The NFL doesn't just consist of players hailing from the most prominent schools, even though it may seem that way, and the scouting combine is the biggest place for players from the lesser-known schools to compete for the attention of professional teams on the same playing field—literally and figuratively—as the NCAA's biggest stars.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was selected in the seventh round of the 2006 draft out of Samford, and he's parlayed that into nearly a decade in the NFL. There's another defensive back from Samford in this draft class (safety Jaquiski Tartt) looking to make his name. There's Saints guard Jahri Evans from Bloomsburg, Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson from Northern Colorado, Bears defensive end Jared Allen from Idaho State ... the list goes on and on.
It doesn't take long to recognize that even in today's information-saturated recruiting season, some truly great players can slip through the cracks for any number of reasons. The all-star games like the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl help those unheralded players from smaller schools, but the scouting combine is the biggest deal of all. Underdogs perform on the field and participate in interviews with teams on the same scale as players from powerhouses like Alabama and Ohio State.
Here's a list of small-school players who could put themselves on the map at this year's combine.
QB Shane Carden, East Carolina: Carden threw for nearly 12,000 yards, 86 touchdowns and just 30 interceptions in his three collegiate seasons. He led the nation in passing attempts (617) and completions (392) in 2014, and he does it with a quick release that's a bit marred by an unconventional delivery. Carden averaged just 7.6 yards per attempt during his college career, and though he does have a decent amount of functional velocity, he'll need to prove—as most quarterbacks from smaller schools do—that he's more than a hothouse flower operating out of a popgun spread offense.
RB David Johnson, Northern Iowa: Johnson is the only player in school history to gain over 1,000 yards three straight seasons in a row, and he really impressed at the Senior Bowl as a power runner and receiver out of the backfield. If he can continue to live up to his physical characteristic, the 6'1", 224-pound Johnson, who's currently a mid-round prospect based on production and potential, could get a lot of draft traction as a running back/H-back at the next level.
WR Tre McBride, William & Mary: With an impressive performance in the receiver drills, McBride could vault himself further into the conversation at his position among a very talented but undefined group. He's got the size (6'1", 205 pounds), speed, agility and numbers (118 receptions for 1,698 yards and 15 touchdowns over his last two seasons) to be special in the right offense at the next level. McBride is an excellent return man with impressive ability to get vertical on contested catches.
WR Dezmin Lewis, Central Arkansas: At 6'4" and 215 pounds, Lewis has outstanding straight-line speed, and the ability to grab the spectacular catch. With the right amount of strength training, he could be a yards-after-catch expert for some NFL team. A good week at the Senior Bowl helped his case, and a good combine might move him to the top of the third day of the draft.
TE MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois: The 6'3", 254-pound Pruitt was fairly dominant against the weaker defenses of the Missouri Valley Football Conference—adding 10 receptions for 136 yards against Purdue—and when you isolate his attributes, Pruitt comes across with an impressive combination of power and speed. He set a school record in 2014 with 81 receptions, and he added 13 touchdowns to the mix.
OT Brett Boyko, UNLV: Boyko was a quarterback and defensive end in Canada, and then, the Rebels offered him a chance as an offensive tackle—a position he'd not played before. Boyko has proven to be a tremendous athlete during his time in the NCAA, and though he's got some rough spots in his technique, he's come a long way in his 43 games on the offensive line, especially as a pass-blocker. If he shows his power and hand moves during combine drills, he's a player NFL teams could get hot on quickly.
OG Ali Marpet, Hobart: Marpet was pretty much off the radar until people started gushing about his Senior Bowl performance, when he stood out with power at tackle and guard. Marpet showed outstanding technique, leverage and toughness, and with a similar breakout performance at the combine, he'll further prove that his small-school status won't hold him back when he hits the big time.
DE Lynden Trail, Norfolk State: Trail was originally a Florida recruit, but chose to transfer out after Urban Meyer left. And on tape, you can see why he was so highly regarded—he has the kind of strength and athleticism that reminds you of Aldon Smith. The 6'6", 262-pound Trail did enough at the Senior Bowl to impress coaches and scouts, and his is a name you could see pretty early in the 2015 draft. Trail may also be asked to work out at tight end—he was in Mobile, and caught a touchdown in practice.
DE Zach Wagenmann, Montana: Wagenmann is a pure effort guy who comes off the snap with a great deal of speed, and never lets up. He racked up an amazing 17.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 74 tackles in 2014 alone. He didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school, but he's come a long way in a short time. A great combine would further that process in a big way.
DT Christian Covington, Rice: Covington dislocated his left kneecap last November, and his medicals will be of supreme importance in Indianapolis. The 6'3", 295-poound Covington is a natural three-technique tackle with good speed and a variety of hand movements, though he needs to stay on point more consistently—he can be beaten off his post too often. A good off-season session of strength training and a clean bill of health would make him a very interesting prospect.
DT Joey Mbu, Houston: Of all the smaller-school, (relatively) little-known prospects I've watched this year, Mbu is one of the most impressive, and you can start with his ability to shoot gaps and split double-teams. The 6'3", 315-pound Mbu could work in a lot of gaps—he fits best as a speed nose tackle or power three-tech, but some teams might see him as a 3–4 end in heavy packages, with an ability to move inside on passing downs.
OLB Zack Hodges, Harvard: Just 20 players from Harvard have been drafted in the team's 150-year history, but Hodges is likely to add his name to that class. Hodges plays all over the line, and though he'll need to bulk up from his listed 6'3", 244-pound size, there's a lot to like on his tape.
CB Quinten Rollins, Miami of Ohio: Rollins was a basketball recruit out of high school, but he did enough in just one season of MAC football to gain traction as a possible first-day prospect—and a great combine could seal the deal. Rollins plays bigger than his size (5'11", 193 pounds), and he excels as a press/bail pass defender with above-average tackling technique. He'll be a project at the NFL level unless he hits a team that requires its cornerbacks to play press coverage and trail receivers outside, but even with that, he'll have a lot of interest.
CB D'Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic: Smith may project as a slot cornerback due to his size (5'10", 189 pounds). However, in an NFL that plays nickel and dime as base defense more than ever, a slot guy is essentially a starter, and that ups Smith's draft stock by default, because he has the speed and toughness to direct a receiver from the line of scrimmage and trail him all over the field. He was a Conference USA standout for a long time, which led to a Senior Bowl invitation—and now, the biggest stage—for his talent.
S Jaquiski Tartt, Samford: Tartt is the kind of player every defense desires and requires: A big-hitting safety with the kind of speed that makes him a legitimate full-field defender. He had six interceptions in his collegiate career, but his primary attribute—and the one that will carry him to the next level—is that he can close in accurately and bring big hits. Tartt proved at the Senior Bowl that he was better than his competition suggested in college; he'll need to do that again at the combine to assure a mid-round draft pick, but the potential is definitely there.
CLASSIC SI PHOTOS FROM THE NFL COMBINE