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2012 NFL Draft: Ronnie Hillman and the 15 Best Small-School Prospects

Tyler WardAnalyst IJanuary 19, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Ronnie Hillman and the 15 Best Small-School Prospects

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    Every year, there are a multitude of prospects that go on to have stellar careers at the professional level. And some of them come from small schools that the normal football fan has never heard of.

    When you look at past drafts, you see players such as DeMarcus Ware (Troy), Jared Allen (Idaho State), Pierre Garcon (Mount Union), Marques Colston (Hofstra), Donald Driver (Alcorn State), James Harrison (Kent State), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, Ohio) and others that go on to have solid NFL careers that were never thought to become great players.

    There will likely be at least one player from a small school in April's draft that will likely go on to have a prolonged career in the NFL.

    In this slideshow, I will feature 15 small-school players that could flourish at the professional level if they are given the opportunity.

    * NOTE: I do realize that most people would have Janoris Jenkins as the No. 1 small-school player, but I do not have him on my list because he played collegiately at Florida at one point.

DE/OLB Vinny Curry, Marshall

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Second Round, 54th Overall (Detroit)

    Curry was arguably one of the best defensive players in the NCAA last season, as he racked up 74 tackles and 11 sacks, eventually being named C-USA's Defensive Player of the Year.

    He is listed as a hybrid defensive player that can play both defensive lineman and outside linebacker.

    In the NFL, he would likely be primarily used as a rushing or blitzing linebacker, and he could flourish in that role.

    I currently have him going 54th overall to the Detroit Lions, as they will likely need a linebacker this offseason. At that point in the draft, Curry is the best linebacker on the board and the Lions would have no trouble taking him with their second-round selection.

    Curry was a three-year starter for the Thundering Herd and was perhaps their best player in that span. Standing at 6'4" and weighing 263 pounds, Curry is definitely a force that could become a great player in the NFL.

OLB Bobby Wagner, Utah State

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Second Round, 60th Overall (Green Bay)

    Even though he comes from a small college such as Utah State, Wagner has the potential to become a very good linebacker in the NFL.

    He is perhaps the best tackler in the entire draft, as he accumulated at least 114 tackles over the last three seasons, including over 130 the last two seasons. He can also excel in pass coverage, as he registered four interceptions in his four-year tenure at Utah State.

    Wagner is also a great leader on the defensive side of the ball and could easily become a team's leader at some point throughout his career.

    He is also very effective in blitz packages, which shows as he had 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks during his senior season. Wagner could also be considered to be one of the most instinctive and intriguing prospects in the draft.

    I currently have him going in the bottom of the second round to the Green Bay Packers. The defending champions are in dire need of a rushing linebacker and Wagner could fill that void, as he can play on the outside or on the inside as well.

    You're going to hear Wagner's name many times over the next few years.

OLB Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Third Round, 65th Overall (Indianapolis)

    In my opinion, Massaquoi is one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft, as he reminds me a lot of current Cowboys star DeMarcus Ware. Massaquoi was one of the best outside linebackers last season and will likely repeat that feat in the NFL.

    Massaquoi announced that he would forgo his senior season and enter the 2012 NFL Draft, as he is projected to be one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the draft.

    He is a very quick and explosive player who could excel if given the opportunity.

    Massaquoi is listed as a defensive end and an outside linebacker, but he will likely never see any playing time as a defensive end.

    I currently have him going 65th overall to the Indianapolis Colts, even though he is definitely a work in progress. He tends to give up on plays sometimes, which hurts his draft stock. But he has enough talent to overpower that flaw and that helps him.

    I definitely see Massaquoi making a few Pro Bowls in his career.

CB Trumaine Johnson, Montana

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Third Round, 83rd Overall (Tennessee)

    Johnson is the best small-school cornerback in this year's draft and could potentially become a solid No. 1 or No. 2 cornerback at the professional level.

    He has a lot of positives in his game, as he has good size and speed (6'2" and 205 pounds), which gives him a good advantage when it comes to defending wide receivers. He is perhaps at his best in press coverage, mainly because of his speed.

    Over his four-year career at Montana, Johnson registered 15 interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He is definitely a ball hawk, and that will help him flourish at the next level.

    With his size and athleticism, Johnson could also play free safety if needed. He could eventually be switched to free safety because of his ability to cover tight ends or slot receivers in man-to-man coverage. He is built to play like a safety so the switch seems almost inevitable.

    Johnson is also fast enough to where he can play as a kick returner as well. The Titans currently have Marc Mariani as their kick returner, but Johnson could take over if he does well if this scenario plays out.

    For this scenario to come to fruition, the Titans would likely have to decide not to re-sign Cortland Finnegan, who has been one of the best and most consistent cornerbacks over the last couple of seasons. I believe that Johnson could become just as good as Finnegan as well.

OG Amini Silatolu, Midwestern State

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Third Round, 95th Overall (San Francisco)

    Apparently, Silatolu is so unknown that Google doesn't even have a picture of him. That's honestly the first time I've ever seen that.

    Silatolu is also the only offensive lineman I have on this list, which is also a surprise as well.

    He has the potential of becoming a very good offensive guard in the NFL. Silatolu is one of the most dominant run-blocking offensive linemen in this April's draft, which is something that is very valuable in a prospect.

    I currently have Silatolu going in the bottom of the third round to the 49ers. Chilo Rachal hasn't really been the answer at right guard and the 49ers really need someone to take over for him.

    The team by the Bay is primarily known for its running game, and the right guard position is something they need to fix if the Niners want to get back on track.

    That's where Silatolu comes in, and I believe he could do a great job for an offensive line.

WR T.Y. Hilton, Florida International

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fourth Round, 102nd Overall (Washington)

    Finally, Hilton is the first offensive skill position player from a small school off the board.

    The receiver is primarily known for his speed, as he can go the distance in just a few seconds. He has extreme quickness and is known for his home-run speed.

    However, he is just 5'10", which makes it a challenge for quarterbacks to give it to him downfield. But he is a very good player and a good asset when it comes to screen passes and slants.

    Personally, he reminds me a lot of current 49ers return man Ted Ginn Jr. They have about the same attributes, and like Ginn, Hilton will likely be used more as a kick or punt returner.

    Because of his speed, he is fast in open space, but teams will likely have to create plays just for him if they want him to become a threat.

    I don't see him becoming a superstar in the NFL, but he could be a solid return man and an occasional downfield threat.

RB Bernard Pierce, Temple

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fourth Round, 110th Overall (San Diego)

    Pierce is one of the better unknown running backs in this year's draft. He's not a quality speedster like some running backs, but he is very good at carrying the ball and mowing down and eluding want-to-be tacklers.

    Pierce still has a good amount of speed and quickness, as he was quite the running back for the Temple Owls.

    For the Mid-American Conference team, Pierce ran for 1,381 yards and 25 touchdowns in just 10 games. Yes, 10 games. He is quite the runner and could become a very good running back.

    I don't see him ever becoming a team's No. 1 back, but he could do exceedingly well with a team that features multiple backs—such as the Chargers, Jets, Giants and Colts.

    In my mock draft, I currently have him going in the mid-fourth round by the San Diego Chargers. Of course, the Chargers already have Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert on their roster, so they would likely have to release Tolbert or permanently move him back to fullback.

    Pierce is a touchdown machine and I believe he will continue that trend in the NFL.

QB Ryan Lindley, San Diego State

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fourth Round, 112th Overall (Arizona)

    Also one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft, Lindley was a four-year starter for the San Diego State Aztecs who threw for 12,690 yards, an astounding 90 touchdowns and 47 interceptions.

    Lindley has a very strong arm, but his accuracy seems to be an issue, as he never surpassed the 58 percent completion-percentage plateau in college.

    He has a ton of upside and also ran a pro-style offense at San Diego State.

    Lindley is also very tough and durable, as he was able to continuously get up from the ground on a week-to-week basis. Not many quarterbacks can say that, either.

    In this scenario, I have Lindley being taken with the 112th overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals aren't necessarily in dire need of a quarterback, but if Kevin Kolb continues to struggle and John Skelton isn't the answer, it could be time for Lindley to come in and clean up.

    He may never be a full-time starter in the NFL, but could thrive as a backup and as an occasional toss-in if the starting quarterback struggles.

RB Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fourth Round, 114th Overall (Philadelphia)

    I believe that Hillman has some of the biggest upside for any running back in this year's draft. It may have been a mistake for the sophomore to prematurely enter the draft, but it could end up becoming a good thing for Hillman.

    He has the perfect mixture of speed and power—he is also very good at getting to the second level of opposing defenses and outrunning linebackers.

    The Eagles will probably be looking to add another running back to the roster, as they will likely not retain Ronnie Brown, who was a bust for the Eagles this season. Dion Lewis showed flashes of potential, but I don't think he can become a team's No. 2 running back.

    That's where Hillman comes in.

    He'd be a great addition to the Eagles, especially when it's time for the elusive and touchdown machine LeSean McCoy.

    Hillman would be exceptionally good in goal-line situations and short-yardage gains.

    He may not be the next Marshall Faulk, who also graduated from San Diego State, but he could go on to have a solid NFL career.

WR Brian Quick, Appalachian State

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fourth Round, 115th Overall (Tennessee)

    Quick, also one of the most intriguing prospects in this April's draft, is one of the most talented receivers in 2012.

    Standing at 6'5", he is also one of the tallest receivers in the draft. With his big build, Quick is almost certainly able to tower over most cornerbacks and safeties—he also has exceptional hands and rarely drops passes. And even though he is 6'5", Quick also has sensational leaping abilities, which means cornerbacks are rarely able to get in his way.

    He has also shown great potential and big-play ability during his career at Appalachian State.

    He doesn't have great speed, but he is very effective after the catch. Quick always seems to make opposing players miss and looks to be a downfield threat 75 percent of the time.

    Although he caught just 23 passes as a freshman in 2008, he still managed to turn that into 496 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Over the last three seasons, he has managed to accumulate 982, 844 and 1,096 yards, respectively. He has also registered 24 receiving touchdowns in that span.

    Despite playing at a much lower level in college, Quick still has tremendous upside and potential. He would definitely help the Titans with their receiving corps.

WR Jordan White, Western Michigan

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fifth Round, 135th Overall (Carolina)

    White, who was arguably the best receiver in all of college football last season, showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive side of the ball last season.

    However, during his first three years at Western Michigan, he missed two of them because of injury. But in his freshman season in 2007, White showed potential as he caught 19 passes for 217 yards and one touchdown.

    During the next season, White managed to register 53 receptions for 684 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, they're mediocre stats, but White put up exceptional numbers over the next two seasons as he caught 94 and 140 passes, respectively. He managed to turn those numbers into 1,378 yards in 2010 and an NCAA-leading 1,911 yards in 2011.

    White also tallied 10 touchdowns in 2010 and 17 in 2011.

    Even though he put up gaudy numbers in college, he could become one of those players that did the same thing in college, only to fluster in the NFL—i.e. Troy Edwards, Taylor Stubblefield, Rashaun Woods and Trevor Insley.

    However, I don't think that's the case. I think White could become a solid No. 2 receiver or a slot receiver.

    Carolina is in dire need of a No. 2 receiver, as there isn't a good option behind Steve Smith. The only other receivers on the roster are David Gettis, Armanti Edwards, Legedu Naanee, Brandon LaFell and Kealoha Pilares, so it shouldn't be a problem for White to rise up the depth chart.

RB Robert Turbin, Utah State

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fifth Round, 139th Overall (Seattle)

    Over the last two seasons, Turbin has been one of the better and most consistent running backs in the nation. Even though he plays for a lower-tier team such as Utah State, he was still a top-10 running back in college football last season.

    After playing sparingly during his first two seasons, Turbin dominated during his junior and senior seasons.

    Two seasons ago, Turbin totaled 207 carries for 1,296 yards (6.3 carry average) and 13 touchdowns. He also managed to break off a school-record 96-yard touchdown run in the Aggies' 35-17 loss against the Utah Utes.

    He did suffer a knee injury prior to the 2010 season, but returned as a senior in 2011 to have the best season of his collegiate career.

    Turbin carried the ball 249 times for 1,517 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, successfully putting himself in the top-10 running back category. He also caught 17 passes for 171 yards and four touchdowns.

    Turbin also managed to break off two 80-yard touchdown runs, one against Idaho and the other versus Brigham Young.

    In this scenario, I really like Turbin to the Seahawks with the 139th pick. If Leon Washington and Justin Forsett falter, Turbin could come in and be the primary backup to Marshawn Lynch—if the Seahawks re-sign him. Turbin could become a solid running back if given the opportunity.

DE/OLB Mario Kurn, San Diego

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fifth Round, 151st Overall (Pittsburgh)

    Kurn is also one of the most intriguing prospects in this year's draft. If he were drafted by an NFL team, he'd likely see time as a 3-4 outside linebacker instead of a defensive end, the position that sites list him as.

    His best attribute may be how he gets to the quarterback—he's a very good blitzer who can get to the quarterback at a moment's notice.

    I can see a team like the Steelers taking a shot on Kurn, as they arguably have one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. The Steelers' front office has also had a history of turning players from small schools into great players.

    Kurn would definitely fit their criteria.

TE Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fifth Round, 155th Overall (Green Bay)

    Green is one of the better tight ends in this year's draft and he comes from a small school that hasn't had many prospects make it to the pros.

    But Green could be one of the better ones to get to the professional level.

    He has been one of the better tight ends in the NCAA over the last couple of seasons, as he has registered 15 touchdowns over the last two collegiate years.

    Unlike some tight ends, Green is a solid big-play threat down the field and is usually able to make opposing defenders miss tackles.

    Standing at 6'6", he's one of the bigger talents in April's draft. Green has made a habit of making fantastic catches and catching the ball at its highest point.

    Green is definitely a quality receiving tight end that could flourish at the next level.

WR Eric Page, Toledo

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    My Mock Draft Projection: Fifth Round, 158th Overall (Cincinnati)

    Page is the last player on this list, but he could also become one of the best players on this list.

    Like Jordan White, Page is a reception machine, as he registered 125 receptions for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He also managed to have one of the best receiving games in NCAA history against Northern Illinois on Nov. 1, catching nine passes for 149 yards and five touchdowns in the Rockets' 63-60 loss.

    He is a quality possession receiver and is also a dynamic playmaker as well.

    For this scenario, I have Page going 158th overall to the Bengals, which could be a great situation for him. Cincinnati currently has A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley  and others on the depth chart, and it is unlikely that he will be able to surpass any of those three players.

    But working as a No. 4 receiver could be what he does best. He would most likely be used in short-yardage situations and could also be used occasionally on explosive, downfield plays.

    Page will never be a Pro Bowl talent, but there could be a 10-year NFL career ready for him if he's thrown into the right situation.

Honorable Mentions

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    These are the players that barely missed the cut, but could still go on to have solid NFL careers:

    * OT Matt McCants, Alabama-Birmingham (149th overall, Atlanta)

    * CB Ryan Steed, Furman (166th overall, New Orleans)

    * OT Tom Compton, South Dakota (178th overall, Oakland)

    * OLB Adrian Robinson, Temple (185th overall, Houston)

    * CB Asa Jackson, California-Poly (188th overall, N.Y. Giants)

    * WR Taveon Rogers, New Mexico State (195th overall, Cleveland)

    * SS Duke Ihenacho, San Jose State (199th overall, Miami)

    * RB Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky (200th overall, Carolina)

    * QB Aaron Corp, Richmond (202nd overall, Kansas City)

    * RB Jewel Hampton, Southern Illinois (205th overall, Arizona)

    * CB Dwight Bentley, Louisiana-Lafayette (208th overall, N.Y. Jets)

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