Overcoming the 'small school' label
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
A player does everything right to build his resume during the course of his college football career.
Three-, four-year starter. Touchdowns, tackles, victories. All-conference, All-America, all-everything.
And then the NFL Draft rolls around and there only appears to be doubt surrounding his ability.
A player at a BCS conference school doesn't face the music like this, but it happens all the time when he's played in the Football Championship Subdivision. He's from a "small school" and probably doesn't measure up for the next level.
Or so they say.
It's a label - fair or not - that will always follow an FCS player, even one who goes on to have significant success in the NFL. All a draft prospect can do is not take the label personally or dwell on it, letting it shatter his confidence.
"I think the best way (to dispel doubters), and I would tell any player that asks me this, is you never know when they (scouts) are looking. You need to play well every time out, every week," said Josh Buchanan, who operates JB Scouting Inc., which is devoted to small-school player evaluation. He has been evaluating players for nine years and provides information to NFL scouts.
Appalachian State safety Mark LeGree is a three-time first-team FCS All-America.
"They're looking for guys who have been doing it for several years, week-in and week-out, and anytime he plays up a level, he does well. You need to approach it as, everybody's looking at me."
Buchanan has watched as the number of "small school" selections has decreased over time. FCS selections used to number in the 20s regularly, but fell to 14 two years ago and was 17 last year. This year's number will probably be in that range.
When evaluating a player, Buchanan believes teams should give preference to his performance and consistency over his college career.
For instance, Appalachian State safety Mark LeGree was a first-team All- America in each of the past three seasons, picking off 22 passes and playing in many big games during that time. But Chattanooga cornerback Buster Skrine, who played in the same Southern Conference and made the all-league first team each of the past two seasons, but was not an All-America, has shot past LeGree on draft boards. His excellence with the testing and position drills at the NFL Combine are fueling his stock. Buchanan believes more in LeGree than Skrine as a prospect.
But player evaluation is fickle, of course, and the beauty is in the eye of the beholder - the NFL team with the draft pick.
Teams rely on a lot of information, but they don't always get it right with the FCS level. Buchanan considers New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, who was a seventh-round pick out of Hofstra in 2006, to be the best recent example.
The college career provides an excellent body of work and scouts put extra value on how a FCS player does against FBS opponents. But they also put a lot of stock on what a player does between the end of his senior season and the draft, which this year will occur April 28-30 in New York. It's usually imperative for an FCS player to perform well during the week of a college all- star game - the pregame practices that are open to scouts and the game itself - and at the NFL Combine, where he is measured in every way.
"If you happen to get lucky enough to impress in all three of those things," Buchanan said, "just about every time that guy's going to fly up the draft board."
The FCS players who aren't invited to an all-star game or the Combine generally find the odds are stacked against them. They can still impress at a pro day at individual schools, but some can be lightly attended by NFL teams and a player who wasn't afforded any prior post-career opportunity to showcase his skills really needs an impressive workout.
FCS players who go on to success in the NFL tend to come from the positions of cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line and defensive end (who often convert to linebacker because of the size - like 2009 Buck Buchanan Award winner Arthur Moats of the Buffalo Bills). On the contrary, NFL rosters aren't stocked with former FCS quarterback.
Buchanan projects the 2011 FCS draft class will have about three to six starters emerge from the top group of draftees: Villanova offensive lineman Ben Ijalana; Eastern Washington running back Taiwan Jones; Lehigh offensive lineman Will Rackley; Portland State tight end Julius Thomas; Hampton defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis; and Southern Illinois cornerback Korey Lindsey-Woods.
Thomas, who had a four-year basketball career at Portland State and then played football this past season for the first time since he was a high school freshman, is Buchanan's choice as the most intriguing FCS prospect. "He played only year, did real well at the East-West Shrine (Game) and had a good Combine; he's done everything well," Buchanan said. "The problem with him is he was on a bad team. But athletically they were intrigued and took him to the Combine, gave him an East-West Shrine invite, and he did well at both venues. Now I'm thinking he probably goes in the fourth or fifth round because of it."
The highest pick from FCS schools will be Ijalana, but Buchanan believes Ellis might be the class' top talent, although his character issues are a detriment. "I think he's an outstanding player. I think it all depends on what's around him and just where he is mentally," Buchanan said. "He's either going to be boom or bust. I don't think there's any in-between with him."
NFL teams will find a talent anywhere - from Southern Cal to Ohio State to Appalachian State to Duquesne. An FCS player, though, will always face the "small school" label. The best way to overcome it is for him to use it as motivation each and every day.