As NFL season begins, FCS players carve out roster spots

(STATS) - Jimmy Garoppolo may not be getting the opening-night start Eastern Illinois fans were hoping for, but it's not all bad news for FCS schools as the NFL season gets underway Thursday night.

An analysis of Week 1 rosters shows 133 players who played at current FCS schools made an NFL team's 53-man squad - including at least one on each of the league's 32 teams.

"If you took these FCS programs and gave them a few more scholarships, that's the only difference. The players, there's not that much difference in the talent level," said Montana coach Bob Stitt. "There's a lot of talent, and these recruits out around the country need to know that they don't have to go to a FBS school to end up in the NFL."

Unfortunately for Garoppolo, who expected all summer to start the first month of the season for New England, he'll be back manning the clipboard for the NFL opener after Tom Brady's "Deflategate" suspension was overturned last week. Yet despite a lost opportunity for another FCS quarterback such as Dallas' Tony Romo, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, Cleveland's Josh McCown and the New York Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick to take center stage, there is no shortage of professional star power from the subdivision.

At the head of the pack of NFL squads with a significant FCS flavor were Indianapolis, Atlanta and the New York Giants, who are each represented by eight players, including marquee names like Robert Mathis (Alabama A&M), Paul Worrilow (Delaware), Rashad Jennings (Liberty) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Tennessee State).

At the bottom: Cincinnati, Denver, Tennessee, Minnesota and the Patriots, with one apiece.

FCS representation didn't end there, however.

There are another 45 players on NFL practice squads, and a remarkable eight head coaches - 25 percent of the league - with FCS roots: Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (Idaho State), Houston's Bill O'Brien (Brown), Jacksonville's Gus Bradley (North Dakota State), Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin (William & Mary), Dallas' Jason Garrett (Princeton), Minnesota's Mike Zimmer (Illinois State), New Orleans' Sean Payton (Eastern Illinois) and Philadelphia's Chip Kelly (New Hampshire).

The biggest FCS pipeline to the NFL in 2015? Montana had eight players on the active 53, plus another two on practice squads. Delaware (seven), Coastal Carolina (five) and North Dakota State (five) were the other schools to have more than four players on an active roster.

"It says a lot for the environment that is created on Saturdays here that these kids are playing not only high-level football, but they are also playing in front of big crowds in a hostile environment," Stitt added. "That prepares them to go into a situation in a preseason game in the NFL and it's not any different than what they played in on Saturday at Montana. ... So I think the whole environment created here helps our guys be able to handle the pressure of making a roster."

The totals include players who may have attended their school when it was not yet participating at the FCS/Division I-AA level, such as Indianapolis' Adam Vinatieri, whose career at South Dakota State came when the Jackrabbits were still a Division II program.

All told, 63 FCS schools will be represented on an NFL sideline to kick off the season this week.

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