The draft is less than two weeks away and football conversations center around the top prospects from the nation's biggest college football programs. Yet history has shown not all productive players in the draft come from major IA schools.
Lane College's Jacoby Jones, with the Houston Texans, and Illinois State's Laurent Robinson, with the Atlanta Falcons, are just two small-school players who made impacts last year. So who are the top small-school sleepers in this year's draft? Here are a dozen names to remember.
Brad Roach, QB, Catawba: Roach is a 6-foot-6, 250-pound gunslinger who tossed 32 touchdown passes last season. He possesses the physical dimensions for a franchise to develop. The projected late-round selection has privately worked out for the New York Giants and Houston Texans.
Tim Hightower, RB, Richmond: Scouts were surprised Hightower was not invited to the combine in February, especially after he scored 20 touchdowns last season. The 220-pound back later impressed by running 4.51 in the 40 at his pro day. Projected as a solid middle-round pick, Hightower has visited nearly a dozen franchises, including the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders, both of whom are interested in his services.
Arman Shields, WR, Richmond: Shields is another Spider being hotly pursued by NFL clubs. His story is all the more interesting given that he was sidelined after three games last season with knee injury. He came back to run a 4.45 at the combine. Shields, an outstanding receiver and return specialist, is being pursued by more than a half-dozen franchises and has visited the Tampa Bay Bucs and New York Jets.
Brandon Keith, OL, Northern Iowa: Keith, who started his college career at Oklahoma, has watched his draft stock soar the past nine months. He capped off a solid combine performance with an even better pro day, running under five seconds in the 40 after weighing 340 pounds. Keith has visited a number of teams, including a pair of NFC East franchises, the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.
Thaddeus Coleman, T, Mississippi Valley State: Coleman could well be the best-kept secret at the offensive tackle position. He stands a shade under 6-8 yet has the athleticism and footwork necessary to protect the blind side. Coleman is fresh off meeting with the Minnesota Vikings and has a host of other squads who want to speak with him.
Shawn McMackin, G, Hofstra: McMackin is one of the most athletically gifted offensive linemen in the draft. His ability to be used at tackle or guard is added value. McMackin's physical skills have caught the attention of a number of zone blocking teams, including the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts.
Brian Johnston, DE, Garden Webb: Johnston could well have been the biggest combine snub of 2008. He is a complete defender who totaled 145 tackles and 38 tackles for loss the past two years. Johnston measured 6-5 and 280 pounds at his pro day last month and ran the 40 under 4.7 seconds. Two dozen teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks, have expressed strong interest in Johnston.
Andy Studebaker, OLB, Wheaton (Ill.): Studebaker was poised for a big senior season until a foot injury ended his season after five games. He led the NCAA in sacks as a junior with 17.5, also recording 24.5 tackles for loss that year. He will be running for NFL scouts April 18 and has already visited with five teams, the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills amongst them.
Vince Redd, OLB, Liberty: Redd is an imposing defender who looks like a man amongst boys on the field. Twenty NFL teams have worked out Redd, a prospect who can play outside linebacker or defensive end. Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage made a special trip to scout Redd at his first pro-day workout.
Joe Mays, OLB, North Dakota State: The All-America linebacker is a fiery one-gap defender effective in run defense and pass coverage. Mays, a consistent three year starter, is being pursued by the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles.
Cary Williams, CB, Washburn: Williams, an opportunistic cornerback and game-changing return specialist, picked off seven passes last season while returning two kicks for touchdowns. He has good size (6-2, 190) and possesses 4.4 speed. The Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers have both shown intense interest in him.
Brandon Carr, CB, Grand Valley State: Carr has terrific size (6-0, 205), speed (4.5) and production (28 pass breakups and eight INTs the past two seasons). He has the ability to be used in a variety of defensive systems and is presently getting close looks from five teams, which includes a visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a workout by the Cleveland Browns.
Notes: One of the best human interest stories in April's draft is the life of Nevada linebacker Ezra Butler. The two-time all-WAC defender was born in South Africa and spent his childhood fatherless and living day-to-day before being sent to America by his mother. Butler came to the United States at age 13 and was raised by his uncle, Grammy-nominated jazz musician Jonathan Butler. He entered Nevada as a 285-pound defensive tackle, but lost 40 pounds after undergoing shoulder surgery early in his career and made the switch to linebacker. In a recent interview Butler stated he derives his motivation from the debt he owes his mother and sister, who still live in South Africa.