Small school prosects have a chance to turn scouts' heads at Senior Bowl:
The Senior Bowl is a week of opportunity for draft prospects coming out if college to show NFL evaluators what they can do at the next level. With the majority of underclassmen declaring early for the draft coming from power programs, it leaves room for many seniors from smaller schools to compete at the combine.
There are players at the Senior Bowl from smaller conferences in the FBS, the FCS (formerly Division 1 AA), Division 2 and even one player from Division 3. The opportunities for players from those levels of play to put good film on tape against power five conference competition are slim. The Senior Bowl gives evaluators a chance to see that up close and personal in those situations at practice. For players who often have their level of competition held against them, it is a golden opportunity to prove their doubters wrong. "For SEC and Big ten guys it is easy to validate yourself with your play," Idaho State (FCS) offensive guard Skyler Phillips said. "A lot of time with the film with the smaller school guys they question the caliber of player so I'm excited to go out there and show everyone I'm a NFL caliber prospect." The best chance these players have to show they are a NFL ready is during one on one drills. They are designed for smaller school players to show they have the athleticism and talent to compete with top athletes from schools in power conferences.
"One on one is man on man," South Carolina State (FCS) linebacker Darius Leonard said. "I'm going to beat you or you are going to beat me. I'm definitely going to try to beat you." Colby Gosset played offensive line in the Sun Belt Conference for Appalachian State. "I think you have to look forward to that coming into these games since those will be the biggest moments of the week," he said. "You got to come in and take advantage of those situations and really prove yourself during that time."
The ultimate underdog in Mobile is the lone Division 3 invite, Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph. "I know this is my ultimate test," Joseph said. "So everyone looking at me during one on ones and throughout the week of practice, I know it is finally here and I'm ready to compete at practice."
While Joseph and other players like him are trying to play well to secure their draft position, they also feel like they are representing their entire conference or even division of football.
"I take a lot of pride in it," Joseph said. "Want to put on for Division Three and show we have some players there too and can play with the best of them."
"Especially coming from South Carolina State, we don't get a lot of props," Leonard said. "I want to show the guys that the people that play in the MEAC are good ball players."
For South Alabama safety Jeremy Reaves, he has the additional pressure of competing in his University's backyard. South Alabama University is located in Mobile. "I want to represent my university obviously," he said. "This is a hot bed in the Mobile area. I played here. This is huge for me to represent my university."
Different players have slightly different goals when getting into one on ones.
"That I can compete at a high level, every rep, every play, every series," Reaves said. "It's consistency. Can I be consistent against those considered the best in the country because everyone in the NFL is the best at what they do?"
For offensive linemen it can be especially true. With so many college offensive systems being different than what is taught on the pro level, the challenges can be even more daunting. NFL evaluators are desperate to find offensive linemen that can step in on day one and do all the things required of a modern day NFL offense. The problem is no different for players at different competition levels of college football.
"We did spread a lot at our school," Idaho offensive guard Skyler Phillips said. "A lot of things we're learning now is a lot of inside zone and outside zone, your power, one sweep. Pass pro is pretty straight forward. A lot of detail just getting in that, having to learn the extensive playbook. I feel like I have a good foundation for it but just getting the new verbiage and terminology down will be the next step."
Alex Cappa, an offensive tackle from Division Two Humboldt State that has impressed this week, has a similar challenge.
"We ran a spread system for the most part," Cappa said. "It'll be good to show that I can run a different system that we haven't run as much at Humboldt State, but we have done a little bit, so I think I'll be ready for it."
Colby Gosset has the opposite problem, coming from a system where he ran the ball seventy percent of the time in a NFL blocking scheme but wasn't asked to pass protect much.
"We ran a zone scheme in college and a lot of NFL teams run one as well," Gosset said. "We had more of a 70/30 run pass so just getting into the pass protection aspect and working on that is the biggest obstacle to overcome. I don't think I've ever pass set out of two point stance at guard. Playing guard for four years I always had my hand in the dirt and I feel comfortable down there. Showing that physicality from App State where we a pride ourselves on that and prove I belong on the level of competition of the guys I'm playing alongside."
Even though these players will only be in a few meetings during the week with NFL coaches they hope to be sponges and take advantage of this opportunity by absorbing as much knowledge as possible.
"It's everything," Cappa said. "It's technique stuff. It's how they run practice and how they run meetings. You have to pick up on the mental and physical stuff that they're telling you." Many of these players have been doubted long before their graduation from college.
""It was the same thing coming out of high school," Darius Leonard said. "I went to small high school, came out a small guy. I had a chip on my shoulder since high school and it carried over now. A lot of people looking at me and questioning my level play from a small school and I want to show I can play with the big guys."
"There's a dual fold chip on my shoulder that began from my early recruitment process from high school when I was basically told I wasn't good enough by a big school that offered me," Skyler Phillips said. "From there on out showing that Big Sky guys are there for a game. If you go back and look at the film I feel my best games were against FBS opponents so I feel like it was my time to shine. I look forward to taking that same chip and carrying it throughout the week."
"It's not about where I came from, it's about who I am," Cappa said. "I'm a good football player and I'm ready to compete against any of them."
It's an opportunity that lot of these players have been waiting for their entire lives. You're going against top tier talent," Jeremy Reeves said. "That's what you want as a college football player. It's exciting. I want to go against the best of the best. The guy won the Heisman trophy and we have the Biletnicoff winner here. There's a lot of great talent."
It might have been Siran Neal, from FCS Jacksonville State that put it best. "Take care of business but have fun while you're doing it. It doesn't matter where you're coming from. I come from a small school, D1 AA, and I'm here with all the top school guys, SEC, ACC, all those big school, but that doesn't really matter. If you're a baller you're a baller."
With a big week in Mobile, even guys from schools some people may have never heard of could be balling in a NFL stadium near you in 2018.