NFL welcomes small-school players to big stage

football

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Zach Moore and Larry Webster found unconventional ways to reach NFL draft weekend.

When Moore’s subpar high school grades scared away big-time football schools from offering scholarships, the Chicago native enrolled at tiny Concordia University in Minnesota. Webster, the son of a former NFL player, spent three years starting on Bloomsburg’s college basketball team before giving football a second shot in 2012.

League scouts still found them and next week, these two Division II stars could hear their names called out on the biggest stage of all, Radio City Music Hall.

“Not many of these people thought I would get this far,” Moore said. “The knock always is the level of competition. They’re always going to grill you for not facing Division I talent, but as they watch in film, they know I can play.”

The scouts have increasingly found talent at smaller schools, making sure they don’t miss out on the next big thing in football, even if it comes far from the spotlight.

Examples can be found everywhere.

Football Championship Subdivision alums Kurt Warner and Joe Flacco both earned Super Bowl rings after becoming starting quarterbacks, although Warner had to play in Arena Football and NFL Europe first.

Robert Mathis, who also played in the FCS, is the NFL’s reigning sacks champ. Offensive lineman Jahri Evans has been to five Pro Bowls despite coming out of Bloomsburg. And three of the greatest players in NFL history — Brett Favre, the late Walter Payton and Jerry Rice — all played college ball in Mississippi, though none of the three played at an SEC school and only Favre played in the top level of college ball.

Those sorts of oversights have prompted NFL decision makers to take their annual talent search to some unusual places.

“I was actually in Concordia this year and I wasn’t the only GM, which really blew my mind when I saw a stack of business cards and saw another GM in there,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. “I was always taught by my old boss Charley Armey, I remember him saying years ago, ‘Scout the player, not the school.’”

It’s a sentiment that seems to resonate within a league no longer totally reliant on traditional powerhouses to find talent.

A year ago, Central Michigan offensive lineman Eric Fisher was selected No. 1 overall by Kansas City. This year, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is projected to go in the top five, giving the once overlooked Mid-American Conference the possibility of having top-five picks in back-to-back years.

The small-school talent pool is not drying up. Anything but.

—Quarterback Jimmy Garopollo has drawn comparisons to Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, a fellow Eastern Illinois alum, and isn’t expected to last beyond the second round.

—Haitian immigrant Pierre Desir, a 23-year-old cornerback, husband and father who worked in sewers between stints at two Division II schools, Washburn in Kansas and Lindenwood in Missouri, could go on the second day of the draft.

—Short, powerful running back Terrance West ran for 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns last season at Towson and appears to have a similar physique to Maurice Jones-Drew.

—Offensive lineman Billy Turner played on three straight FCS championship teams at North Dakota State.

—Receiver Jeff Janis of Saginaw Valley State impressed scouts at the combine with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash after measuring in at 6-foot-3, 219 pounds.

—Linebacker Johnny Millard of Cal Poly is attempting to follow in the footsteps of his father, Keith, a longtime NFL player.

Moore, a 6-5, 269-pound pass rusher who had 21 sacks over the past two seasons, and Webster, a 6-6, 252-pound defensive end who had 26 sacks in that span, are in the mix, too. Both were finalists for the Cliff Harris Award presented to the nation’s best small-school defender.

None of these guys is surprised.

“I do feel like there is a lot of talent in Division II that does get overlooked because it’s Division II, unless you stand out,” Webster said. “You have to really stand out. If you don’t, you get overlooked.”

It’s not that teams can’t find the talent. It’s just that sometimes it takes a lot more work to discover it beyond the traditional BCS schools.

Getting to some campuses can be complicated, and analyzing game tape isn’t always easy. While BCS schools have plenty of tape available for scouts, often from multiple angles and against other potential draft prospects, that’s not always the case in the FCS, Division II and III, the NAIA, or even all of the FBS leagues.

“That’s where the real grinders on your staff find players. The lazy guys, they are not sitting there at a D-III school or another school that has poor facilities and you are sitting there with a VHS tape and an actual remote control where you hit rewind,” Grigson said. “I’ve been there before and then it rewinds all the way to the beginning of the tape and you’ve got to find where you were at before. It becomes a challenge, but the guys that work for me and work for the Indianapolis Colts have that type of drive to where they will sit there painstakingly through four, five tapes.”

Eventually, they’re able to determine whether a Moore or a Webster can cut it in the NFL.

And more frequently, NFL decision-makers are giving guys like Moore and Webster the benefit of the doubt.

“Throughout the course of the season last year I have had over from 35-40 scouts from different teams come through,” said Moore, who never played in front of a crowd bigger than 7,000. “I just stuck to the mindset that if you are good they will find you, and that is how I am fortunate enough to be here.”

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