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Small-school linebackers gaining attention of NFL teams

  • By Adam L. Jahns
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Cole Klotz walked away feeling like he earned some respect. And for a Division III linebacker from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater participating in the University of Wisconsin's pro day, that meant showing he belonged.

"I hope that I showed them at least that, 'You know what? I can do this thing,' " Klotz said.

Klotz was one of several UW-Whitewater players, including outside linebacker Kyle Wismer and receiver Tyler Huber, who took part in the regional combine at the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton Center on Saturday.

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"This thing" that Klotz mentioned would be playing football at a level high enough, where NFL scouts turn their heads in their direction. They're considered longshots, especially coming from a D-III program, but they appear to have the right mentality.

"Everybody who is trying to crack it from D-III, there's always those concerns," Klotz said. "You're playing with kids who aren't as gifted athletically than at [Division I]. So it's just proving that you can do everything that they can and then some."

Klotz did that at the Badgers' pro day earlier this month. After his performance, Klotz was approached by scouts from the Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers. His agent also has been contacted by teams, including the Arizona Cardinals, requesting film from his days at Whitewater.

What teams likely will see on tape is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound inside linebacker who led his team in tackles and was a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, which goes to the most outstanding player in Division III.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to get on an NFL roster," Klotz said. "I think special teams is my way to get on there first, and then hopefully as I develop, it's inside backer."

When it comes to D-III programs, few, if any schools rival Whitewater in recent years. The Warhawks have won four of the last five D-III championships, including in 2013. Klotz, Wismer and Huber played key roles in three of their last four titles.

"They're unforgettable years, especially winning three national championships when I was there, and starting for three years," the 6-3, 237-pound Wismer said. "I hopefully get to show more now."

The trio hopes Whitewater's longstanding success starts to lead to more interest at an individual level.

"It was a great experience for me at Whitewater," Klotz said. "Three national championship rings look pretty good on the mantle."

Klotz and Wismer take pride in being linebackers from a school that has garnered a reputation for having very good ones. They were joined by fellow Whitewater linebacker Josh Williams at the regional combine. All of them view Whitewater as a D-III version of "Linebacker U," referring to Penn State's nickname.

"We have our swag, our 'LBU' swag down in Wisconsin-Whitewater," Klotz said.

"It's definitely a pride thing," Wismer said. "We came in [to the regional combine] saying we wanted to be the best linebackers. We all competed to win a national championship, so we're obviously somebody to be reckoned with."

Huber, one of Whitewater's top receivers, hopes his past connection with quarterback Matt Blanchard turns into some NFL looks. Blanchard is currently with the Carolina Panthers after spending time with the Chicago Bears.

"His senior year [at Whitewater] I was like his go-to receiver," said the 6-2, 195-pound Huber, who said he runs the 40-yard dash in the high 4.4s and can bench 225 pounds around 30 times.

"He was a great quarterback and now he's playing for Carolina. He played for Chicago for a while. I'm just trying to follow his footsteps. A guy like him shows that a D-III guy can make it. It's a dream for all of us."

The next step toward achieving their dreams would be receiving invites to the league's Super Regional Combine in Detroit in April.

"They said they'll call you by Thursday," Huber said, "so I'll be sitting by phone until then."

Looking for a second chance

When it comes to past accomplishments, safety Tom Nelson's resume stood out like a man amongst boys when compared to others at the regional combine.

How so?

Nelson actually has NFL experience.

Nelson, 27, appeared in 12 games -- including three starts -- for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009. Considered a solid special-teams contributor, Nelson has one interception and 22 tackles in his pro career, which included a run with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.

Last year, Nelson spent all of training camp and preseason with his hometown Bears, before being among the final cuts.

"I don't know what [the Bears] felt, but I had a good preseason and I can only control what I do," said Nelson, who went to Illinois State. "I put good film out there. It didn't work out, but I'm OK with that. Everything happens for a reason. I feel like I left everything out there."

Participating in the Chicago regional combine was an easy decision for Nelson. He's from nearby Arlington Heights and he said he's still got gas left in his proverbial football tank.

"People like to see you in person or on video, which is what this would be," said Nelson, who can sign with a team anytime being a free agent. "I want to show I'm healthy and that I'm ready to go. I know I can still play in this league. You watch every Sunday and you know guys that you've played next to and played with, and they're out there. You just need a chance and an opportunity."

Auburn safety stands out

Many colleges from many levels were represented at the regional combine, but few players had the experiences that Auburn safety Ryan Smith had.

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Smith started eight games for the SEC powerhouse, which lost to Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game. He made six tackles against Florida State in the title game.

"I had a great career at Auburn," said Smith, who had 68 tackles and three interceptions in his senior season. "I played as a true freshman and played in all four years. I'm just trying to come out here and get in front of more scouts and just prove that I'm one of the top safeties in this draft and had been slept on my whole career."

Smith was indirectly involved in arguably the most famous play of college football in 2013 -- his roommate Chris Davis' 100-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown to beat rival Alabama.

Smith actually moved into the end zone before Alabama's field-goal attempt, but was replaced by Davis when Auburn called a timeout.

"If they kicked the field goal, I figured that it would come up short so I tried to ease back their without coach [Gus Malzahn] knowing," Smith said with a laugh. "But he called the timeout and Chris is our returner. So we just felt we'd set up a return and put him back there. It worked out for the best.

"It was a special moment for me because I'm from Alabama. That's a huge rivalry, Alabama-Auburn. Just to beat them like that, it was just a good moment for Auburn and our whole program."

Smith said he feels "overlooked" by scouts, but is hoping his performance at the regional combine will help change that. He did meet with the Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints and other teams during his pro day earlier this month.

"I feel like it will all play itself out," Smith said, "and I will get my name in the top 15 safeties in this draft."

Looking the part

Just how confident is Central State University wide receiver Dayvon Ross in his own abilities?

Davis walked into the Chicago regional combine, sporting a hooded sweatshirt that was a replica of those worn by players at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

"I just felt like I deserved to be in the one in Indy," Ross said. "So I kind of imitated it."

But now comes the task of convincing NFL teams that he deserves an opportunity after a college career that saw him jump from school to school for various reasons. He spent just one semester at Central State (Division II) and played in only two games, catching six passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns.

"I don't want to point any fingers," Ross said. "I'm just going to go with grades. Grades played a big part. I'm glad I figured it out in my later stages."

As a 6-2, 225-pound receiver with a physical approach, Ross is considered to have potential. Ross said he's spoken to scouts from the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers.

"A lot of people take different roads," Ross said. "Unfortunately, I took the hard way around, but I'm comfortable with where I'm at right now."

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