Every NFL draft scout in the nation will be watching on Jan. 7 when Notre Dame plays Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, but two days earlier, the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision will hold its own national title game to determine its champion.
While the North Dakota State Bison and Sam Houston State Bearkats do not have any prospects that can compare to Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te’o or Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, there are a few potential future NFL players worth watching in that contest as well.
Darnell Taylor, SS, Sam Houston State
The most likely 2013 NFL draftee playing in the FCS National Championship is Sam Houston State senior strong safety Darnell Taylor. Taylor is a tackling machine who can make plays from the secondary up to the line of scrimmage, and as a result he is an FCS All-American this season and is a two-time Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Even with all of his productivity and accolades, Taylor is still on the outside looking in when it comes to being drafted, as he is undersized for a safety at just 6'0" and 195 pounds, and he is not great in coverage. His ability to make tackles anywhere on the field is a huge positive, however, and he is a good athlete who has the talent to stick on an NFL roster if he can make an impact on special teams.
Robert Shaw, CB/S, Sam Houston State
Another playmaker in the Sam Houston State secondary who should catch the eyes of NFL scouts is defensive back Robert Shaw. Shaw, who has played both cornerback and safety for the Bearkats this season, is an athletic playmaker who does a good job tracking the ball in coverage, and is a solid tackler as well.
Shaw is a sound cover corner with good speed and ball skills, and he most recently showed his big-play ability with a 37-yard interception return touchdown in the Bearkats’ win over Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals. While he lacks the size to play safety at the next level, he is a solid tackler as well.
Like Taylor, Shaw is a long shot to be drafted, but if he finishes his collegiate career strong in the national championship game and tests well at Sam Houston State’s pro day, NFL scouts will take notice. If he can make plays on special teams, he may be able to make a roster at the next level.
Marcus Williams, CB, North Dakota State (Jr.)
Although the Bison were the No. 1 seed in the FCS playoffs and are playing for their second consecutive national championship, they do not have any likely selections in the 2013 NFL draft. Junior cornerback Marcus Williams, however, has bright prospects for the 2014 NFL draft.
Williams is a shutdown cornerback who locks down opposing receivers, and he is a very good athlete with great speed. As a result, he has big-play potential: Williams has recorded 15 interceptions through three seasons, and had 98-yard returns on both an interception and a kickoff this past season.
Williams was recognized as an FCS All-American for the second consecutive season this year, and is certainly building himself a great résumé looking ahead to the 2014 NFL draft. He must improve as an open-field tackler to succeed at the next level, but his consistent lockdown coverage, athleticism and ball skills will keep him firmly on the NFL radar next season.
Tim Flanders, RB, Sam Houston State (Jr.)
Junior running back Tim Flanders will easily be the most explosive player on either offense in the FCS title game. Flanders has been tremendously productive at Sam Houston State—he is a two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year award winner, and has rushed for more than 4,000 yards in three seasons—and it’s not hard to see why when watching him play.
Flanders is small in stature at only 5’9”, but he is a big-play runner. He accelerates well and has good speed, and supplements that speed with effective cuts that make him a dangerous open-field runner. At 210 pounds, Flanders also does a good job of running through contact and has very good leg drive.
While it’s important to realize that the level of athletes on the FCS defenses that Flanders is gashing is not nearly that of the NFL level, Flanders has the overall game to make it as an NFL back. With a good combination of moves, strength, quickness and toughness, Flanders should be an intriguing Day 3 running back prospect in the 2014 NFL draft.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist and the New England Patriots game-day correspondent for Bleacher Report. Follow @Dan_Hope