With less media attention and less prestigious competition, NFL prospects at small schools often get overlooked when maybe they shouldn’t.
Consider an athletic receiver who plied his trade at little-known Mississippi Valley State University during the early 1980s. The wideout nicknamed “World” could seemingly catch every ball thrown his way, and would set numerous NCAA records before being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round.
That receiver, of course, was Jerry Rice.
While there might not be any future Hall of Famers among the small school standouts this year, for all we know, there could be.
Consider this a shortlist of small school prospects who could one day make a big impact in the NFL.
At 6'4'', 220 pounds, B.J. Coleman certainly looks the part of an NFL quarterback.
A transfer from Tennessee as a result of the Lane Kiffin era in Knoxville, Coleman is a redshirt senior with plenty of upside despite struggling with injuries during his senior year at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
While he was on the field, Coleman was averaging over 260 yards and a touchdown per game.
Unfortunately, Coleman was knocked out of a game midseason against Georgia Southern with a shoulder injury, costing him four starts. He stormed back on Senior Day, passing for 232 yards and three touchdowns against Wofford.
Coleman has the arm strength and ability to make all the throws, but footwork and downfield accuracy still remain question marks.
Still, Coleman remains one of the best raw QB talents out of the FCS, and should be looked at seriously come the 2012 draft.
A former USC Trojan, Aaron Corp transferred out of Southern California in 2010 when it became clear that Matt Barkley would be the starter for the near future.
Because he was transferring to an FCS school in Richmond, Corp started immediately for the Spiders and has never looked back.
Now finishing his redshirt senior year, the 6'3'', 205-pound quarterback could sneak his way into some draft boards. While he didn’t have the flashy, attention-filled career he would have at USC, Corp still managed to turn heads in Virginia.
Despite finishing a disappointing 3-8 in 2011, Corp threw for over 300 yards three times, finishing with 2,682 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air.
However, he did struggle with his accuracy at times, throwing 13 picks—four of which came against Massachusetts.
If Corp can show consistency and improve his decision-making, he might very well develop into an NFL-caliber backup QB.
While struggles with turf toe limited his effectiveness most of the 2011 season, Asa Jackson out of Cal Poly is one of the best FCS corners to be considered for the next level.
A 5'10'' senior, Jackson has wowed onlookers with impressive speed since taking the field in San Luis Obispo, even returning an interception 100 yards for a touchdown this year.
He’s been a constant as a kick returner due to that breakaway speed, but might struggle against taller receivers.
As a raw talent, Jackson could get looks from pro squads aiming to improve their special teams play.
While his stats don’t jump out at you, Jackson does have all the physical tools to succeed at the next level. His sheer speed will interest many.
As athletic a specimen as they come, expect Jackson to go late in the upcoming draft.
Dismissed from the Florida Gators in 2011 due to multiple drug charges in a four-month span, Janoris Jenkins still remains one of the best cornerback prospects out there if teams can get around his off-the-field problems.
One of only two true freshmen to ever start at corner on opening day in Florida, Jenkins took his talents to North Alabama for his senior season.
Staying relatively out of trouble with the law, Jenkins put together a respectable campaign for the Lions. He ranks near the top of the team in tackles, and helped lead UNA to an 8-2 regular season record alongside a playoff berth.
He’s contributed mightily at corner and during the return game, and remains one of the best secondary prospects in the 2012 draft. Good in press coverage, Jenkins has first-round speed with tremendous upside if he continues to work hard.
If teams can get around his troubles with the law, Jenkins should get plenty of attention and offers come draft day.
Another Division-I talent who transferred because of problems off the field, Rishaw Johnson was kicked off Ole Miss due to a “violation of team rules” after the season opener in 2010.
Johnson since landed a starting job at California (PA) where, at 6'4'', 308 pounds, he contributed significantly to the Vulcans' offensive line.
Cal (PA) finished the regular season 9-2 before losing to Winston-Salem State 35-28 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Already on many NFL team’s radars from his years at Ole Miss, Johnson’s build may be his biggest asset come draft day.
Still projected as one of the top 10 players at his position, he should see an NFL payday as long as his behavior doesn’t become a problem.
At 6'2'', 204 pounds, Montana’s Trumaine Johnson has impressed many in his years as a college cover corner.
With the exception of a recent altercation with police at a college party, Johnson has stayed relatively free of off-the-field distractions. He’s had a decent 2011 season with 10 pass breakups and 30 tackles.
Montana finished the season champions of the Big Sky conference, and at 9-2 will face Central Arkansas on Dec. 3 in the second round of the playoffs.
The more the Grizzlies win, the more Johnson can showcase to scouts what he can bring to a professional team.
While he might not be the fastest CB prospect out there, Johnson will entice some teams in the later rounds.
One of the top 10 tackles prospects for the 2012 NFL draft, University of Alabama-Birmingham's Matt McCants should warrant a few looks from teams looking to add depth to their offensive line.
At a towering 6'6'', 295 pounds, McCants would be a welcome addition to any team’s protection package. His strength and footwork are clear standouts.
Unfortunately, his draft stock will not be helped by UAB’s lackluster 2011 season. The Blazers went 3-9 on the year, losing by more than 30 points four times. After a loss in the season finale against Florida Atlantic, head coach Neil Callaway resigned.
As for McCants, he isn’t quite a starter yet, but if drafted into a good system, he could become a stellar backup and maybe see time after a few seasoning years in the NFL.
While he’s no Jerry Rice, Brian Quick has made himself a name despite playing at little-regarded Appalachian State.
At 6'4'', 216 pounds, Quick finished with 1,055 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on 64 catches in 2011. While he impacted every game this season, Quick arguably had his best game in 2010 against Jacksonville; he posted 132 yards and three touchdowns on six catches.
The Mountaineers finished 2011 8-3 with a playoff game against Maine upcoming on Dec. 3. Quick figures to be an integral part in the upcoming offensive game plan with his height creating many mismatches in the secondary.
If Quick can improve his speed at the combine, he could rise maybe to a second round pick. Otherwise, expect the standout wideout to go around the fourth round.
Few quarterbacks at the Division-III level ever get a sniff of the NFL, but Alex Tanney of Monmouth (IL) might be one of them.
Tanney holds numerous school records with his inspired performance during the 2011 season, throwing for 3,867 yards and 38 touchdowns with a 71.5 completion percentage.
After losing their season opener to Watburg, the Monmouth Fighting Scots won 10 in a row before losing to St. Thomas in the second round of the playoffs. Tanney was impressive during the run, throwing for over 300 yards eight times, including two games in which he threw for over 400.
At 6'3'', 215 pounds, Tanney has the build of a quarterback, but it remains to be seen how his skills match up to Division-I prospects.
However, gaudy numbers can do wonders for a quarterback’s stock, so don’t be surprised if Tanney slides into the later rounds if he has a strong combine.
Checking in at 6'1'', 300 pounds, Renard Williams is one of the most physically imposing defensive linemen in the Big Sky conference.
As a member of the Eastern Washington Eagles, Williams turned heads during his breakout sophomore season, finishing with 35 tackles (16 for a loss) and 9.5 sacks. His junior year was even better, with 54 tackles (16 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks as a 15-game starter.
Williams’ numbers (and therefore stock) dropped off noticeably in 2011, recording only 23 tackles (nine for a loss) with 4.5 sacks in 10 appearances.
This year, the Eagles went 6-5 and did not make the playoffs.
While he might be slightly undersized for his position, Williams could be taken in the late rounds if he impresses during the combine. Work rate is certainly an issue, as is the concern that his numbers have dropped year after year.
For most small school prospects, it’s an open question as to how they will fare against high-quality opposition. For Williams and so many others, there’s only one way to find out.