NFL Draft: Players from Smaller Schools Not Giving Up Shot at Pro Ranks
Most Division III football players see their playing careers end at the final whistle of their senior seasons. Don’t tell that to Matt Spitz, Jonathan Spring or James Starks, though.
The trio of seniors all have been in contact with various professional football teams and are working hard for that one shot to prove that they can compete at the highest level.
“There’s a stigma against Division III athletes that we’re not as good and we don’t play the top competition,” said Starks, who worked out for NFL scouts at Ohio State’s pro day and also at Mount Union’s pro day. “People think that we can’t play just because we’re from a smaller school, and that puts a chip on my shoulder to prove that I belong with that Division I talent.”
“There are players at Capital, at Mount Union, that deserved shots to play D-I,” Spring (pictured above, celebrating a victory over Baldwin-Wallace) added. “They just didn’t get the exposure in high school, for whatever reason. There are tremendous athletes here at Capital, and the NFL needs to go deeper into Division II, Division III to look for players because these guys can play in the league.”
The Crusaders football program has been pumping out pro-caliber talent the past few seasons. Former Capital receiver Lewis Howes (’06) has played arena football, quarterback Rocky Pentello (’07) was invited to Browns rookie training camp last summer, and twin safeties Thom and Kyle Hausler (’07) spent last summer playing in a German pro league.
But what does it take to cut it in the pros? Here’s how these former Crusaders are trying to earn a spot on a professional roster.
Believe it or not, professional football aspirations never arose early in Starks’ career. He blew out his knee during the 2005 season, but even before then he had “no inclination or hope of ever playing in the NFL,” he said with a laugh.
Starks, a defensive back, was a consensus First Team All-American selection by both D3Football.com and the American Football Coaches Association. An All-OAC First Team performer the past two seasons, Starks earned the Lee Tressel Award as the best defensive back in the conference this season.
At 5-11, 190 pounds, Starks gained a reputation as being one of the biggest hitters in Division III. He also excelled on special teams, blocking a pair of kicks and forcing teams to always account for his presence on the field.
Before his senior season, a scout from the Rams organization came to watch Starks work out. But when Capital’s season ended in the Division III playoffs, Starks had no idea about the whirlwind direction his life was about to take.
It started with a meeting with a scout. Then another. Pretty soon, Starks was drawing interest from teams in both the Canadian Football League and the NFL.
“I wasn’t totally sure about trying to play professionally at first, but then I figured that as long as my body could let me play, I’d continue,” he said.
In January, he started training at Max Sports in Dublin, working on the same drills that the athletes go through at the NFL Scouting Combine. Though he wasn’t among the select 300-plus players invited to work out at the combine, Starks practiced for NFL scouts at the Buckeyes’ pro day, and did well enough to draw interest from the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants.
Another workout followed at Mount Union – likely the only Division III school to hold its own pro day – and Starks performed even better there, which drew not only the interest of more NFL teams but also from several agents.
“It grew to be pretty hectic,” Starks said. “I had about five or six agents calling me, and I had to weed out the fake ones, the sleazy ones.”
Starks officially signed with an agent two weeks ago and has continued to be in talks with the Browns and Giants. He’s also been in contact with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Minnesota Vikings and the Jacksonville Jaguars, interviewing with all those teams.
While the odds of him actually being drafted remain virtually nonexistent – “What’s smaller than ‘slim to none’?” he asked – Starks will be sitting by his phone after the draft ends next Sunday afternoon, waiting to hear from an NFL team.
He is as confident as ever that he deserves, and will earn, that opportunity to play on Sundays. After all, he played with and against some of the top talent in the Aztec Bowl, an All-Star game for Division III players, and has also had success over the years slowing down Mount Union’s Pierre Garcon, the only Division III player invited to this year’s combine.
“When you look at it, from high school to college to the pros, the number of players just drops off dramatically,” Starks said. “I know I have the ability, the talent to continue playing at the next level.”
Spring was in the middle of his first season on Capital’s baseball team when the phone call arrived several weeks ago. Just don’t ask him where it came from.
“The Browns were having a tryout for Cleveland-area kids, and I got a phone call inviting me to it,” said Spring, who grew up in Maple Heights, a suburb south of Cleveland. “I have no idea who got a hold of me to begin with or how they heard about me, but I’ll take it.”
Spring, a 6-3, 245 pound All-American selection, played both defensive tackle and defensive end for the Crusaders. He had 18 tackles for loss and tallied 9.5 sacks, playing a big role in helping the defense set a school-record with 50 sacks.
Like Starks, he figured his football playing days were over on the season-ending loss to eventual national champ Wisconsin-Whitewater. He turned to baseball – a sport he excelled at in high school – so that he could keep playing something, anything, at a competitive level.
He had heard from some Arena teams, and also from a team in Italy, but the timing just wasn’t right. “The Italian team, Bologna Gladiators, wanted me to play right now, in April, but I just couldn’t do that with school,” he said.
So to hear from the Browns was quite a shock for Spring, as was the news that he had to make a switch from defensive line to outside linebacker to fit the team’s 3-4 defensive scheme.
“The most experience I had doing something like that was as a standup defensive end in high school,” Spring said. “And that was a long, long time ago.”
The tryout was Saturday, and contained all of the drills that the combine does. The Browns scouts asked Spring to run a 4.6 or a 4.7 40-yard dash time, and he did it in 4.72, fast enough to impress them.
Following some more running work, Spring and the other linebackers trying out – all Division I players, including Illinois’ Antonio Steele, the tenth-leading tackler in the Big Ten this year – worked on hands drills and dropping back into coverage. He held his own in those areas despite never having played a down of linebacker, and then excelled in the pass rushing drills, all of which “came natural to me,” he said, having so much experience on the defensive line.
But trouble arose for Spring doing the shuttle drill, when he felt his a pop in his groin. Unable to finish the final two drills, Spring was dejected and thought he had ruined his chance until a surprise visitor talked to him at lunch.
“Romeo Crennel came over to me and told me not to worry, that they had seen everything they needed to out of me,” Spring said. “So I left there feeling pretty good.”
And though he won’t be hearing his name called on draft day, Spring has the chance to be invited to the team’s rookie camp. He already his plans for the next few weeks set.
“I know I need to be in great shape so I’m resting my injury and continuing to work out,” he said. “Then it’s time to sit by the phone and hope for that call.”
A soccer player by nature, Spitz’s first crack at kicking a football came as a freshman in high school.
“The varsity kicker also played soccer, so through word of mouth the football coach contacted me and invited me to try out,” Spitz said.
Thus began the path that led the Xenia native to finishing his collegiate career as one of the most prolific kickers in Division III history. He made 15 field goals this season and ranks among the top-five in Division III history in both field goals made and field goal percentage.
He has a career-long make of 47 yards and has the leg to make from over 50 yards out. But success on the field didn’t come easy or early for Spitz.
“My career didn’t really take off until my sophomore year here when I worked a lot with [current offensive coordinator] Manny Matsakis,” Spitz said. “He and [private kicking coach] Paul Assad really opened my eyes on how to use my body and my muscles into kicking.”
His first game action was the third week of the 2005 season. By week eight, Spitz had established himself as one of the most clutch kickers in college football, nailing a 40-yard game-winner against Ohio Northern that played a pivotal role in propelling the football team to its successful postseason runs over the past three seasons.
Following that season, Spitz began to think that he might have a chance to continue playing after college.
“I was extremely encouraged,” he said. “I realized I had a shot and I wanted to pursue it.”
After his senior season, Spitz and Starks talked a lot about pursuing their dreams, and Spitz trained at the same facility with Starks. He spent his entire spring break putting together a highlight film and sending it out to every NFL, CFL, AFL and AFL2 team he could – over 100 professional franchises.
He’s earned spots in several tryouts, most recently with the AFL’s Columbus Destroyers, and has been in touch with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the CFL. And like Starks and Spring, Spitz has come away from his workouts more encouraged and positive than ever.
“[Destroyers coach Doug] Kay told me my leg was strong enough to play,” Spitz said. “Now it’s just a matter of having everything fall together and have the ‘perfect tryout’. But after kicking with professional players, I know that I can compete with them.”
The three Capital players also share the same confidence, as well as a bit of a swagger, as they continue to make their way through the process of trying to play professionally.
“I watched what Rocky went through last year, and he has one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen – NFL, CFL, AFL, anywhere,” Spitz said. “So why can’t Division III players play professionally? I’ve realized that my leg is as strong as anyone’s, and now I’m just trying to let my performance speak for itself. I want to prove that I can play at the next level. I know I can do it.”
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