It’s been eight years since a player from a level below the Football Bowl Subdivision has been taken in the first round of the NFL draft, when the Cardinals took Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with the No. 16 pick. That drought is sure to end this year with North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz bound for the top 10, and he may have company before the end of the first night if another team rolls the dice on Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence.
Wentz and Spence are far from the only two NFL talents who spent 2015 toiling in relative obscurity, away from college football’s big money power conferences. Read on for SI’s guide to the 10 small-school draft prospects you’re going to need to know. If you don’t learn the names now, there’s a good chance you’ll be learning them in the fall.
Josh Woodrum, QB, Liberty
We’re skipping over the highest-profile small-school quarterback in this year’s draft to give some pixelated ink to Woodrum, the Flames’ alltime passing yards leader. His performance on the road against West Virginia in September (21 of 32 for 280 yards and a touchdown) displayed a handful of the traits that could play up consistently: an innate feel for the pass rush—though to be fair, the Mountaineers tore through Liberty’s offensive with regularity, so expecting pressure was a good default setting—and an arsenal of well-weighted throws. His tall, sturdy frame will stand out to NFL teams, so if he doesn’t come off the board on the third day, he should have multiple shots at sticking on an NFL depth chart this summer.
Paul McRoberts, WR, Southeast Missouri State
Though he’s only 6' 1", McRoberts plays in the mold of a taller possession receiver like Alshon Jeffery, with the ball skills to haul in any toss-up in his general direction and a no-nonsense way of pressing upfield on quick-hitting routes and screens. After a solid performance at the Senior Bowl in which he caught four passes for 46 yards and a touchdown, he somewhat surprisingly missed out on an NFL combine invite. McRoberts’s basketball background (forgive the draft cliche, but his hoops career really did last longer than most—he averaged 5.9 points in 13 games for the Southeast Missouri State basketball team in 2013–14) can be seen in the way he bodies up smaller defenders while the ball’s in the air.
Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State
As a senior in high school, Hargrave needed an 85 on a Zoology test to be cleared for FBS football. His score? An 84.333, according to his stepdad. After greyshirting for a year at South Carolina State until he was academically eligible, Hargrave developed into a terror at the FCS level, winning consecutive MEAC Defensive Player of the Year awards and piling up six sacks in a single 2014 game against Bethune-Cookman.
He overpowered the interior linemen in his conference with his 6’ 1”, 309-pound frame, and he’ll be counting on the motor that made his gaudy sack numbers possible to help adjust to the step up in quality of competition.
Victor Ochi, DE, Stony Brook
After former Seawolf TE Will Tye broke through with the Giants last fall, Ochi should make Stony Brook’s wait for its second NFL alum much shorter than the wait for its first. Even when he runs up against a blocker quick enough to match him, the 6’ 1”, 246-pound defensive end can bend the edge and disrupt the quarterback—at least, that’s what he did consistently in the Colonial Athletic Association. He might need to learn a few more moves to bring his production to the pros.
Beau Sandland, TE, Montana St. AND Tyrone Holmes, DE, Montana
It’s standard practice to measure small-school stars’ NFL readiness by how they fare against the best competition they face, but when your list has a player from both sides of the Brawl of the Wild, one of the nation’s best-named in-state rivalries, you don’t pass by it going 60 miles an hour.
This year, Montana rolled to a 54–35 win on the road in Bozeman, but Sandland, a transfer from Miami, led all receivers with 163 yards and found the end zone twice for Montana State in a losing effort. At 6' 4" and 253 pounds, he seems like a tough receiver to lose track of, but there he was, gliding up the seam and finding holes in the Grizzlies’ secondary.
Holmes, the 2015 FCS Defensive Player of the Year, racked up 18 sacks last season, four more than any other FCS player, including a strip-sack of Carson Wentz in the season opener against North Dakota State. Holmes’s speed off the edge was simply too much for most tackles at his level and helped him disrupt plays even when he didn’t get home to the QB, but the jump to the pros could be a steep one if he can’t diversify his arsenal.
James Cowser, DE, Southern Utah
Holmes may have garnered national recognition, but he wasn’t even named the defensive MVP of the Big Sky Conference. That award went to Cowser, the FCS’s alltime leader in both sacks (43) and tackles for loss (80). He’s one of three Southern Utah players who could hear his name called in late April, along with defensive backs Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims—the Thunderbirds rolled uncharacteristically deep at the combine.
Matt Judon, DE, Grand Valley State
In terms of speed, the chasm between Judon and anyone else on the field was impossible to miss in Division II. He racked up 20 sacks, the most of any level of college football in 2015, and 81 total tackles on his way to the Gene Upshaw Award given to Division II’s top lineman. When he doesn’t get home, he routinely clogs up passing lanes with his 33 7/8" arms.
Kevin Byard, DB, Middle Tennessee State
Middle Tennessee State is a football behemoth compared with most of the other schools represented on this list, but that doesn’t mean Byard is getting the publicity he deserves. He led the Blue Raiders in interceptions in all four seasons and directed the rest of the defense from his safety spot. Byard can square up a ballcarrier in the open field, even if he doesn’t always take the ideal angle in pursuit. He acquitted himself well in MTSU’s trip to Alabama early last season with eight tackles and an interception before he was ejected for targeting.
Harlan Miller, DB, Southeastern Louisiana
Miller closes down gaps quickly and doesn’t shy away from contact, but after weighing in at just 182 pounds in Indianapolis, he might need to get a little stronger to hold up against physical pro receivers. Also, special teams experience never hurts for speedy cornerbacks looking to find the field early.