time. Or did you miss the Hall of Fame induction speech this summer given by Kutztown's Andre Reed? I had five small schoolers among the top 100 prospects on my final 2014 Big Board, Brown not among them. All were gone by the middle of the fifth round, with Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo going in the second and North Dakota State tackle Bill Turner early in the third.
Two dozen or so small school guys are drafted every year, which is about 10 percent of the total draft pool. And there will be a bunch taken again in 2015. So let me introduce you to 10 prospects (listed alphabetically) you might want to follow during the season and look for next February in Indianapolis.
Bryan Bennett, QB, Southeastern Louisiana: Bennett will be a full-time starter for the first time in his college career, having arrived at SELa after backing up Marcus Mariota at Oregon. Based on what we saw of Bennett in Eugene, he can run with the football. It's his development as a passer that every scout will be monitoring this season.
David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa: With more than 4,300 career all-purpose yards, Johnson shows the versatility as a runner and a receiver that will appeal to NFL offenses -- as will his size (6-foot-3, 229 pounds).
Jake Kumerow, WR, Wisconsin-Whitewater: The son of Eric Kumerow, former first-round pick of the Dolphins, is a big receiver (6-5, 195) who had a sizable impact after transferring from Illinois. He had 77 receptions for 1,331 yards and caught two touchdowns in the Division III championship game. Don't think the NFL doesn't pay attention to D3 receivers; Cecil Shorts and Pierre Garcon have proven that the right guys can make the jump.
Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary: McBride has the size (6-2, 205) to intrigue scouts. He's not had a monster season, but he's proven a capable possession receiver and red zone target for the Tribe. His contributions as a kick returner (27.5 yards per return in 2013) give him another dimension for getting noticed.
Tevin McDonald, DB, Eastern Washington: This will be McDonald's last chance to make a positive impression. He was a two-year starter at UCLA before being dismissed from the team, and his first season at EWU was truncated by a leg injury. He's an active free safety who can cover the deep middle and also shows a willingness to step up in run support, which is what you'd expect from Tim McDonald's son.
De'Ante Saunders, CB, Tennessee State: Saunders started nine games at safety as a true freshman at Florida, in the same secondary as fellow freshmen Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Off-field troubles forced him to transfer, and he was named to the Ohio Valley Conference all-newcomers team after a solid debut season in 2013. TSU has three defensive backs who will draw attention, to Saunders will have the opportunity to redefine himself in scouts' eyes.
Lynden Trail, OLB, Norfolk State: He has been the MEAC's biggest disruption the last two years, with 29.5 TFL and 14. 5 sacks since transferring from Florida following the 2011 season. He forced five fumbles last year, broke up eight passes, had two interceptions and blocked a couple of kicks, and he led the team with 94 tackles. NFL teams will look at his length (he's listed at 6-7, 250) and will have to decide whether he's a better fit at outside linebacker or defensive end; he's played both at Norfolk State. He may be the most intriguing prospect outside the FBS.
Zach Wagenmann, DE, Montana: He's racked up impressive playmaking numbers (20 career sacks, 29.5 TFL) and will be one of the top pass rushers in the FCS. But at 6-3, 250, he may have to move to linebacker at the next level, where one of the Grizzlies' top tacklers should be comfortable.
Damon Williams, DT, Abilene Christian: With only eight college games under his sizable belt (one at Oklahoma in 2012, seven for ACU in 2013), Williams has one last season to open scouts eyes. They'll be aware of a 6-3, 340-pound defensive tackle (ideal dimensions for an NFL nose). They just need more film they can evaluate.
Zach Zenner, RB, South Dakota State: If back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons didn't say enough about Zenner's productivity, how about this: in 2012, his 13 rushing touchdowns covered an average of nearly 43 yards, and while that per-touchdown average went down in 2013, eight of his 24 rushing touchdowns went for 20 yards or longer.