The vast majority of prospects at this week's NFL Scouting Combine come from major programs that the average football fan can watch on a regular basis. But each year a few players from outside the BCS power conferences make names for themselves in front of a national audience.
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (Idaho State), Packers safety Nick Collins (Bethune-Cookman), Saints guard Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg), Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson (Northern Colorado) and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) are just a few examples of small-school players making a big-time impact in the NFL after showing their wares at the combine.
Lombardi: Combine captivation
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco finished his career in Delaware, but began it at Pittsburgh, so scouts didn't view him as a true small-school prospect. The same holds true in this draft with quarterbacks B.J. Coleman (Tennessee first, then Tennessee-Chattanooga) and Aaron Corp (USC/Richmond), as well as safety Janzen Jackson (Tennessee/McNeese State), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (Florida/North Alabama) and guard Rishaw Johnson (Ole Miss/California-PA).
All of the following players have a shot at a productive pro career no matter where they are selected next April, but a strong combine will give them a chance to shoot up boards.
Akiem Hicks, DT, University of Regina (Canada): Hicks is not your typical Canadian collegiate prospect, as the 6-foot-5, 325-pound junior college transfer intended on going to LSU before problems with his recruitment forced him north. He improved throughout the week of the Shrine Game, so showing off superior athleticism could force teams to take a chance on him sooner in the draft than later.
Trumaine Johnson, CB, Montana: A two-time All-American with 14 career interceptions, Johnson's NFL size, athleticism and ball skills give him a chance to break into the top 50 if he shows more straight-line speed than most scouts expect. Beating the 4.5-second mark in his 40-yard dash would do the trick. He'll also need to address a couple off-field incidents that occurred during his time in Missoula.
Mayock: 2012 draft rankings
Shawn Loiseau, ILB, Merrimack: An off-field incident may have cost Loiseau a shot of playing against top talent during his college days, but he was a dominant player at the Division II level and did not shrink from the challenge during Shrine Game week. He lacks great size (6-0, 241 pounds, 8-inch hands), but provides toughness and leadership ability. Putting on a show of athleticism could seal a draftable grade.
Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina: Already on scouts' radar because of his aggressive play and NFL size (6-0, 203), Norman made six interceptions during the week of practices at the Shrine Game. Running in the mid-to-high 4.4s would lock up a second-round slot.
DeAndre Presley, QB/CB/WR, Appalachian State: Even though he was the 2010 Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year as the Mountaineers' starting quarterback, coaches benched him this fall and moved him to a cornerback/receiver/returner role. He will be working out with the corners in Indy, hoping to at least show enough natural athleticism to get a shot at the next level.
Debate: Can't-miss prospects
Amini Silatolu, OG, Midwestern State: A pulled hamstring kept the All-American left tackle (who is likely to move inside to guard) from showing his wares to scouts, so now his combine performance becomes that much more important. He's shown athleticism on tape, but confirming it during workouts will help him secure a top-100 draft slot.
Patrick Witt, QB, Yale: While some quarterbacks may pass on passing during the Combine, instead waiting to have a scripted pro day, Witt doesn't have that luxury. Though scouts all know he has NFL size and is an intelligent player, they need to see him throw in a controlled (yet pressure-packed) environment to see how the ball comes out of his hand.
Other prospects from non-FBS programs to keep an eye on:
Tim Benford, WR, Tennessee Tech
Justin Bethel, CB/FS, Presbyterian
Tom Compton, OT, South Dakota
Paul Cornick, OT, North Dakota State
Asa Jackson, CB, Cal Poly
Jeremy Jones, CB/SS, Wayne State
Jerron McMillian, SS, Maine
Caleb McSurdy, ILB, Montana
Ryan Steed, CB, Furman
Dustin Waldron, OT/OG, Portland State
Corey White, CB/SS, Samford