Small-School NFL Draft Prospects Worth Watching at the Combine

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2016

Small-School NFL Draft Prospects Worth Watching at the Combine

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    For NFL draft hopefuls, an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine can be a major step toward realizing their dream of playing football at its highest level. Though most of these prospects have spent multiple seasons perfecting their craft in the collegiate ranks, the combine provides them with a chance to perform in front of NFL executives in a controlled environment.

    For prospects who are coming out of smaller college programs, an invitation to the combine can be even more integral to achieving their goal. For these players, the combine might be one of the only chances they have to shine under the spotlight.

    Major-program products such as Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Clemson safety Jayron Kearse received plenty of exposure during their runs to the College Football Playoff. The same can't be said for guys like Illinois State running back Marshaun Coprich or Southern Utah safety Miles Killebrew.

    A strong performance at the combine, however, can at least help level the playing field. There's nothing like an eye-popping performance in Indianapolis to get scouts digging through a player's game film for further analysis.

    We're going to take a look at some of the top small-school draft prospects who will be worth watching at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. These are the players from lesser-known programs who appear to already have the physical tools and on-field track records to get drafted, and who can see their stock rise significantly with strong combine performances.

DeAndre Houston-Carson, S, William & Mary

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    Teams that are looking to add talent to their secondary would do well to keep an eye on William & Mary free safety DeAndre Houston-Carson. Standing at 6'0" and 197 pounds, he has adequate size for the safety position to go with the ball skills of a cornerback.

    Houston-Carson started games at both cornerback and safety during his collegiate career. He played primarily at the safety position in 2015 and finished with 65 tackles, four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.

    NFL Media draft analyst Chad Renter predicted before the 2015 season that Houston-Carson could potentially move into the draft's top 100 with a strong year. Well, Houston-Carson delivered on his end.

    Though he may need to add weight to his frame to fit the ideal mold of an NFL safety, his ability to play the ball in tight coverage should allow him to make an immediate impact. His versatility allowing him to play both cornerback and safety adds flexibility, and it seems Houston-Carson will be content to fill whichever role is required.

    "I feel comfortable at either, but I’m still growing at safety," he said, per Mike Jones of the Washington Post. "I haven’t perfected it yet, but I probably never will. So I keep striving. But whether a team wants to put me at corner or safety, it doesn’t matter. I just want the opportunity."

    Houston-Carson should be able to increase his chances of becoming an NFL defensive back in 2016 with a strong performance in Indianapolis.

Miles Killebrew, S, Southern Utah

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    Southern Utah safety Miles Killebrew is almost the on-field opposite of DeAndre Houston-Carson in a couple of ways. While Houston-Carson is an undersized, ball-hawk free safety, Killebrew fits the description of a prototypical, punishment-delivering strong safety.

    At 6'1" and 219 pounds, Killebrew possesses ideal size for an NFL safety. He plays the field like one, but he hits and tackles like an undersized linebacker. He racked up 132 total tackles in 2015 and 101 the season before.

    NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah, who listed Killebrew 33rd among his top 50 draft prospects, seems to believe Killebrew has the skills to excel at safety or linebacker in the NFL:

    He is a very dynamic, explosive tackler. He produces big shots in the alley as well as between the tackles. He doesn't have much coverage responsibility but he has the speed and athleticism to cover backs and tight ends. I don't envision him as a traditional high safety but he should excel at strong safety or weakside linebacker.

    If Jeremiah views Killebrew as the draft's 33rd-best prospect, then there's a good chance NFL scouts view him as a high draft pick—potentially even a first-rounder. This is precisely why a lot of eyes will be on Killebrew at the combine.

Victor Ochi, DE, Stony Brook

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    Stony Brook defensive end Victor Ochi appears to have the potential to be a developmental edge-rusher at the NFL level. He is a bit undersized at 6'1" and 241 pounds, but he has a quick first step off the edge and has plenty of on-tape sacks to prove it.

    Ochi produced 16.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks in 2014. He racked up 16.5 tackles for a loss again as a senior in 2015, while producing 13 total sacks. His 13 sacks led the FCS and earned Ochi Colonial Athletic Association Co-Defensive Player of the Year Honors.

    The goal now for Ochi will be to show NFL evaluators that he can measure up with the boys from the big schools at the scouting combine. He is currently projected as a fifth-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com, but his stock could rise with notable workout numbers.

    Ochi may have already taken a good first step toward that goal at this year's East-West Shrine Game.

    Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Nate Loop listed Ochi as one of the players he believed boosted their draft stock.

    "[Ochi] was a menace on several other plays," Loop wrote. "Displaying the kind of relentless motor that commands respect from offensive lineman and attention from observers. Ochi's burst and pass-rush moves were evident in practice as well."

    If Ochi can put his skills on display at the combine field, he could become a popular target on draft day.

Deiondre' Hall, CB, Northern Iowa

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    Teams that are looking for a long, lean and rangy defensive back should be excited to get a firsthand look at Northern Iowa cornerback Deiondre' Hall at this year's combine.

    Hall measures in at 6'1" and 192 pounds. However, this isn't what intrigues scouts. Chris Burke of SI.com explained what makes Hall so special during Senior Bowl week:

    None of those players elicited the response Hall did from the huddled masses of scouts, coaches, GMs and journalists as weigh-in results were announced at the Mobile Convention Center. It wasn’t Hall’s height or weight (192) that had folks buzzing. Rather, it was his arm length (34 3/4”) and wingspan (a staggering 82 3/8”).

    Hall's arm range should allow him to battle much larger receivers for the football at the next level. This potential, along with a strong 2015 campaign on tape, should make Hall a popular prospect at the scouting combine.

    Prior to the 2015 season, NFL Media's Chad Reuter placed Hall in his top 150 of senior draft prospects. Hall finished the year with 82 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Should Hall back up his strong season and impressive measurables with a solid overall combine performance, his stock should be on the rise.

Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky

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    Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence could wind up as one of the hottest pass-rushing prospects in the entire draft, especially with a strong combine performance.

    The 6'2", 254-pound sack artist has all the physical tools teams are looking for, to go with proven on-field production. Spence racked up 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks at Eastern Kentucky in 2015 alone.

    Of course, his on-field prowess isn't really what's under scrutiny right now—it's his off-field decision-making. A couple of failed drug tests forced the former Big 10 standout out of Ohio State after a strong start to his collegiate career.

    Spence will have to ease character concerns during the interview portion of the combine. If he can, he could end up being a high first-round draft pick.

    NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah even linked Spence with the New York Giants at No. 10 overall in a recent mock draft. Spence should be able to cement his status as a potential first-round pick with a strong outing in Indianapolis.

    A few missteps at the combine, however, could cause teams to be even more wary of his past off-field issues.

Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State

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    South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave should have the attention of pro scouts because he combines the body of a run-stuffer with the athleticism of an interior pass-rusher.

    Hargrave measures in at 6'1" and 309 pounds. His large, but compact frame should be difficult to move off the line in running situations. However, what makes Hargrave really stand out is the ability he showed in college to get to opposing quarterbacks.

    Hargrave racked up 16 sacks in 2014 and logged 13.5 more this past season. He has also produced a whopping 45.5 tackles of loss over the past two years.

    At the combine, Hargrave will have to show that his gaudy numbers are a product of his tool set and his athleticism, not inferior competition.

    He is currently projected as a fourth-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. Strong combine numbers—especially in speed, strength and agility drills—should have Hargrave's stock on the rise.

Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State

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    If you've heard of one small-school prospect heading into the combine, it's probably North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz.

    Wentz's profile has risen to this point because he is a seasoned quarterback in a draft that appears to be relatively weak at the position. The fact that he is realistically in the running to be the first signal-caller selected will only raise his draft stock in Indianapolis.

    Though Wentz might not be ready to start in Week 1 as a rookie, he could end up being an early first-round draft pick once the evaluation process is complete. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. paired Wentz with the Cleveland Browns at No. 2 overall in a recent mock draft.

    Wentz seems to have the goods to be a future NFL franchise quarterback. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes while tossing 45 career touchdowns to just 14 interceptions. He finished his collegiate career with a passer rating of 153.9.

    At 6'5" and 232 pounds, he has the prototypical size and build that NFL teams look for in a quarterback.

    Bleacher Report's Jason Cole recently reported the Browns are leaning toward Wentz with the second overall pick. However, Cleveland's opinion—along with the opinion of every franchise that is looking at quarterbacks—could easily change based on what transpires at this year's combine.

Joe Haeg, OT, North Dakota State

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    Teams are consistently searching for efficient and reliable offensive linemen, which is why North Dakota State's Joe Haeg should be under the microscope in Indianapolis.

    He has the size that teams look for at 6'6" and 307 pounds, and he also has the starting experience and versatility. He started 60 of 61 games at North Dakota State and has started at both tackle positions. That adaptability should grab the attention of scouts.

    "Give me a month or two and I could go back to right tackle," Haeg said last season, per Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com. "A lot of it is just brain memory, switching from the right to the left side. It's a lot of the same stuff, the same stance. I'm very comfortable with both positions."

    Haeg is currently rated 12th among offensive tackles by NFLDraftScout.com and is projected as a potential third- or fourth-round pick.

    The fact that he spent his college career blocking for quarterback prospect Carson Wentz likely means NFL scouts have already seen a good amount of Haeg's game tape. A strong performance at the scouting combine should be enough to earn him an opportunity with an NFL team next season.

     

Harlan Miller, CB, Southeastern Louisiana

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    An NFL team simply cannot have too many good defensive backs, which is why cornerbacks and safeties are often popular on draft day.

    Southeastern Louisiana cornerback Harlan Miller could join those ranks come April by delivering a strong performance at the combine. He has adequate size at 6'0" and 182 pounds and possesses the type of ball-hawking ability that scouts drool over.

    Miller picked off 11 passes over the past three seasons at Southeastern Louisiana. He also brings special teams familiarity, having returned 15 punts for 175 yards in 2015. He is currently rated 10th among cornerback prospects by NFLDraftScout.com, and is projected as a potential third-round selection.

    He appears to be using his small-school status as a motivating factor, which prospective NFL employers should love.

    "I always have the chip on my shoulder that a lot of teams missed out on me," Miller said, per Ross Dellenger of the Advocate. "I let my playing on the field do the talking for me."

    Over the next several days, Miller will be doing his talking on the field at the scouting combine.

Tajae Sharpe, WR, Massachusetts

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    The NFL continues to evolve into a pass-first offensive league, which is why teams are going to exhaust every avenue in their search for prolific pass-catchers.

    Massachusetts wide receiver Tajae Sharpe has been one of those prolific pass-catchers at the collegiate level and could soon make plays on Sundays. He finished the 2015 season with a whopping 111 receptions, 1,319 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

    At 6'2" and 189 pounds, Sharpe also has the height that teams are looking for in their receivers.He is currently projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. His stock could be on the rise, though, with a standout combine outing.

    What Sharpe will have to do at the combine is prove he has the polish and finesse of his big-school counterparts. Fortunately, he may have already begun that process at this year's Senior Bowl.

    "WR Tajae Sharpe (6'2", 189 lbs) is popping at Senior Bowl," Yahoo's Charles Robinson wrote during Senior Bowl week. "Lightning fast footwork in drills and he's catching everything despite small hands."

    A strong combine performance should catapult Sharpe into the spotlight for team decision-makers around the league.

Ronald Blair, DE, Appalachian State

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    Appalachian State defensive end Ronald Blair should be on the radar of NFL teams that are seeking a versatile, powerful 4-3 end.

    At 6'1" and 272 pounds, Blair doesn't quite possess the long, athletic frame of a prototypical edge-rushing end, but he definitely has the size to be an anchor on the line. He finished the 2015 season with 70 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.

    He was also named 2015 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

    ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. recently pegged Blair as a potential second-, third- or fourth-round pick, according to David Newton of ESPN.com. This could be because Blair has the heft on his frame to rotate into different positions along the defensive line. It could also be because his status as a four-year starter gives him the type of polish that some rawer prospects lack.

    Blair is currently projected as a fourth- or fifth-round selection by NFLDraftScout.com.

    Blair isn't likely to come into the league and tear things up as a sack artist. However, he could immediately step in as a productive rotational end. Where Blair ultimately winds up in the draft will depend on how he performs in Indianapolis.

Marshaun Coprich, RB, Illinois State

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    Illinois State running back Marshaun Coprich might not have the size that NFL teams are looking for in an every-down back, but his history of productivity will have a lot of eyes on him in Indianapolis.

    In four seasons at Illinois State, Coprich racked up more than 5,200 yards rushing. He produced 1,967 yards rushing in 2015 alone. That's impressive, especially when you consider he measures in at just 5'8" and 197 pounds.

    Unfortunately, size isn't going to be the only concern that teams have about Coprich. He was arrested on marijuana charges but was not suspended for his senior season. The interview portion of the combine will undoubtedly be important for Coprich. He is currently projected as a borderline seventh-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. If he can ease teams' concerns, though, Coprich should be able to hear his name called on draft day.

    He recently explained why teams should be willing to gamble on him.

    "I feel like my versatility will make me stand out to NFL teams," Coprich said, per Aaron Wilson of National Football Post. "I’m working hard, training to get ready for the next level. I’m confident in myself and what I can do. All I need is a shot."

    Coprich's next shot at impressing teams will come at the combine. If teams can look past Coprich's size and off-field history, he could end up getting selected in the top half of the draft.

     

    All unofficial player measurements via NFL.com.