Year after year, a handful of Division II football players sit by their phones on draft day hoping for a call. They’ve been struggling for months to fight off the negative stigma surrounding “small ball” players and catch the eyes of scouts and coaches at pro days, senior games and, for a fortunate few, the NFL combine.
The recent successes of former D-II standouts like Bears WR Johnny Knox and Saints G Jahri Evans have given today’s hopefuls a greater confidence knowing that their skills can, in fact, transfer to the NFL if they’re given the opportunity.
Last year’s explosion of two-time Harlon Hill Trophy winner, RB Danny Woodhead of the Patriots, may have further instilled that confidence in players, fans and coaches alike.
Though we didn't see dozens of D-II players flying off the draft board this year, four worthy players did get the call.
Who were they?
Gates recorded the fastest 40-time in the 2011 Class of WRs (4.31 hand-held). His athleticism can’t be argued and he has big-time play-making ability.
After going to college to play basketball, Gates was convinced by his cousin, Bengals RB Bernard Scott, to follow his path to Abilene Christian.
Chad Henne and the Dolphins will welcome Gates with open arms, hoping he can build off his 1,182-yard, 13 TD senior season and make a splash similar to that of former ACU teammate, Bears WR Johnny Knox.
Fusco was graded by many as a top five center. At 6’4”, he’s big for a center, but still recorded top marks in the 3 Cone Drill and 20 yd Shuttle at the Combine.
Playing just two years in high school, a tall and skinny Fusco didn’t receive big-time college offers. After choosing Slippery Rock and training four hard years in the weight room, he made a big impression succeeding against tougher competition at the Senior Bowl.
The Vikings will hope to build on the solid technique of the Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year Award winner to fight for a job to protect their first round pick, QB Christian Ponder.
Lacking two classes from junior college, Burton decided against sitting out a year at the University of Oklahoma and chose West Texas A&M. He finished an outstanding senior season with 70 receptions for 1,021 yards and 11 TDs.
Burton made an impression on many at the Combine with his size, jump ball ability and toughness over the middle. The Vikings will hope to pair him with fellow youngster, QB Christian Ponder, to grow and create chemistry together.
He’ll provide solid depth for the Vikings’ injury prone WR corps, led by Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin.
The 6’3”, 205-pound Campbell rounded out the Titans’ 2011 draft class. That size, teamed with his 4.33 40-yard dash gives him great attributes and the ability to play CB or S in Tennessee.
Campbell’s route to the NFL has been anything but ordinary. Two failed attempts at college ball at Pitt and D-II’s Edinboro, and a stint as an airport janitor later, Campbell landed at California (PA).
After battling through a hamstring injury at Cal, Campbell showcased his skills at the Cactus Bowl and is now, finally, on his way to Nashville as the final D-II pick of the 2011 NFL Draft.