Not every NFL player makes the transition from playing in front of 100,000 on Saturdays to playing in front of 80,000 on Sundays. Some players have humbler beginnings. Whether due to big-school coaches missing on a talented recruit, a guy developing from a scrub to a star between the ages of 17 and 21, or other factors — bad academics, disputes with big-school coaches, lost playing-time battles, etc. — some guys worth taking a look at in the NFL Draft just happened to end up at smaller schools.
Sometimes they turn out to be pretty decent in the NFL. Remember that quarterback who won the Super Bowl this year? Or the best wide receiver in the sport's history? Or a particularly sweet running back?
So maybe there aren't any Jerry Rices or Walter Paytons in this year's draft. But there are a few small-school prospects worth taking a look at — here's the best from each level.
Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
Fisher's had an astronomical ride since the end of his senior season up to the top of many people's draft boards. Fisher didn't even play offensive line until his senior year of high school. But he was a rock his senior season — even against big-school pass rushers, even against the nation's elites at the Senior Bowl — and has risen into the top 10 of most mocks. He probably won't displace fellow left tackle Luke Joeckel as the top pick in the draft, but at 6'7, 305 pounds with legit NFL strength and quickness, he's a can't-miss prospect. Between him and back-to-back all-Pro Joe Staley, the Chippewas are starting to build a tradition of pumping out elite tackles.
Jonathan Cyprien, safety, FIU: Cyprien's a likely first-rounder at the strong safety spot, maybe the hardest hitter in the class. Not amazingly fast, but instinctual enough to make plays in coverage and with enough of a punch to make anybody pay.
Margus Hunt, DE, SMU: Hunt's just a physical freak: an Estonian who came to the United States for shot put but switched to football when SMU's track team turned out not to exist. He's 6'8, 277 pounds, and pretty fast, and he laid waste to C-USA offenses. At the very least, he can be the league's first kick-blocking specialist after swatting nine field goals, an NCAA record. He'll be off the board in the first two rounds.
Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech: Patton excelled in Sonny Dykes' Air Raid for the Bulldogs, but he's not just a system guy — he runs a sub-4.5 40 and has natural catching ability, and should be off the board by the end of the second day. His QB, Colby Cameron, is more of a fringe prospect.
Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Armstead could've been an FBS player, but the Golden Lions' coach was the only one willing to let him participate on the school's track team as well. Armstead's an outstanding athlete for a 300-pounder — his 4.71 in the 40-yard dash is the best since at least 2006. And he doesn't lack for technique either. A combination of upper-body strength, athleticism, and talent that makes him a likely second- or third-round pick.
Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech: Kind of a cop-out here — Rogers was part of Tennessee's highly talented wide receiver corps, but got kicked off the team for failing drug tests. He's eliminated drugs from his life, and at 6'3 with all sorts of athleticism — he was amongst the top players in vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, and the shuttles at the combine — he still has the talent, a combo that makes him a likely second-day pick.
Robert Alford, CB, Southeastern Louisiana: Alford's an incredible athlete — he ran a 4.39 40, and was just half an inch off the top vertical jump for a cornerback at the combine — but there are concerns about his size at 5'10 and his tackling ability. He'll probably be a second-day pick.
JJ Wilcox, safety, Georgia Southern: Wilcox has a coach he only played under for one season to thank for his draft stock: he was a slot receiver, and not a bad one. But when Jeff Monken made the Eagles an option team, wide receivers became less important, and Wilcox swapped to defense. He excelled there, making 88 tackles and picking off two passes. It takes a special athlete to be successful at multiple positions, regardless of the level, and Wilcox's measurables fit the bill there.
Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern
Williams is built — his 38 reps on the bench press tied Hunt for the most by any player in Indianapolis. After being named a Little All-American three times — and looking fine against the big boys at the senior bowl — the 6'1, 335-pounder is likely to get selected in the top half of the draft. Strength translates, and Williams will be able to play nose tackle or regular old defensive tackle in the NFL.
David Bass, DE, Missouri Western: Really a banner year for Missouri directional schools, huh? Bass put up great numbers and performed well at the Shrine Game, but he might not be fast enough to play linebacker or strong enough to play defensive end. Someone might take a shot after a great college career.
Jasper Collins, WR, Mount Union
Mount Union should be viewed a bit differently than other D-III schools — fellow Purple Raider wide receivers include Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts. Collins isn't incredibly fast and didn't get a combine invite, but he tore it up for the Purple Raiders — he had more career receptions than Garcon, less than Shorts. He performed well enough at the Shrine Game that a team might take a flyer based on his stats and the success of those who came before him..
Luke Marquardt, OT, Azusa Pacific
Marquardt isn't likely to get drafted, but you don't find many players with size like his. He's 6'9, 322 pounds, and benched 31 reps at the combine. Scouts are somewhat wary of Marquardt — he's not a natural football player, having gone to Azusa Pacific to play basketball, and his height causes leverage issues. He'd be the first APU player drafted since Christian Okoye in 1987.