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Small-school prospects that can make Thomas Rawls-like impact

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Many football fans outside of Seattle said "Who?" after seeing that Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls rushed for 209 yards in the team's win over 49ers on Sunday.

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It was Rawls' third game this season with 100-plus yards, giving the defending NFC champions a legitimate backup threat if veteran Marshawn Lynch misses more time down the stretch in the playoff race.

Rawls was an undrafted free agent who finished his career at Central Michigan last season after three unremarkable seasons at the University of Michigan. He played in nine games last season and broke the 1,000-yards-rushing mark in his sixth outing of the year (he missed time for disciplinary and academic reasons).

He's not the only impact rookie from the class of 2015 who finished his collegiate career playing outside the "Power Five" conferences. Safety Jaquiski Tartt (Samford) stepped into a starting role with the 49ers. Division III stud guard Ali Marpet (Hobart College) is protecting fellow rookie quarterback Jameis Winston in Tampa. Former Delaware State defensive lineman Rodney Gunter is the Arizona Cardinals' starting nose tackle. The Broncos hoped Ty Sambrailo could go from playing down the road at Colorado State to manning their starting left-tackle spot for his entire rookie season, but a shoulder injury shut him down after three weeks.

There is a fair amount of talent in the 2016 draft class coming from unexpected places, as well. Here are the small-school prospects that I see as the favorites to make an impact in their rookie campaigns:


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Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech: NFL teams looking for bulk in the middle of the defensive line should invest a mid-round pick in Butler, who can push the pocket as well as attack one gap or play two to meet responsibilities as a run defender. The high demand for wide-bodies with decent agility will push him up draft boards as the process unfolds. Tech's recent hot streak should earn the team a bowl berth, and potentially a spot in the Conference USA Championship Game if it can beat Southern Miss on Saturday. Those games will be Butler's chance to really get on scouts' radars.

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Travis Greene, RB, Bowling Green: Looking for another MAC back to bring "beast mode" to the league next year? Greene is the guy. Quarterback Matt Johnson gets a lot of headlines as one of the most prolific passers in the country (467 pass attempts, 4,229 yards and 39 touchdowns in 11 games), but Greene's running is impressive. He's able to find the holes created by mauling guard Alex Huettel. He can power through tackles, and accelerate to break off chunks of yardage.

Darion Griswold, TE, Arkansas State: It's difficult for receivers and tight ends to make a significant impact as a rookie. However, guys like Larry Donnell (Giants) and Crockett Gillmore (Ravens) became major contributors early in their careers. I expect that some NFL coach will find a way to get Griswold on the field right away. At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, he should do enough as a blocker to earn playing time. He can be a solid option in the red zone, too. If Griswold's new team can't utilize him in 2016, then maybe fellow tight end prospects Tyler Higbee (Western Kentucky) and Bryce Williams (East Carolina) will benefit from a good situation.

Joe Haeg, OT, North Dakota State: Again, the senior quarterback (Carson Wentz) gets most of the notice from those following the draft when the Bison roam the field. But Wentz will likely need time before he can contribute at the next level, while Haeg's play portends a starting role sooner rather than later. He will need to get stronger through a pro-style weight program before his rookie season, but athletically, he's ready to go.


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DeAndre Houston-Carson, CB/FS, William & Mary: Houston-Carson starred as a shutdown corner for three years, and then moved to free safety as a senior as his coaches needed their smartest and most physical player in the back half. Listed at 6-2, 195 pounds, he has the size to play outside or deep in the NFL. His work at an all-star game and the NFL Scouting Combine will help teams decide where they want him to line up, but either way, he'll be given a chance to step in immediately.

Miles Killebrew, SS, Southern Utah: This year's version of Jaquiski Tartt (2015 second-round pick of the 49ers) is Killebrew, a linebacker-sized (6-3, 230) strong safety who shuts down FCS receivers and running backs on a regular basis. While he has great size, Killebrew doesn't just play inside the box, though he'll likely flourish there on Sundays. Killebrew is one of three draftable prospects from the Thunderbirds, joining All-American defensive end James Cowser (46.5 tackles for loss, 22.5 sacks over the past two years) and cornerback LeShaun Sims in the hunt for pro prosperity.


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Jimmy Pruitt, CB/FS, San Jose State: The Carolina Panthers found a fifth-round steal in San Jose State defensive back Bene' Benwikere two years ago. Teams better not sleep on Pruitt in the same fashion this April. Like Houston-Carson, Pruitt could play corner or safety, and has experience as both spots with SJSU -- just like Benwikere did. He is a physical defender in man coverage, so teams relying heavily on their corners to hold down the fort outside the hashes will see great value in his services. Otherwise, Pruitt has the ability to handle receivers and tight ends inside as a cover safety, making him worthy of a top-100 selection.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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