Small Schools, Big Talent
By Matt LaPan
In today's NFL Draft atmosphere there is one major misconception: major conference schools are the best place to get major talent. Although many of the elite players do come from these major programs, it has become increasingly evident that FCS, Division II and Division III schools can, and do, produce major talent.
Players such as Danieal Manning (Abilene Christian), Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg), Jacoby Jones (Lane), Vincent Jackson (Northern Colorado) and Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama) were selected in the top half of the NFL Draft in recent years. Others like Brent Grimes (Shippensburg), Danny Woodhead (Chadron State) and Fred Jackson (Coe) all went undrafted but still have made a big impact in the NFL.
Jackson, for example, was the first NFL player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season while also totaling over 1,000 return yards. Jones tied an NFL-record with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII. Adam Vinatieri (South Dakota State) kicked game-winning field goals in multiple Super Bowls for the New England Patriots.
The 2012 NFL season saw contributions from several players that should help this year's crop of small school prospects. Jenkins was selected 39th overall by the St. Louis Rams. Although he once played at Florida, his draft stock was evaluated from his play at North Alabama. Jenkins started 14 games as a rookie, and finished with 14 pass deflections, four interceptions and three interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Bobby Wagner from Utah State was selected 47th overall by Seattle. In his first NFL season, Wagner started 15 games and finished seventh in the league with 140 tackles.
But what types of challenges to these "small school" players face? According to 2013 NFL Draft hopeful Evan Twombly from Division II Gannon University, "The hardest part would be, I don't know if this is the right words, but being taken seriously. I think that people look at me and see a D-II football player and their first thoughts are, 'Why is this kid D-II and not D-I?' "
Of greater concern is the question of what opportunity these small school players have to make their case. Each year, the Scouting Combine has the capacity to host only 335 players according to NFLCombine.net. This year, only 36 players from non-FBS schools attended.
Like many players not invited to the Combine, Twombly found another route to attempt to attract the attention of NFL scouts. Regional combines and events like the BSN Showcase, which Twombly attended, allow some of these smaller school players the chance to get noticed.
"The first two days were kind of our combine days. It's great, get your numbers, your 40, your vertical, your shuttle, you know, the important times. But unlike just a regular combine you get to go out there and put on pads and play around. In my opinion, you can find a lot of guys who will test well in a combine situation. You won't typically find as many people who can play that well when they're in full pads."
With evaluation season almost completed, NFL teams will now be on the hunt for the next London Fletcher. Here is a list of 10 prospects that have impressed during their evaluations and have a chance to continue the legacy of the small school players who came before them:
1. Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern
2. Robert Alford, CB, Southeastern Louisiana
3. Aaron Mellette, WR, Elon
4. B.W. Webb, CB, William & Mary
5. Keith Pough, LB, Howard
6. David Bass, DL, Missouri Western
7. Miguel Maysonet, RB, Stony Brook
8. Terron Armstead, OL, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
9. Brent Russell, DL, Georgia Southern
10. Rontez Miles, S, California (PA)
Whether these players go on to be drafted or they become undrafted free agents, the sentiment of most small school players is summed up best by Twombly. "To be the guy, the small school guy who got a chance, a diamond in the rough if you will, it'll mean a lot."