clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

26 of football’s greatest JUCO alumni show there are many paths to greatness

Junior college offered another route for national champs, current and future hall of famers, and more.

Along the way to major college or NFL greatness, plenty of football players have made stops in junior college, and for a variety of reasons. Here are lots of names you remember, loosely grouped by their reasons for going JUCO.

Plenty went JUCO to prove they deserved big-time scholarships.

Josh Heupel, QB, Weber State University —> Snow College —> Oklahoma

The South Dakota native had a few offers out of high school, but it didn’t seem like he would be the big man on campus at Wisconsin, Houston, or Minnesota. He earned JUCO All-America honors and landed with OC Mike Leach.

Orange Bowl X Heupel

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Butte Community College —> Cal

Rodgers was only offered by Illinois as a walk-on out of high school and turned it down to stay local. He still gives Butte a shoutout on Sunday Night Football.

Brad Banks, QB, UCF —> Hinds Community College —> Iowa

Banks was buried on the depth chart in Orlando. He later took Iowa to the Orange Bowl and finished as Heisman runner-up.

Warren Moon, QB, West Los Angeles College —> Washington

The trailblazer was recruited by West Coast teams, but not to be a quarterback. After Moon set school records at WLAC, legendary Washington coach Don James recruited him to play QB.

A majority of these players went JUCO to straighten out their academics.

Michael Bishop, QB, Blinn Junior College —> Kansas State

As a two-time JUCO national champion, Bishop took the Big 12 by storm. He powered the Wildcats to the doorstep of a title berth in 1998 and finished second in the Heisman race. Bishop stands as the high point of Bill Snyder’s JUCO pipeline.

Larry Allen, OT, Butte Community College —> Sonoma State University

Before becoming a Hall of Fame lineman for the Cowboys who had the athleticism to do this ...

... Allen took a winding rode to the league. He went to Butte for two seasons, then spent a year away from the game before coming back to play at Division II Sonoma State. He was drafted in the second round after wowing with his skills during Senior Bowl week.

LeGarrette Blount, RB, East Mississippi Community College —> Oregon

Blount signed with Auburn in 2006. But he didn’t academically qualify. So he ended up one of the top JUCO running backs when it was time for him to come out in 2008.

Dede Westbrook, WR, Blinn Junior College —> Oklahoma

Westbrook got drafted by the Jaguars after being a Heisman finalist. A three-star out of high school, an SAT snafu forced him down to JUCO.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, College of the Canyons —> Fort Scott Community College —> USF

Originally a basketball player when USF coach Jim Leavitt noticed him. Two years and two JUCOs later, Pierre-Paul didn’t forget that.

After the 2008 season, Jason fielded scholarship offers from Kansas State, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Florida, Florida State, Miami and South Florida. Knowing he would get on the field right away, wanting to stay close to home—and remembering his conversation with coach Leavitt—Jason opted for USF.

Nick Fairley, DT, Copiah-Lincoln Community College —> Auburn

Fairley’s Tiger career could have started in 2007 if he had qualified. He’d eventually catalyze the 2010 defense that would complement Cam Newton’s brilliance.

Lavonte David, LB, Fort Scott Community College —> Nebraska

Signed at Middle Tennessee but didn’t qualify. At Fort Scott, he led a defense that had stopped Newton’s Blinn in the JUCO title game, and all his team needed to do was salt away a two-point lead. Too bad this happened:

O.J. Simpson, RB, City College of San Francisco —> USC

Before the Heisman, notoriety, and infamy, there was the friend’s injury that convinced Simpson — who didn’t try much in high school — that the service wasn’t for him.

OJ planned on the Army, but a childhood friend returned from Vietnam missing a leg and, “bingo, right then and there, I didn’t want to join the Army.” With a day left to register, OJ enrolled at City College of San Francisco.

Mike Rozier, RB, Coffeyville Junior College —> Nebraska

Frank Solich noticed him while watching film on another team. Despite Rozier winning a Heisman, his Huskers lost de facto title games in two straight seasons.

There are plenty of reasons Nebraska built a dynasty, but one was JUCO. The Huskers maximized an NCAA rule called Proposition 48, by which they would sign players who couldn’t qualify. When they didn’t, they’d go to a JUCO for a year, lose a year of eligibility, and come back up.

Keyshawn Johnson, WR, West Los Angeles College —> USC

There’s an alternate reality in which Johnson gets the minimum SAT score and goes to Miami.

Leonard Little, DE, Coffeyville Community College —> Tennessee

Little signed at Tennessee, then played at a JUCO for one season. He returned to become a three-year starter at UT.

Walter Jones, OT, Holmes Community College —> Florida State

Jones was going to be a tight end for the Noles. He went to Holmes, played tackle, and became a Hall of Fame blocker.

Seneca Wallace, QB, Oregon State —> Sacramento City College —> Iowa State

Wallace nearly earned a starting cornerback role in Corvallis but was ruled ineligible. He moved home and switched positions. As a senior at Iowa State in 2002, he led a furious comeback through the air to give rival Iowa its only regular season loss, besting fellow former JUCO QB, Brad Banks. But what Wallace could do with his legs was truly dazzling:

Terrance Cody, DT, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College —> Alabama

He entered college at more than 400 pounds, but his nimble nature jumped off the page to his JUCO coach, who was scouting another player. Perhaps a school would have taken a chance on him as a high school player, but he’d sat out his sophomore and junior seasons because of poor academics. After his two years at a JUCO, Alabama topped the likes of Auburn, FSU, and Miami for Mount Cody’s signature.

Joe Horn, WR, South Carolina —> Itawamba Community College

One of the few players on this list who didn’t end up going Division I. Unable to qualify after two years at the JUCO level, Horn took a job at a furniture factory. He got to the NFL via the CFL.

Frank Gifford, WR, Bakersfield Junior College —> USC

Gifford would become one of the best players in the 1950s NFL, but he didn’t earn the grades to get into USC at first.

Corey Dillon, RB, Edmonds Community College —> Garden City Community College —> Dixie College —> Washington

Dillon was the most reliable player on terrible Bengals teams in the early-2000s, but his path to the NFL was winding. Despite growing up in Seattle and playing blocks away from Husky Stadium, he couldn’t go to Washington because of a bad SAT score and character issues. He was a journeyman, but his 1,555 yards in one I-A season were good enough to make him a second-round draft pick.

Bryant McKinnie, OT, Lackawanna Junior College —> Miami

Grades kept him from a scholarship at Iowa. He went to Lackawanna as a defensive lineman, but switched positions and went on to anchor one of the best college teams ever. The Canes’ gain was Penn State’s loss; the Nittany Lions didn’t take JUCOs then.

And here’s a different kind of academic specialization.

Roger Staubach, QB, New Mexico Military Institute —> Navy

While many players go to JUCOs because of bad grades or disciplinary issues, Staubach went to prep for the Naval Academy. He ended up winning the Heisman and a truckload of accolades in the NFL. But before NFL glory, Staubach fulfilled his obligations to the Navy.

Also, some players need image rehabilitation.

Chad Kelly, QB, Clemson —> East Mississippi Community College —> Ole Miss

After an incident in which he had to be restrained on the sideline during the 2014 spring game, the Tigers booted him. He tore it up at EMCC and won a national title while throwing for nearly 4,000 yards. Let us not forget he then did this against Alabama:

There was, uhh, also the time he told a bouncer at a bar that he was gonna get his AK-47 “and spray this place.”

Alvin Kamara, RB, Alabama —> Hutchinson Community College —> Tennessee

Kamara got hurt, then buried on the depth chart, then suspended by Nick Saban. He played well for Hutchinson, and after sharing a backfield at Tennessee, became a standout for the Saints as a rookie.

Cam Newton, QB, Florida —> Blinn Junior College —> Auburn

He’s probably the player with the best-known JUCO career. Before the Heisman and the miracle run to a national championship, there was a national title at Blinn. Before all of that, there was the time he stole a laptop at Florida and got kicked out off of the team.