22 players from non-FBS schools were selected in the 2012 NFL draft, which just goes to show, if you’ve got the type of talent to catch the attention of scouts, you don’t necessarily have to play at college football’s top level to make it to the pros.
Even though FBS players are the ones that normally receive all of the accolades and attention, we’ve seen plenty of so-called “small-school sleepers” become impact players in the NFL in recent years.
Joe Flacco, Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Miles Austin, Jahri Evans and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are just some of the many notable players who honed their skills away from the spotlight of the FBS before making the transition to the NFL.
This season, small school rookies such as Trumaine Johnson, Janoris Jenkins, Amini Silatolu, Brian Quick, Jeron McMillan and Josh Norman will all be counted on to be valuable contributors to their respective teams.
As we now begin to break down the top 2013 draft prospects to watch out for during the upcoming season, it’s only right that we show some of the pro-ready players at the lower levels some love as well.
So with that in mind, here’s a look at the Top 10 non-FBS prospects to watch out for during the 2012 season.
1. WR Aaron Mellette, Elon (Senior)
If you thought Appalachian State WR Brian Quick was a great small-school prospect this year, then just wait until you get a look at Elon’s Aaron Mellette, the top overall offensive playmaker on the FCS level.
This past season, Mellette hauled in a whopping 113 passes for 1,639 yards and caught nine touchdowns in just 11 games of action.
The 6’4’’, 212-pound senior pass-catcher possesses the type of size that will certainly raise the eyebrows of NFL scouts, and even though his frame may be larger than most average receivers, he has no trouble exploding off the line of scrimmage and creating separation down the field.
While he may not be a true speedster, Mellette is the type of big, physical, sure-handed receiver who excels on underneath routes, and he also possesses the type of leaping ability to out-jump smaller defensive backs on fade routes and deep bombs.
The two-time first-team All-Southern Conference selection has the type of big frame that NFL teams are looking for in a dangerous red zone receiver.
If Mellette can build on his outstanding junior campaign and experience similar type of success as a senior, he could work his way into the Day 2 conversation for the 2013 NFL draft, just as Brian Quick did this year.
Check out Mellette’s remarkable 14-catch performance when he went toe-to-toe with Quick in Elon’s matchup with Appalachian State in last year’s season finale.
2. RB Marcus Coker, Stony Brook (Junior)
After a breakout sophomore campaign in 2011, Marcus Coker seemed like he was on his way to becoming one of college football’s biggest star running backs. However, just like his predecessor Adam Robinson, Coker’s time at Iowa came to an abrupt end after some off-the-field trouble forced him to transfer to Stony Brook back in January.
Last year, the 6’0’’, 230-pound junior finished second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball with 1,384 yards on the ground, and he also caught 21 passes and scored 15 touchdowns.
Coker is a big, strong and physical power runner, who was perfectly built to excel in Iowa’s offense, which makes it a shame that we won’t get another chance to see him in a Hawkeyes uniform.
Although he has two years of eligibility remaining, there’s a good chance that Coker will only be spending one season at Stony Brook before entering his name into the 2013 NFL draft, which makes this is a truly pivotal campaign for him.
If he can put the troubles he had at Iowa behind him and come out and dominate the weaker competition he’ll face in the Big South conference this year, Coker could end up working his way into the third or fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft.
3. DT Brent Russell, Georgia Southern (Senior)
Brent Russell may not be an elite-caliber athlete, but he’s the type of big, powerful, gritty and tough tackle that’s capable of causing plenty of havoc in the interior.
Last year, Russell notched 6.5 sacks and 67 total tackles, including a very impressive 16.5 tackles for loss.
The 6’2’’, 291-pound senior proved he can clog up running lanes and also penetrate into the backfield and make key stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Russell has the type of attitude and motor that NFL teams are looking for in a run-stuffing defensive tackle, and what he lacks in overall quickness, he makes up for with his relentless and tenacious style of play.
The potential All-American tackle has shown the ability to shed blocks, find the football and create chaos at the line of scrimmage.
If Russell plays up to his potential as a senior in 2012, he has the chance to really develop into a truly coveted commodity for the 2013 NFL draft.
4. QB Brad Sorensen, Southern Utah (Senior)
There have been four small-school quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft in the last four years—B.J. Coleman (2012), John Skelton (2010), Rhett Bomar and Keith Null (2009). There’s a good chance that the 2013 draft could have a non-FBS quarterback selected, just as long as Southern Utah’s Brad Sorensen performs as well as many are expecting in his senior season.
Sorensen is without a doubt this year’s premier small-school signal-caller.
This past season, the 6’5’’, 235-pound California native was a finalist for the prestigious Payton Award after throwing for over 3,100 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The prototypical pro-style pocket-passer has the type of size, arm strength, accuracy and intangibles that should really intrigue pro scouts.
Like most college quarterbacks, Sorensen’s mechanics, pocket awareness and overall defensive recognition skills still need some considerable work. Nevertheless, if he gets the proper coaching and ends up in the right system, Sorensen has the chance to develop into a reliable and dependable backup quarterback in the NFL.
5. OT Mark Jackson, Glenville State (Senior)
Mark Jackson certainly isn’t the most refined or polished offensive tackle that NFL scouts are going to lay their eyes on this season. However, when the scouts do turn on the game film of Glenville State and get a look at big No. 75, they’re going to see a monstrous 6’6’’, 330-pound pancaking machine who shows tremendous tenacity and power as a run-blocker.
It’s certainly been a long journey for Jackson to get to the point of being an NFL prospect.
After originally signing with Illinois back in 2006, Jackson attended Harmony Prep for a year. It was there where he gained a reputation as one of the top prep lineman prospects in the country, and he was offered scholarships from the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
After spending some time at his original school of choice, Illinois, Jackson eventually transferred to Glenville State, where he’s been dominating weaker competition for the past few years.
Jackson is still a raw lump of clay waiting to be molded, and his technique is still nowhere near NFL ready. Still, his physicality, bull-like strength and surprising quickness and agility for his massive size are certainly intriguing, and if given the right amount of time and patience, the intimidating lineman prospect could become a starting caliber right tackle or even kick inside to guard at the NFL level.
Check out some of Jackson’s highlights from his impressive 2010 campaign.
6. CB Marcus Williams, North Dakota State (Junior)
Physically, Marcus Williams already has the look of an NFL cornerback. All he has to do now is continue to prove he’s got the skills needed to compete at the next level.
Last year, Williams enjoyed an outstanding breakout campaign for the national champion Bison, as he picked off seven passes, including two that he ran back for touchdowns.
The 5’11’’, 195-pound junior showed flashes of great potential during the 2011 season. However, he still has to work on being more consistent and being in the right spot in coverage on every play if he ever wants to be considered a top cornerback prospect.
Williams has all of the physical ability and natural talent to become one of the most talked about star defenders in the FCS ranks this season. He just has to work on becoming a more reliable presence in the defensive backfield.
Although we may have to wait until 2014 to start talking about where Williams fits into the overall draft equation, it’s clear that the talented young corner has the size, ball skills and instincts to one day develop into a dynamic NFL prospect.
7. DE Ben Obaseki, Indiana State (Senior)
Indiana State hasn’t had a player picked in the NFL draft since 1996, when defensive end Dan Bradenburg was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round.
That could change in 2013, though, as the Sycamores' defense currently features a defensive end, Ben Obaseki, who will definitely pique the interest of NFL scouts.
Last season, Obaseki earned AP first-team All-American honors after compiling 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
The 6’3’’, 260-pound senior may be a bit undersized in NFL standards, but he possesses the type of strength, quickness and overall determination to develop into a dangerous pass-rusher in the pros.
Obaseki has a versatile skill-set, and he could end up playing either defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, and it will ultimately be interesting to see how NFL teams value him once the 2013 draft finally rolls around.
8. CB B.W. Webb, William & Mary (Senior)
B.W. Webb is an experienced three-year starter who has managed to get better each and every season he’s been at William & Mary.
The former CAA Rookie of the Year had the best campaign of his career in 2011, as he racked up 40 tackles and two interceptions, even though teams tended to shy away from testing him last year.
Webb's performance helped him earn first-team all-conference honors for the second season in a row and it also helped solidify his status as a legitimate NFL prospect.
The 5’11’’, 180-pound senior is an athletic and instinctive corner who has the type of confidence, coverage skills and overall toughness to go toe-to-toe with any receiver that’s put in front of him.
Webb is still raw, and his technique and backpedal definitely need some tweaking, but he’s got the potential to emerge as a trustworthy nickel cornerback for an NFL defense in the years to come.
9. RB Washaun Ealy, Jacksonville State (Senior)
Washaun Ealy arrived at Georgia back in 2009 as a highly touted 4-star high school recruit out of Emanuel County Institute in Twin City, Georgia.
It wasn’t long after he got to Athens before Bulldogs fans started to build him up to be the school’s next star running back.
Ealey rushed for over 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first two years in the SEC, but after multiple suspensions, he eventually ended up transferring to Jacksonville State in 2011.
In his first season as a Gamecock, the 5’11’’, 215-pound senior ran for over 1,000 yards and scored nine touchdowns in just 10 games of action.
There’s no doubt Ealy has the size, speed, vision and instincts to compete at the NFL level. Obviously, though, teams are going to have major questions about his maturity.
Still, if Ealy has one more productive season and keeps himself on the right path, he’ll get his shot to prove his worth at next year’s NFL combine. If his workout numbers are strong enough, he’s definitely got the potential to be a Day 3 sleeper for the 2013 draft.
10. DE/RLB Willie Jefferson, Stephen F. Austin (Senior)
If it wasn't for marijuana, right now Willie Jefferson would likely be teaming up with Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson to give Baylor one of the most dangerous wide receiver foursomes in all of college football for the 2012 season. However, due to his multiple run-ins with the law involving the drug, Jefferson was booted from the Bears' program back in 2010.
After being dismissed from Baylor, Jefferson eventually ended up at another Texas school, Stephen F. Austin, where he made the switch from receiver to defensive end.
He proved to be a natural fit at the position last season, as he racked up 15 sacks, the fourth-highest total at the FCS level in 2011.
The 6’6’’, 234-pound senior may not be big or strong enough to man the defensive end spot in a 4-3 system in the NFL.
Still, given his type of athleticism, explosiveness and speed off the edge, Jefferson will be a very intriguing potential 3-4 rush linebacker prospect who a team could definitely take a flyer on in the later rounds of next year’s draft if they believe that his character has changed since his time at Baylor.
Other Small-School Prospects To Watch
QB Kurt Hess, Youngstown State (Jr.)
QB Kyle Padron, Eastern Washington (Jr.)
RB Jonathan Woodson, Texas A&M Kingsville (Sr.)
WR Eddie Poole, Bethune-Cookman (Sr.)
WR Nicholas Edwards, Eastern Washington (Sr.)
WR Quentin Sims, UT-Martin (Sr.)
WR Rodrick Rumble, Idaho State (Sr.)
WR Ryan Spadola, Lehigh (Sr.)
WR Tyrone Goard, Eastern Kentucky (Sr.)
TE Colin Anderson, Furman (Sr.)
TE David Duran, Coastal Carolina (Sr.)
OT Rogers Gaines, Tennessee State (Sr.)
OG Earl Watford, James Madison (Sr.)
OG Lamar Mady, Youngstown State (Sr.)
DT Brandon Williams, Missouri Southern (Sr.)
DE Armonty Bryant, East Central (Sr.)
DE David Bass, Missouri Western (Sr.)
DE Marquis Jackson, Texas Southern (Sr.)
LB Jeremy Kimbrough, Appalachian State (Sr.)
LB Joseph Lebeau, Jacksonville State (Sr.)
LB Keith Pough, Howard (Sr.)
LB Matt Evans, New Hampshire (Sr.)
CB Bookie Sneed, Sam Houston State (Jr.)
CB Charles James, Charleston Southern (Sr.)
CB Demetrius McCray, Appalachian State (Sr.)
CB Jeremy Moore, Georgetown (Sr.)
S Kejuan Riley, Alabama State (Sr.)
S Malcolm Bronson, McNeese State (Sr.)
S Rontez Miles, California (Pennsylvania) (Sr.)
K Zach Brown, Portland State, (Sr.)