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Rhode Island hasn’t had an NFL Draft pick since 1986. Isaiah Coulter changed that in 2020

URI is no football hotbed, but the class of 2020 will make history.

Rhode Island v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

The Texans selected Isaiah Coulter with the 171st overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Kyle Murphy and Aaron Parker went undrafted but signed as free agents — Murphy with the Giants and Parker with the Cowboys. Here’s what Christian D’Andrea had to say about the URI trio ahead of the draft.

Rhode Island is not a hotbed for college football. The state has three Division I programs, but all are small-scale FCS operations. Since 2002, the state’s high schools have only produced 11 prospects who’ve signed scholarship offers from current FBS programs; the bulk landed at nearby UMass.

As a result, it’s been 34 years since a University of Rhode Island alum has heard his name called at the NFL Draft. But in 2020, three Rams could get the call.

Aaron Parker, Isaiah Coulter, and Kyle Murphy all played pivotal roles for a URI team that climbed into the FCS top 25 for the first time in more than a decade in 2018. Each earned an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. URI, a program that had never sent anyone to the event, had more prospects in Indianapolis than schools like Arizona, Louisville, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and USC.

The Rams’ renaissance was unexpected and, if 2019’s 2-10 record is an indication, possibly brief. How did it happen ... and what can these three players who helped drag URI up from the bottom of the FCS ranks bring to the NFL?

URI’s top prospect in three decades could be found money in the NFL

Coulter passed up his final year of eligibility to enter this year’s draft. That would be a disaster for most URI players, but Coulter is far from typical. Though his college career got off to a slow start (18 catches as a freshman), he found a way to shine in the Rams’ highest-profile games the following two years. In three games against FBS competition — UConn, Ohio, and Virginia Tech — he racked up 21 catches for 361 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

That includes a 47-yard cornerback-dusting and subsequent adjustment against the Huskies. Coulter singled out this play as the best example of his abilities when we sat down at this year’s combine.

“I had a comeback and go,” Coulter told me. “Broke it down at 12 (yards downfield), then came back up with it.” That play covered nearly half the field — and it would have been a walk-in touchdown if his quarterback could have hit him in stride. Instead, the speedy wideout had to make an adjustment to keep URI alive in what became a shootout 56-49 loss.

His 72-catch, 1,039-yard, eight-touchdown campaign in 2019 helped convince scouts Coulter was Rhody’s top draft prospect. It also made him just the seventh player in URI history to post 1,000+ receiving yards in a season. He wouldn’t have had a chance to ink his name in that record book without the sixth man on that list: his cousin Parker. Visits to Kingston to watch a wideout who was like a brother helped convince Coulter the Rams were the right team for him.

While the younger receiver was proving himself as a prospect, Parker built his name as one of the best players in program history.

Parker was one of the top wide receivers in FCS

The Maryland high school star was a two-star recruit — the only other school to show sustained interest in him was Eastern Michigan, with whom he originally signed — who came to URI as a linebacker. Instead of bulking up when he got to campus, head coach Jim Fleming saw his potential as a playmaker. Parker led the Rams in receiving yards and touchdown catches as a true freshman.

Though Coulter, with his 6’2 frame and 4.45-second 40 time, may be the first Ram off the board thanks to his potential, Parker had the bigger impact in Kingston. His stature grew as he adapted to the high level of FCS play in the Colonial Athletic Association. He improved his reception and receiving yard numbers every year in the Rams’ offense. The arrival of his cousin as an NFL prospect helped free him from constant double coverage and helped him put together one of the FCS’ top individual senior seasons: 81 catches, 1,224 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2019.

His versatility shined through at Rhode Island, where he was big and fast enough to line up all over Fleming’s offense. Like Coulter, he broke through against FBS opponents: 21 catches, 336 yards, and a pair of touchdowns in those aforementioned games against Ohio, UConn, and Virginia Tech. Here he is in Athens, parting double coverage masterfully to adjust to a deep ball and set up a Rams field goal:

When it comes to the NFL, he sees himself as a hit-absorbing presence who can roast defensive backs from the a spot closer to the hashmarks.

“I would prefer slot,” Parker told me at the combine. “I like being in space with the linebackers and nickelbacks, going up against them, catching the ball — you know, I’m fearless across the middle. I got the linebacker background coming out of high school, so, you know, I don’t really mind the hits.”

Murphy helped make all this happen

Rhode Island benefited from two wideouts who could chase down deep balls, but the keystone to one of the best passing offenses in school history might have been Murphy. The versatile lineman — he started games at every position on the line except right guard — built his name as a two-time first-team All-CAA left tackle.

While he was a factor in the run game throughout his career, his biggest achievements came while clearing room for two very different passers behind him. The mobile JaJuan Lawson and the pocket-oriented Vito Priore created unique challenges to the URI front line, but Murphy wasn’t fazed.

“I have great chemistry with both of them,” Murphy explained in Indianapolis. “Trust is everything. I just trusted both of them and we just adapted to whatever situation we were in. I feel like my versatility is the biggest thing a lot of teams liked.”

As good as URI’s 2018 was, Murphy’s proudest accomplishment was propping up a passing offense that ranked 13th in FCS in passing yards per game in 2019. The Rams gave up just 26 sacks despite dialing up 531 passing plays: a rate of just 4.9 percent. That came despite a lineup filled with mostly anonymous, zero-star recruits and a limited rushing attack that effectively dared opponents to bring pressure.

“After my junior year, I gained a lot of experience,” Murphy noted when asked when he realized his talent could translate to an NFL career. “I became a leader on and off the field. My junior year, I really shined then. Everything just picked up from there.

“It doesn’t matter whether I get drafted, whether I’m a free agent. I just want to show my talents, show my versatility — show that I just belong.”

That could be at tackle or as a 6’3, 320-pound interior blocker. His NFL career may boil down to one team’s vision of where he’ll fit. If his URI experience is any indication, he’ll blossom no matter what position he takes.

Where could these three URI standouts be drafted?

It’s tough to glean much insight to this year’s pre-draft process thanks to the isolation required by the Covid-19 pandemic. Any gains the Rhode Island trio could have made in private workouts and interviews after the combine have been nullified by the fact everyone’s staying home through April.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be forgotten. Coulter made a major impression on longtime NFL scout Gil Brandt, who labeled him one of his three favorite prospects in a discussion with NBC’s Peter King. Parker didn’t test as well as his younger cousin, but his big, ever-improving production for the Rams could be enough to overcome those concerns.

The larger issue is they both play a position that’s loaded with talent in the 2020 NFL Draft. This spring could see 10-15 wideouts selected in the first two days of the draft, leaving high-ceiling projects like the Rhode Island duo to languish to Day 3 (or possibly later).

Murphy might have an even tougher path to the pros. Like Coulter and Parker, he’s part of a stacked class at his position; if teams are looking for small-school projects in Days 2 or 3, players like St. John’s Ben Bartch or South Carolina State’s Alex Taylor will likely jump him in line. It doesn’t help that he failed to stand out at the combine, finishing among the bottom 10 offensive linemen in multiple drills, including both the 40 and the bench press.

Still, Murphy’s a leader who broke through at an often overlooked program. Though his straight-line speed may be lacking, strong performances in the three-cone and 20-yard shuttle drills in Indianapolis prove he’s quicker than most 320-pounders out there. Writing him off, like he’d been as an unranked recruit, would be foolish now.

The trio leaves a legacy that will boost Rhode Island football even after their departure

The Rams’ escape from the CAA basement lasted just one season. URI went from four conference wins in 2018 to zero a year later, despite three potential draftees on the roster. Even so, the program’s departing stars are confident they’re leaving their former home in better shape than when they found it.

“We’re definitely getting more excitement and recruiting, especially since we’ve had three combine invites,” said Parker.

“It’s great to really put the university back on the map. It’s been overlooked for a while. Even though we haven’t had the record, we always had the talent. Creating a new culture there was a great experience.”

According to Coulter, 2018’s on-field gains helped push for new turf and lights that allowed night games in Kingston for the first time in modern program history. It’s an impact that isn’t lost on the potential Day 2 pick.

“We definitely changed things around a little bit. Getting people talking about [URI football].

“Knowing what they recruited me for — they wanted me to make plays. Knowing that I delivered, it feels good knowing I made a little mark there. Hopefully it keeps going, they keep getting good guys that can take them even higher.”