Small-School Standouts Who Will Steal the Show at the NFL Scouting Combine
The entire offseason draft process is more important for small-school prospects than those who proved themselves at the highest level. The NFL combine in Indianapolis is another opportunity for lesser-known athletes to establish themselves among the elite.
Once considered big fish in small ponds, 25 non-FBS talents will be thrown into the deep end by competing with the very best college football has to offer starting Tuesday through the following Monday.
The combine is viewed as an athletic testing event where prospects run around "in their underwear." But the week's festivities extend beyond what's seen on the field. Medical evaluations, drug testing, interviews and an individual's attitude through this grueling process are major factors in the overall evaluation.
Of course, it is important each prospect shows they are at least an adequate athlete.
Some rise to the occasion, while others struggle with the process. The combine schedule is designed to make it difficult so teams can get the best read on the person as much as the athlete.
Where an individual originates doesn't matter once he's in Indianapolis and on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ten prospects have a chance to redefine their statuses with impressive performances during professional football's yearly job convention.
QB Kyle Lauletta, Richmond
Starting with a quarterback without top physical tools may seem like an oxymoron, yet Richmond's Kyle Lauletta has a chance to steal the show with his behind-the-scenes work.
From a physical standpoint, the 6'2 ½", 217-pound signal-caller isn't the most impressive specimen. He doesn't have the strongest arm nor the most nimble feet. Yet he walked away as the Senior Bowl's Most Outstanding Player award after throwing three touchdowns.
Lauletta separates himself from other prospects with his understanding of the game and intangibles, which make him a candidate to wow teams at the combine.
For quarterbacks, the throwing portion in Indianapolis is a very small part of the process. How an individual handles the mental rigors of the position is the most important aspect of the evaluation at this juncture.
Anyone can point toward Lauletta's 10,465 passing yards as Richmond's all-time leading passer. Statistics, overall play and traits can be viewed through film work, though. Finding out more about how he absorbs information and his leadership qualities are best done in person.
"A huge part of every quarterback's routine is just kind of taking notes and learning as much as you can," Lauletta said, per 247 Sports' Josh Edwards. "Even though I think ... one of my strong suits is understanding the game and all of that, I think there is a ton that I have yet to learn. Just kind of being a sponge and learning as much as possible, that will be my attitude going in."
The two-time team captain comes from a military family—his father played for the Navy Midshipmen—and he double-majored in business and leadership.
"He's very committed, focused and he holds himself to a really high standard," former Richmond head coach Danny Rocco told American Sports Network's Tom Layberger. "He's continually improving and took a real strong leadership role for us."
Intangibles separate good quarterbacks from great ones. Lauletta has a chance to impress teams without putting together a standout on-field performance.
RB Roc Thomas, Jacksonville State
NFL scouts are like elephants; they never forget.
Elite high school recruits often get a chance to prove themselves during the draft process even if their collegiate careers didn't go according to plan.
Alabama wide receiver Robert Foster, University of Indiana-Pennsylvania safety Max Redfield and Jacksonville State's Roc Thomas were all highly sought after recruits. None of the three lived up to expectations once they found their way onto campus.
Thomas committed to the Auburn Tigers as a 247Sports five-star recruit. Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Sony Michel were the only running backs ranked higher among the 2014 class. The Alabama native ran with a lofty company and performed well in 2014 and '15 as part of the Tigers' offensive rotation.
The 5'11", 193-pound back carried the ball 86 times for 475 yards and caught 18 passes for 230 yards in his two seasons on the Plains. But injuries limited his opportunities before he decided to transfer.
At Jacksonville State, Thomas began to realize his full potential as a lead back. He carried the ball 178 times for 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.
Thomas isn't the biggest back, yet he displays power and finishes runs. He also has the speed and shiftiness to escape defenders.
"He can get up and scoot," a scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "Has some potential to be a good second back. Looking for a good combine."
The combine can serve as a reminder that Thomas was once considered an elite running back prospect. He has a long way to go to be viewed in the same way by the NFL, yet the talent didn't disappear. A healthy version has the potential to impress in Indianapolis before becoming a solid addition to any running back rotation.
TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert isn't just the top small-school prospect available in this year's draft class; he's a potential first-round pick as well.
Goedert simply possesses the athleticism expected from today's elite tight ends.
According to former Sports Illustrated and current FOX Sports reporter Bruce Feldman, the 6'4", 265-pound target posted a 36-inch vertical jump, 9'9 ½" broad-jump and 4.65-second 40-yard dash during on-campus workouts.
An impressive workout will only confirm the belief Goedert can be an elite mismatch at the next level. He already proved capable of doing so in college, with 164 receptions for 2,404 yards and 18 touchdowns during the past two seasons.
His production makes it easier to overlook the fact he's yet to develop into a true in-line option. It doesn't matter at this point, because teams are searching for offensive weapons.
Goedert's ability to impress in Indianapolis extends beyond raw testing numbers. The two-time First Team All-American has the potential to put on a show during his position workout.
"He can go get the high ball, but what's even more impressive is how he can go get the low ball," Jackrabbits tight ends coach Luke Schleusner told NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. "Balls behind him, or thrown at his feet, he suctions everything in. You talk about a catch radius, he's got a huge one."
The throwing quarterbacks at the combine have a tendency to misplace multiple passes. Goedert's ability to adjust on poorly thrown balls will be on display to cement his status as the top tight end prospect.
OT Greg Senat, Wagner
A picture is worth a thousand words, and Greg Senat wearing the green and white for Wagner's basketball team tells exactly why he will impress at the combine.
The 6'6", 294-pound two-sport athlete spent four seasons on the hardcourt, yet the gridiron came calling prior to his junior campaign.
"Football was always in my heart," Senat told SILive.com's Cormac Gordon in 2016.
Wagner's coaching staff didn't intend to play Senat at offensive tackle, but he grew into the position.
"When he came over to us from basketball, he was about 245 pounds and someone we envisioned as a tight end," head coach Jason Houghtaling said, per Wagner's official site. "He switched to the offensive line, where he put on more than 40 pounds of mass, and found a home as our starting right tackle for 22 games over two seasons."
Senat's combination of size, length (35 ⅝-inch arms) and athleticism make him an interesting evaluation, because he already developed a comfort level at right tackle, whereas NFL teams may consider playing him on the blind side.
A weak offensive tackle class makes a project like Senat even more intriguing. Yes, he'll need to add more weight and get stronger, but he won't be drafted to immediately start.
Considering his background, Senat will be one of the most athletic linemen on the field in Indianapolis. Overall technique remains a concern, but his traits are exactly what NFL teams want at the position, and offensive line coaches should be giddy for a chance to develop the former basketball player.
OT Jamil Demby, Maine
An interesting group of offensive linemen will come out of the non-pipeline schools. Maine's Jamil Demby will be counted among Senat, Humbolt State's Alex Cappa, Idaho State's Skyler Phillips, North Carolina A&T's Brandon Parker, Stony Brook's Timon Parris and West Georgia's Desmond Harrison as the class' most promising.
Demby separated himself on two fronts over the last month.
First, he excelled the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and earned his way into an appearance at the Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl is the top all-star event, and "call-ups" usually come from the East-West Shrine Game. By dominating in Pasadena, California, Demby opened the door to compete against the very best.
"I just want to take advantage of every opportunity I can and stand out as much as possible," Demby told Tom McGurk of the Daily Journal, based in his hometown of Vineland, New Jersey. "The more looks I can get, the more eyes from NFL teams and scouts, I've got a better chance of going where I want to be."
Of course, the combine isn't the same as all-star events. Bigger and more physical offensive linemen usually don't show well on the turf in shorts. However, Demby's rise can continue by showing he doesn't have to move from left tackle after starting on the blind side the last four seasons.
At 6'4 ½" and 323 pounds, his body type suggests he's a guard at the next level, and he played the position during his week at the NFLPA College Bowl. He then held his own at offensive tackle at the Senior Bowl.
Plus, a stockier build doesn't automatically equate to a lack of arm length. Six offensive linemen in Mobile measured 34 inches or longer, according to Draft Countdown's Scott Wright. Demby is the only one not considered a lock to play offensive tackle at the next level.
Pass-set drills will define Demby as a prospect. He has already showed he's ready to rise to the occasion, and no one should doubt him at this point.
DT Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State
Nathan Shepherd has been a man among boys for a long time. Just because he's going to the NFL combine, where bigger and better athletes will be featured, doesn't mean his status will change.
The Fort Hays defensive lineman has a chance to impress NFL teams in multiple areas.
His physical presence stole the show at the Senior Bowl. Shepherd is a rock-solid 6'4" and 310 pounds. As a result, he developed into the "winner" during weigh-ins, with hundreds of NFL personnel in attendance.
The defensive lineman's Herculean figure translated to the field, too.
It's one thing to dominate in Division II, which Shepherd did as the 2017 MIAA Defensive Player of the Year. Being able to overwhelm blockers from major college football is something entirely different, and Shepherd walked away from a shortened practice week as one of the event's most impressive performers. His athleticism, strength and violence at the point of attack created a near-unblockable combination.
Unfortunately, Shepherd injured his hand during the practice week and couldn't compete in the contest. According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the broken bone needed two or three weeks to heal. Now a month out, medical officials will thoroughly check Shepherd's hand and, hopefully, allow him to compete at the combine.
The medical portion is often overlooked, yet it can be a major factor in a prospect's status.
Whatever the case, Shepherd's maturity should resonate with teams during the interview process. The Canadian import originally played at Simon Fraser before financial problems caused him to leave the game for two years. He found his way to Fort Hays State and became a dominant force.
Shepherd, who turns 25 years old later this year, already knows what it's like to have football taken from him. He won't give up easily, and the combine is yet another stage where his determination and natural gifts will be on display.
LB Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
Today's NFL requires linebackers who can run and play in space. The days of banging heads against lead blockers all day are long gone. An emphasis is placed on those with enough athleticism to be three-down defenders.
South Carolina State's Darius Leonard needed time to develop coming out of high school as a 180-pound recruit. Once his body began to mature, the linebacker added 50 pounds while retaining his previous speed and agility.
"Darius is an ideal modern-day linebacker because of his speed and athletic ability," Senior Bowl executive direction Phil Savage said, per the Undefeated's Ray Glier. "He is versatile enough to play in the box or expand outside and defend in the open field. He should be able to help right away as a rookie on special teams and in sub situations."
According to Glier, Leonard ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash during South Carolina State workouts. Any run within that range would have placed the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year among last year's top-10 off-ball linebackers.
Instincts aren't a problem after leaving the Bulldogs program as its all-time leading tackler with 393 total stops. His value comes down to how well he performs in multiple speed and change-of-direction drills, because he's never going to be a true downhill linebacker.
The 6'2", 229-pound defender with 34 1/8-inch arms should match up well with most NFL tight ends, and this can become apparent during his combine workout. A fluid performance throughout each of the drills is needed and expected.
NFL teams are looking at a potential starting weakside linebacker with immediate value as a sub-package defender and special teams contributor.
CB Davontae Harris, Illinois State
The 40-yard dash is the most anticipated event at the NFL combine. There's no getting around dissecting every run even if the event doesn't directly translate to the field in many cases. Players who run well are highlighted every year because fans and, more importantly, professional teams are addicted to speed.
Illinois State cornerback Davontae Harris may not be the fastest man at the 2018 combine, but he knows how to run after finishing third overall in the state in the 100-meter dash and sixth in the 200-meter dash during his Wichita South (Kansas) high school career.
His speed highlights other aspects of his game.
"We like corners with length who can change direction with good speed," Illinois State defensive backs coach Cody Deti told Pantagraph's Randy Reinhardt. "He's also tough. You've got to be able to tackle and play in the run game as well as cover."
A prospect's toughness and tackling aren't part of the combine evaluation, but Deti's first point is significant. At a listed 6'0" and 205 pounds, Harris has ideal size and length. A bigger defensive back, who can run and drive on the football as well as Harris can, holds far more value than an undersized prospect with a blazing-fast 40-yard dash.
His ball skills are impressive, too, with 37 defended passes and three interceptions over the last three seasons.
Usually, a cornerback with Harris' skill set doesn't find his way to the FCS ranks. However, he suffered a significant injury to both his small and large intestines after being cleated. Interest from bigger programs faded. Even so, NFL scouts will find talent wherever it's available, and the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference First Team performer has a chance to prove he's a big-time talent even though he played at a small school.