Small-School NFL Draft Prospects with Potential to Make Big Impacts as 2023 Rookies
NFL prospects from non-FBS schools aren't often viewed as instant-impact contributors. The perception should change based on what this year's rookie class has showed.
In total, 25 small-school products heard their names called during the 2022 draft.
Cole Strange may have been considered a first-round reach out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, but he's started all 13 games at right guard for the New England Patriots. The Green Bay Packers traded up in the second round for North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson, and after a slow start, the standout athlete has scored eight touchdowns during the Pack's last four contests. Like Strange, Cincinnati Bengals left guard Cordell Volson and Chicago Bears left tackle Braxton Jones have been Day 1 starters, even as middle-round selections.
Multiple others are contributing to their respective squads and even make spot starts.
Talent can be found anywhere, and certain prospects shouldn't be looked down upon simply because they didn't go to a pipeline program or play at the highest reaches of college football. Everyone takes a different path—which is exactly why some at lower levels can still be more prepared for the professional level than their more heralded counterparts.
Among the '23 class, five FCS prospects stand out as candidates to make a similar progressive transition to the NFL, with three playing this weekend in either the FCS semifinals or the Celebration Bowl.
FB Hunter Luepke, North Dakota State
The fullback position isn't the typical starting point when discussing top prospects at any level. But with the prevalence of the outside-zone blocking scheme and the Shanahan coaching tree throughout the professional ranks, Hunter Luepke will be sought after.
Luepke is the closest prospect to six-time Pro Bowler Kyle Juszczyk since the Harvard product entered the league 10 seasons ago. While fullback remains the individual designation, Luepke can be so much more in an offense.
Luepke's well-rounded skill set allows him to play multiple roles and stay on the field for all three downs, if need be.
The 6'1", 236-pound All-American is the Bison's third-leading rushing with 621 yards at 6.3 yards per tote. Luepke also leads NDSU with four receiving touchdowns. He can be found lined up all over the formation either as a deep back, up back, wing and even slot receiver. He runs with power and decisiveness while showing soft hands as a pass-catcher. He's competent in pass protection, too.
Unfortunately, the nation's best fullback suffered a season-ending shoulder surgery last month. According to Forum Communications' Jeff Kolpack, Luepke won't help the Bison in their quest for a 10th FCS championship or participate at the Senior Bowl on Feb. 4. The talented back may not even be ready for the NFL combine, which starts on Feb. 28.
Even so, he's an ideal fit as a weapon for offenses that still employ a fullback, and he's more than just a standard lead-blocker.
WR Andrei Iosivas, Princeton
Christian Watson's athletic profile is what pushed the former North Dakota State wide receiver toward the top of the second round, where the Green Bay Packers chose him with the 34th overall selection.
The 6'4", 208-pound Watson ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash, posted a 38.5-inch vertical jump and presented a 9.96 (out of 10) relative athletic score among professional wide receivers, according to Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte.
Watson was a project, though, and needed some time before he fully integrated into Green Bay's offense. Injuries certainly slowed the transition.
Princeton's Andrei Iosivas could easily post the most impressive athletic profile among this year's crop of wide receivers, which will naturally allow him to create plays from the onset of his career.
The 6'3", 200-pound target and first-team All-Ivy League performer won the 60-meter portion of the men's heptathlon in the spring and then led his football conference in receiving yards per game (94.3). His speed allows him to be a vertical threat, while he also shows toughness by running routes over the middle.
Iosivas was a more productive target during his collegiate career than Watson. The Princeton target had more receiving yards (1,646) and touchdown receptions (12) over his last two seasons than Watson (1,243 and eight, respectively), despite playing in two fewer games.
TE Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State
Health, not skill, will be the biggest determining factor for South Dakota State tight end Tucker Kraft in the 2023 NFL draft.
Kraft declared for the event in November, adding he'd finish out the season. He's collected 21 passes for 249 yards in seven appearances, though he dealt with a foot injury that cost him six games this season.
"I pretty much had my mind made up the whole year," Kraft said on the day he declared, per the Sioux Falls Argus Leader's Matt Zimmer. "Scouts told me I needed to do one thing this season to solidify my spot [atop NFL draft boards], and that was to return to the field and still look like myself. I've done that, and I'm only feeling better every single week."
The Jackrabbits face the Montana State Bobcats in the FCS semifinals Saturday, and Kraft will have a much bigger spotlight to showcase his skill set. The 6'5", 255-pound target shows good body control and the ability to create after the catch. He's physical with the ball in his hands and as a blocker, though he's most often detached from the line in the latter case.
Kraft's size and athleticism allow him to threaten the seam and be a true terror for defenses over the middle of the field.
The injury situation may have allowed other tight ends to leapfrog this small-school product on big boards as the season progressed, but Kraft is very much in the hunt to become a top-two or -three tight end during April's draft.
OL Cody Mauch, North Dakota State
North Dakota State is the most dominant program at the FCS level and somewhat of a pipeline school in its own right. In fact, 10 former members of the Bison have heard their names called in the draft since 2014.
Offensive lineman Cody Mauch is the next in line as arguably the top non-FBS prospect in the entire class.
Mauch is a 6'6", 303-pound left tackle with guard versatility. Some will project him as a long-term starter along the interior because North Dakota State's system isn't the best preparation for NFL pass blocking. The program's tackles are vary rarely, if ever, asked to kick-step fully and reach certain landmarks.
Instead, the scheme is predicated on running the football, and the Bison do this very well. Mauch specifically is powerful at the point of attack. He attacks defenders with good pad level and a flat back to uproot those in his way. The ground-and-pound approach is then married to an effective play-action passing attack.
The biggest difference between North Dakota State's latest offensive line standout and other recent draft picks in Cordell Volson and Dillon Radunz is playing strength. Mauch is far more physical and overpowering. He opens holes when necessary.
In a world where power running games are experiencing a revival, the first-team All-American is an ideal addition. The push he provides can be seen Friday during the FCS semifinal contest again the Incarnate Word Cardinals.
LB Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State
Plenty of talent will leave the Jackson State Tigers football program this offseason now that Deion Sanders has left to become the head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. Stalwart linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. will take a different path as a legitimate NFL prospect.
After three relatively uneventful seasons with the Missouri Tigers program, including a 2019 campaign that ended after one game thanks to a knee injury, Miller transferred to Jackson State where he has thrived as the leader of Sanders' defense.
"Aubrey is one of the guys that we hang our hats on in the middle of the defense; making calls, getting to the ball, flying around, and really setting the tone and the tempo," Sanders said last month, per Fan Nation's Kyle T. Mosley. "Not just on game day, but in practice as well. He's matured a lot."
In two seasons, Miller has accumulated 215 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, nine defended passes and five forced fumbles.
At 6'2" and a listed 225 pounds, Miller doesn't present the required size most teams prefer among their linebackers. However, the 2022 HBCU Defensive Player of the Year plays with a level of physicality to strike ball-carriers, the athleticism to play in space and a nose for the football.
Miller's skill set projects well as a potential run-and-chase weak-side linebacker, and he should wreak havoc against the North Carolina Central Eagles during Saturday's Celebration Bowl.