Football fans are well aware of the mainstream talent in any given NFL Draft class by the time Roger Goodell reaches the podium and announces the first pick. Even those unfamiliar with the college game are inundated with facts, figures, and conjecture on the big names. This year, it’s Andrew Luck. Robert Griffin. Quinton Coples. Trent Richardson. Players from the Pac-12, Big 12, ACC and SEC.
But there’s a bumper crop of talent even die-hard college fans might have missed out on when they plied their trade on Saturdays. The Championship Subdivision regularly produces professional talent, and just as regularly these players emergence leaves pundits and experts asking ‘Where’d he come from?’
This year’s list of FCS prospects is deep, and dotted with star potential. The next Jared Allen (Idaho State) or Victor Cruz (UMass) could come from the ’12 class, though early projections suggest he will be from a different position.
Discussing draft sleepers with NFLMocks.com columnist Dan Viens, he stressed the depth of small school defensive backs. The FCS hosted many top flight coverage men in 2011 with the skills to make an impact on NFL gridirons.
The Palmetto State produced a trio of cornerbacks whose names could get called this weekend. Furman’s Ryan Steed and Coastal Carolina’s Josh Norman earned scout’s attention in winter workouts.
Their rise up draft boards should come as no surprise to FCS followers, though. Steed was an All-America selection both his junior and senior seasons, racking up 46 tackles, four interceptions, a blocked punt, and eight pass deflections in the latter. Norman joined Steed on the Associated Press 1st Team list this past year with a Chanticleer best 62 tackles and 12 broken-up passes.
Meanwhile, Justin Bethel‘s garnered buzz — no easy feat for any player from Presbyterian — for videos of his otherworldly leaping ability. But Bethel’s more than just a single athletic skill. He was a Buck Buchanan Award nominee along with Steed.
Bethel intercepted four passes and returned one for a touchdown, recorded a team leading 87 tackles, blocked three kicks, ran back a pair of punts for touchdowns, and forced a fumble. There was no partridge in a pear tree, but doubtfully for lack of trying.
Staying in South Carolina, SCSU safety Christian Thompson just might be the most highly drafted of the bunch. Thompson aided a Bulldog defense that held opponents to just 18.5 PPG (No. 10 nationally) with 66 tackles and two interceptions.
Having played alongside a teammate who successfully made the transition from the FCS to NFL, tackle Kenrick Ellis, Hampton’s Micah Pellerin has seen what it takes. Pellerin broke up 15 passes and intercepted four passes for the Pirates last season, both improvements over his already impressive figures on Hampton’s 2010 Playoff team.
Across the continent on the left coast, Cal Poly’s Asa Jackson did his thing to the tune of 54 tackles, two interceptions, seven break-ups and nine deflections. Jackson earned Sports Network All-American honors in 2010. Check out some of the highlights of Jackson’s junior campaign via his official YouTube channel:
Montana CB Trumaine Johnson started all four seasons he was in Missoula, and earned consensus All-American in both 2010 and 2011. He would have been a three-time honoree had his sophomore season not been injury shortened. Johnson is a big corner who, at 6-foot-3, would look right at home at wide receiver. His nose for the ball and ability to pursue all around the field make him too valuable on defense.
A typical knock on lower division prospects is the level of competition they see on a weekly basis. Yet in the high scoring offense of the Southland Conference, Jeremy Lane of Northwestern State saw his share of uptempo offenses. Lane’s production was modest for the Demons, but his measurables have been impressive enough to gain him high standing in draft projections.
Jacksonville State cornerback A.J. Davis has vast potential as an undrafted free agent. Murray State corner Dontrell Johnson has his own undrafted signing possibilities, but as a returns specialist. Johnson brought back punts for touchdowns twice in 2010, and was named a special teams All-American for his nation-leading return average.
This FCS class is much more than secondary talent. Key to North Dakota State’s championship run was tight end Matt Veldman, third leading receiver on the Bison offense. Quarterback Brock Jensen targeted Veldman 26 times, including for three touchdowns. The 6-foot-7 Veldman was also good for over 22 yards per reception. His size and pass catching abilities make him a lesser Rob Gronkowski.
Missouri Valley Football Conference rival South Dakota State has its own pass catching threat turned NFL prospect in wideout Dale Moss. Like the aforementioned Bethel, Moss has generated chatter with videos of his athleticism. He was a two-sport star at SDSU, playing for the Jackrabbit basketball team in addition to catching 61 passes for 949 yards and six touchdowns.
The Mount Rushmore State will have two draftees should Moss’s name be called. That’s because South Dakota, after just two seasons of Division I competition, has an NFL talent in offensive tackle Tom Compton. The Coyotes’ lineman was a standout at the Combine, and should be selected either late Friday, or early Saturday.
Aaron Corp was a highly regarded prep prospect when he signed at USC, but injuries derailed his stint in Tinseltown. He regrouped at Richmond, and could sneak into the latter rounds of the draft. Corp passed for nearly 2700 yards and completed just under 64 percent of his attempts in his only full season at quarterback for the Spiders.
Similar to Corp, Patrick Witt was a big-time high school recruit who signed with a nationally renowned football program. His career ended at a university renowned more for its academics, Yale. And while his time in the Ivy League closed with controversy, Witt has been suggested as having late round potential.
Witt is one of three Ivy Leaguers with draft weekend potential. Josue Ortiz was a monster blitzing Ivy backfields for Harvard, recording 10 sacks on the season. Containing him was no easy task, one that Columbia’s offensive tackle Jeff Adams knows about. Adams was an All Ivy League selection and earned an East-West Shrine Game invitation.
Topics: 2012 NFL Draft, Cal Poly Mustangs, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Columbia, Dontrell Johnson, Furman, Hampton, Harvard, Jacksonville State, Jeff Adams, Micah Pellerin, Montana, Murray State, NFL, NFL Draft, North Dakota State, Patrick Witt, Presbyterian, Ryan Steed, South Carolina State, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Tom Compton, Trumaine Johnson, Yale