Every year there are names out there who the casual fan does not recognize. More often than not, these are the small-school prospects: Athletes who were not in the powerhouse NCAA programs, but instead are members of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA.
Last year, two offensive tackles from the FCS were selected within the first two rounds: Vladamir Ducasse of UMass and Hillsdale's Jared Veldheer.
This year, only one offensive tackle makes the top-five list of FCS prospects, and that player could go anywhere from the late first round to early second. Any idea who the player could be? Continue reading for the top five small-school prospects in the 2011 NFL draft.
Taiwan Jones is a speedy back who is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. His change of direction and burst make him one of the top sleepers at his position in this draft class.
While Jones is a speedy playmaker, he will need to bulk up and add some weight to his frame without jeopardizing his speed if he is going to be a workhorse at the next level. Throughout his career he has had an ankle injury, broken leg, sports hernia, hip flexor and most recently a broken foot. His inability to stay healthy could turn off a handful of teams.
What does make Jones valuable is his versatility. On top of his ability to take it to the house out of the backfield on every play, he is also a very reliable receiver and can contribute in the return game.
Keep an eye out for Jones, as he could soon be coming to an end zone near you.
Kenrick Ellis is a massive defensive tackle who has the potential to become a very effective 3-4 nose tackle at the next level. As you'd expect from an elite prospect, Ellis dominated the lesser competition in the FCS during his time at Hampton.
The big concern with Ellis is his past character issues. Ellis was dismissed from South Carolina for multiple violations of the school's policy. His issues include academic problems, prior marijuana usage and a 2010 arrest for assault that got him suspended for the season opener.
If you look past those issues, Ellis has the skill to succeed. You will rarely see Ellis pushed backwards, and he uses his arms and length very well. Ellis holds his ground and is not afraid to take on the double team. His size and strength will attract a number of teams.
Don't be surprised to see Ellis drafted in the late second round.
Will Rackley is a solid interior lineman with quick feet and an ability to work well in tight spaces. He is one of those guys who has a nasty streak to his playing style, and he is not afraid to go through the whistle.
Rackley will need to improve on his ability in space, but NFL teams will know that's not his forte. They'll keep him locked up at the guard position, where he can use his run-blocking skills to help out a team. While his strength is in the running game, don't sleep on Rackley as a pass blocker.
The former Lehigh left tackle has already drawn interest from some NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams. Expect the interest to continue to grow as draft day draws closer.
Edmond Gates is a speedster with adequate size. In a passing league, Gates' ability to stretch the field makes him a valuable asset to any offense. With the emergence of guys like Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Mike Wallace this past season, a team will pull the trigger on Gates early.
Like most speedy college receivers, Gates will need to improve on his route-running ability. He will also have to work on the consistency in his catches.
Gates will also be able to contribute as a return man on special teams. He is a lot more physical than people would expect and will surprise you when you see him engaging on blocks.
Scouts and teams are always looking for additional reasons to like a prospect, so the fact that his cousin is Bengals running back Bernard Scott cannot hurt him.
Gates will be off the board in the second or third round.
Ben Ijalana is the best small-school prospect in the 2011 NFL draft. He is an excellent blocker who can play at tackle or guard at the next level. Ijalana was an important piece of the Villanova team who won the 2009 FCS title and returned to this year's semifinals.
In order to become an elite offensive lineman, Ijalana will need to improve against speed rushers. His footwork is a bit sloppy, and that causes him to run into trouble when it comes to the faster defenders.
Ijalana is still a bit raw, but his upside is as great as any offensive lineman in this year's class. His long arms and athleticism allow for him to make up for some of his unpolished techniques.
As we get closer to draft day, there is talk that Ijalana could hear his name called at the end of the first round if a run on tackles starts. If not, don't be surprised to see Ijalana go in the top half of round two and become a solid starter at the next level in a few years.