Senior Bowl: Good year for FCS-level DBs

(STATS) - They've been on opposite sides of one of the more heated rivalries in the FCS, but Northern Iowa's Deiondre' Hall considers former North Dakota State great Marcus Williams an important role model.

This was especially true after Hall switched to the same cornerback position midway through his college career. He has studied Williams on game film and gained advice from him about improving his skills.

"Marcus Williams from North Dakota State, he was one of the guys I really watched a lot because he's such a ball hawk," Hall said. "Once I kind of saw him and North Dakota State was one of our deep rivals, just chopping up that film, it really gave me another drive, another level, to really focus in my talents and kind of focus on what I really wanted to accomplish with my time there."

Competition is great, of course, but Hall can't help but feel a sense of camaraderie as he heads toward the NFL, where Williams just finished a strong second season with the New York Jets. FCS players face lower perception - sometimes misperception - and that motivates Hall to get drafted in late April and start building his career.

NFL teams have long found talented FCS players at defensive back - hello, Josh Norman - and there won't be a problem this year.

Saturday's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, provides a sneak peek with half of the 10 FCS participants performing in the secondary: Hall, fellow cornerbacks James Bradberry of Samford and Harlan Miller of Southeastern Louisiana, and safeties DeAndre Houston-Carson of William & Mary and Miles Killebrew of Southern Utah.

The other FCS players are North Dakota State's national title-winning tandem of quarterback Carson Wentz and offensive tackle Joe Haeg, Harvard offensive tackle Cole Toner, Southeast Missouri State wide receiver Paul McRoberts and Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence.

"Got to give credit to those guys for individual (accomplishments). You definitely have to give a shout-out to FCS secondaries as a whole," Hall said. "Coming from double-A, a lot of the feeling is the guys go underlooked or under the radar, and then end up popping up on the last few years.

"As a defensive back, you're always going to have a chip on your shoulders, so shout-out to those guys, too."

The Senior Bowl, in its 67th season, is considered the standard for college all-star games, followed by the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl that were played this past Saturday. All of the FCS participants in the Senior Bowl made either the STATS FCS All-America preseason or postseason teams.

Among the five defensive backs, there's exceptional size and one-on-one coverage ability. CBS Sports ranks Hall ninth, Miller 16th and Bradberry 31st among cornerbacks, Houston-Carson third at free safety and Killebrew fourth among strong safeties.

Each will rise on draft boards with a strong week of practice and performance in Saturday's game (2:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

"I'm real happy this season gave me the opportunity to live out my dream, it's something I've been dreaming about since I can remember," said Houston-Carson, who was named the CAA Football co-defensive player of the year. "I just feel real blessed to be healthy and have a great support system around me."

"You have to know what you want, what you're going after," said Hall, the defensive player of the year in the Missouri Valley. "And I think that's huge in this 8-10 weeks of Senior Bowl, (NFL) Combine, pro-day stuff - really know what you're attacking.

"Keep your eyes on the prize."

While many FCS players are receptive to a position change in the NFL to earn a roster spot - offensive linemen might switch from tackle to guard or center, and defensive ends may move to outside linebacker - Hall and Houston-Carson changed positions during their college careers and thrived afterward.

Hall switched from free safety to cornerback for his final two seasons and Houston-Carson was a cornerback for three years before an even bigger senior season at free safety. Both are similar in size - Hall measured 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds with an eye-catching 83 3/8-inch wingspan, while Houston-Carson was 6-1 and 197 - and can play on or off the ball with explosiveness.

"(It is) probably just more freedom to make plays, obviously being in the middle of the field as opposed to just on one side," Houston-Carson said, "being able to play sideline-to-sideline more as far as the physical play goes. Mentally, just having to make more calls. At corner, I was more dependent on my safety to help guys get lined up, which was fine - I really enjoyed doing it, it was just different."

Said Hall: "I'm an aggressive corner, so I'm going to beat up on whoever I'm going to go up against ... finishing each and every play, and that's really what matters.

"(Training for the draft is) definitely a totally different process in day-to-day aspect of life. Really your life kind of turns from going to class every day to practice and then you kind of worry about other things, (like), 'OK, now my main focus is football all day, every day.'"

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.