Small-school prospects dream big
Lindenwood University cornerback Pierre Desir never really saw himself as an attractive NFL prospect until he trotted out to practice on a sweltering day in training camp in August. Desir's coaches had informed him that some scouts would be watching that session, but Desir figured they'd be sitting high in the nearby bleachers, with binoculars scanning the action. Instead, a handful of men armed with notebooks and pens hovered only a few feet from every drill he participated in that day. As Desir quickly learned, they weren't there simply out of mild curiosity.
What Desir remembers most about that day -- especially as this year's NFL draft approaches -- is that he spent a lot more time showcasing his man coverage skills then he ever had in a routine practice. Those scouts didn't stop coming back, either. Some stopped by at least once a week during regular-season practices, while most others attended his games at the Division II school located in St. Charles, Mo. The attention seemed surreal to Desir at times. "It wasn't in my mind that I'd have the chance to move forward after my career ended," he said. "It's very tough to get to the NFL from here."
Desir shouldn't have been surprised that he intrigued so many NFL teams scouring the college football landscape for exceptional talent. The league has been filled with standouts from mid-major programs and small colleges for decades. It's just that now, more than ever, they are easier to find and evaluate. They're also being more highly regarded in the draft, regardless of the level of competition they face in college.
The Kansas City Chiefs used the top pick in last year's draft to take Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who became the first player in the history of the Mid-American Conference to be selected that high. When Detroit took BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah fifth overall, it marked the first time that two players who didn't play in power conferences (the American Athletic Conference, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) were selected in the top five. This year, Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack widely is considered a top-five pick, with Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo showing enough promise that he could sneak into the first round.
Sign of the times
Fisher's emergence last year was a strong sign of the times -- "If you went back 20 years, it would've taken some big balls for a general manager to feel comfortable making that pick," said one AFC scout -- but one look at NFL rosters reveals how prevalent smaller-school stars have become in the league. When the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, 15 players from the MAC suited up for the game (only the SEC had more with 18). Three seasons later, 20 players who didn't compete in the power conferences were named to the 2013 Pro Bowl.
If Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, a strong candidate to be this year's top overall pick, hadn't seen his school move from Conference USA into the AAC this past season, this potentially could've been the sixth time in the past 13 years that as many as three players from mid-majors or small schools were selected in the first round. "Our league is full of guys, Hall of Famers that played at small schools," New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "We've been fortunate with our guys and our roster where we've had a lot of guys from smaller schools and yet we don't specifically target them. We just acknowledge that they exist and a good football player can come from anywhere."
Desir is the perfect example of that. At 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds, he was one of only three cornerbacks at this year's combine listed taller than 6 feet (Nebraska's Stan Jean-Baptiste and Utah's Keith McGill, both 6-foot-3, were the others). That makes him a valuable commodity in a league that is suddenly smitten with taller, rangy cornerbacks after the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl with a secondary that featured 6-foot-3 Richard Sherman and 6-foot-1 Byron Maxwell at that position. Given how quickly the buzz has grown around Desir and the demand for his skill set, he could go as high as the third round.
Desir already had displayed fluid hips and reliable ball skills (he had 25 career interceptions in college) prior to the start of the pre-draft evaluation process. What enhanced his stock was his performance at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl. "I think I showed that I am a playmaker," Desir said. "I didn't get the ball thrown at me that much in college, but I was able to get interceptions in the East-West game and the Senior Bowl. I made plays against the D-I guys. And being a taller corner, I was able to show I could handle press and off coverage."
NFL decision-makers believe players like Desir help themselves most in situations like that, when the talent pool deepens around them. "You always take into consideration the level of comp,'' Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said. "It's not so much just what they do, because you have a pretty good picture of their athleticism by the combine gymnastics. So really the biggest thing for small-school [prospects] -- and not so small -- is the level of competition. Those are the things you weed through. Did they play in a bowl game? Is there any evidence of how they did when the level of competition bumped up because of things like the Senior Bowl and the East-West game?"
Chips on their shoulders
What scouts tend to like about players from smaller schools is the predictable supersized chip that many prospects carry on their shoulders. When speaking to reporters at this year's combine, Mack talked about how Ohio State chose to single-team him during most of Buffalo's game against the Buckeyes in August. Despite his team losing that contest 40-20, Mack dominated with nine tackles, 2½ sacks and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown. Asked at this year's NFL scouting combine if he thought Ohio State didn't know how good he was, Mack said, "I feel it was a little disrespectful from a schematic approach, but at the same time I wanted to make them pay for it."
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch also defended the MAC at the combine, saying, "It's Division I football. There's great players all around the country. ... There's great quarterbacks, and it's a great league. We beat a lot of BCS teams every year [and] take down a lot of Big Ten teams. We get great kids in this conference, and they're overlooked by bigger schools because it's either we're too slow, or too short, or some knock on us. So no one takes us and we end up at a MAC school."
College football actually has seen a trickle-down effect in talent ever since the NCAA started reducing scholarships four decades ago. In 1978, Division I-A teams (now known as FBS programs) had scholarships cut from 105 to 95. Between 1992 and 1994, that number decreased to its current figure of 85. As an AFC personnel director said, "When you look at those numbers, you're talking about a lot of kids settling into lesser schools. And with the number of recruiting services out there today, nobody is getting overlooked."
Desir can relate to that. Born in Haiti, he moved to St. Charles with his family when he was a child and he attracted the attention of Division I programs such as Kansas State and Missouri as a high school senior. That was before poor college-admission test scores ruined his chances of going to those bigger schools. After spending his first two years at Division II Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., he discovered another challenge: He needed more help to care for his family -- he and wife Morgan have two daughters, 7-year-old Keeli and 3-year-old Kamryn -- while also being a full-time student athlete.
Desir eventually transferred to Lindenwood so his family could live with his mother-in-law. Since Washburn wouldn't release him from his scholarship, he spent his first semester paying for his own tuition while being ineligible to play during the 2011 season. Desir and his wife chuckle today about the jobs he did to make ends meet -- he cleaned sewers and removed shell casings from gun ranges -- but there were moments that tested his faith. Desir once spent a night cleaning human feces out of a flooded apartment complex basement, all so he could make $40.
When Desir finally did play for Lindenwood as a junior in 2012, his 60 tackles and nine interceptions earned him Division II All-America honors. The scouts started finding their way to Lindenwood the following summer. "My family kept pushing me," Desir said. "They knew I wanted to keep playing football. And they kept telling me it would all pay off in the end."
Dominating the competition
Players like Desir are even more attractive in today's NFL because it's easier for teams to get a realistic sense of how to project their talents at the next level. The general rule of thumb when it comes to scouting such prospects is that they need to dominate the competition at whatever level they play. If they are merely good players at smaller schools, then they need special circumstances. For example, when the Broncos found Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas at Portland State prior to the 2011 draft, they didn't immediately see the potential in a former college basketball player who had spent only one year playing football. It was the excitement displayed by tight ends coach Clancy Barone -- who had coached San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, another former basketball player -- that prompted them to use a fourth-round pick on Thomas.
The Broncos also likely had an easier time projecting Thomas as an NFL player because of the resources available to them. Technology has reached the point that scouts and general managers have the ability to find information on any prospect within a matter of minutes. "Evaluating players is a lot easier now that everything is digitized," said the AFC scout. "We used to not get tapes on players until February, especially the small-college schools. You always had to hound their video guys for that stuff. But now all the film is shared between the NFL and the college. The second we want to see a player, we can have it streamed right to us.
"Now a general manager can hear about a player and call up the information right away. Ten years ago, if you heard about a player, you had to open the [file] on the kid and hope you had some information. And if you didn't, you had to hustle to track it down."
The only major challenge in pursuing players from smaller schools is that it normally takes them at least a year longer than players from bigger programs to adjust to the NFL. They may lack the strength that results from training at schools that have multimillion-dollar facilities, and they might not be exposed to more complex schemes that are commonplace in power conferences. "In general terms, you look at how [they] would handle the sophistication of our game -- the comprehension, those type of things," said St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. "It's not necessarily a concern with the matchup because of the competition in their respective leagues, but more so the potential for a level of understanding of what we're asking [them] to do. ... You can see the athleticism, so you look for the rest."
Yet when small-school players hit, they can make any general manager look like a genius. When the Tennessee Titans grabbed running back Chris Johnson in the first round of the 2008 draft, most people knew the former East Carolina star largely because of the 4.24-second 40-yard dash he ripped off at that year's combine. One year later, he ran for 2,006 yards and set a league record with 2,509 total yards from scrimmage. The San Francisco 49ers also have done quite well for themselves lately, with a roster that includes two Pro Bowlers along their offensive line (left tackle Joe Staley from Central Michigan and former Idaho guard Mike Iupati) and a rapidly rising star quarterback (Colin Kaepernick, formerly of Nevada) out of non-BCS schools.
Desir's chances of making a name for himself in the NFL are enhanced by the position he plays. It's obviously harder to evaluate quarterbacks on any level, but players who compete on the perimeter tend to have a smoother transition, with cornerbacks, receivers, and pass-rushers being the most noteworthy. The most important thing for Desir to remember is something that his former Washburn teammate and current San Francisco 49ers backup linebacker Michael Wilhoite believes. It doesn't matter how you get to the NFL; it's what you do once you get there.
"The NFL is going to find you anywhere," Wilhoite said. "You can't control what scouts are coming to your school, but you can control your work ethic. You have teams in every major city and scouts in every region of the country. The NFL respects winning and guys who will help teams win. It all comes down to what you do on Sundays."
Desir hopes that's the case. "Nobody knew where Lindenwood was when I got to the Senior Bowl," he said. "So I spent a lot of time answering that question. But there were a lot of other small-school guys there, too. It feels like people are paying attention to what we do. They know we can play even though we didn't go to the bigger schools."
ESPN NFL Nation reporters James Walker and Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.