Small-school prospects have eyes on big prize

INDIANAPOLIS -- They came from all over the map, but some players at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine traveled much farther than others.

Some came from Division I-AA programs, others from D-III, and one even from an NAIA school. Most have paid their way through school and now find themselves with rather large tuition bills.

But they came, nonetheless, on a road less tarveled and played with the big boys. They're not big in numbers -- approximately 30 of the 334 prospects who came through Indy over the last seven days or so are from non-Division I-A schools -- but they certainly have made their presence felt.

Even if it seemed a bit overwhelming.

"A D-III guy, we don't get this kind of media coverage," said Mt. Union wideout Pierre Garcon, surrounded by a throng of reporters last week. "Just to be here, just to think somebody in the NFL wants me to play on their team ..."

They do, and in numbers. Some are projecting that more small-school prospects will be drafted this year than any other in recent memory.

Quarterback Joe Flacco of Delaware has gotten the most attention, but he's just where it begins for this year's crop of small-school prospects. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could end up in the first round, and players such as Hampton defensive end Kendall Langford, Arkansas State safety Tyrell Johnson, tackle Heath Benedict of Newberry College, San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson and Appalachian State guard Kerry Brown could all be gone before the final two rounds begin.

Here is a look at four small-school prospects and the unusual roads they took to the combine:

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tennessee State

The cousin of ChargersPro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie, Rodgers-Cromartie is not from a typical football factory. He played his college ball at Tennessee State, a school known more for its historic location in the heart of Nashville than for its reputation in producing NFL talent.

Not a single player has been taken in the draft from the Division I-AA school since 2001, and Ed "Too Tall" Jones is the last player from the school to have been selected in the first round.

Because he had attended four different high schools in two states, and didn't play competitive football until he was a senior, Tennessee State was the only one to recruit Rodgers-Cromartie.

He picked up the game fast, and with the help of Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green this past summer, Rodgers-Cromartie's game went to another level. "Basically he changed my whole style of game," Rodgers-Cromartie said of Green, who was introduced to the Tennessee State player by a friend of his father's.

Rodgers-Cromartie, the reigning Ohio Valley Conference indoor track champion in the 60-yard dash, long jump and high jump, was a star on Tuesday at the workouts for defensive backs. He finished in the top 10 among all defensive backs in six categories, including a third-place showing in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.33. He captured firsts in the broad jump, vertical jump, three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle.

But he's much more than a track star, and with his cousin's success in the NFL, he has name recognition going for him at the combine, something Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said would likely play in his favor.

Josh Johnson, QB, San Diego

Johnson is attempting to become just the second player ever drafted out of the small Catholic Division I-AA school. Wide receiver Darius Durham was taken in the 10th round by Tampa Bay in 1983.

A first cousin of Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, Johnson is an intriguing prospect. He has a fragile body type, but he's got a strong, accurate arm and can run. Boy, can he run.

At the RCA Dome on Sunday, he finished first in all three dash events -- 4.55 seconds in the 40, 2.63 in the 20, and 1.58 in the 10. However, Johnson was less-than-stellar in passing drills, a disappointment to those in attendance who saw him just a month ago win MVP honors at the East West Shrine Game. He'll have another opportunity to work out for scouts at his Pro Day on March 7.

Former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh was his coach at USD for three years before Harbaugh took over the Stanford program this past season. Harbaugh once called Johnson "the best quarterback in college football, period," and that was when Johnson was a junior. That might be overstated, but Harbaugh isn't always known for hyberbole.

Over the past three seasons at USD, Johnson threw 113 touchdown passes and just 14 interceptions. In 2007, he threw for 43 touchdowns and just one interception. "It ricocheted off the tight end's chest," he said, defending the lone pick.

Not bad for someone who wasn't even recruited out of Oakland Tech High School in Northern California.

"In high school I looked like I was about 12," Johnson said. "I just developed everything. My physical features started to develop, coach Harbaugh really helped my mind develop a lot and it all started coming together at San Diego.

"My story is crazy. I'm small. I'm not recruited. An NFL quarterback recruits me to a school a lot of people think is San Diego State when I say, 'San Diego.' It was a non-scholarship program, and as the (football) program turned around my life began to change on and off the field."

Pierre Garcon, WR, Mt. Union

Garcon is only the second player from Division III Mt. Union to get an invite to the combine, and the first never made it to the NFL.

Garcon, however, has a chance, and it only improved after his performance at the combine.

NFL scouts who had seen tapes of Garcon's games at Mt. Union weren't surprised that he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds at the combine, tied for 10th among the 55 receivers invited. His results in strength and agility tests, however, were pleasantly surprising.

The 6-foot, 210-pound wideout tied for third in the bench press at his position with 20 reps of 225 pounds. His vertical jump of 36.5 inches tied for fourth. He had a broad jump of 10 feet, 5 inches, which tied for seventh. And his 4.19-second result in the 20-yard shuttle tied for sixth.

"You could be a hero or you could be just another guy in a 40 time," Garcon said. "(The combine) is a big life-changing experience. You could become the talk of the town or just another bum who had a shot."

In high school, Garcon was academically ineligible as a freshman and sophomore, played a backup role as a junior and only became a starter during his senior season. He found his way to Mt. Union after failing to qualify academically for Division I.

By the time he left the D-III powerhouse, he was the school's all-time leader in receptions with 202 and the Ohio Athletic Conference's career leader in touchdown catches with 47. However, he knew he couldn't rely on those numbers, and that he'd have to impress at the combine in order to get drafted.

"I knew I had a small chance (to play in the NFL), a shot in the dark," said Garcon, who returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the Texas vs. the Nation all-star game on Feb. 2, a performance that got him an invite to the combine. "It was always a dream. It was more like a fantasy, too, of being here, of being interviewed, of being in front of the media and waiting to get drafted. I'm kind of lucky."

There are no assurances Garcon will get drafted, but at the combine he sure didn't hurt the chances of it happening.

Shane Longest, PK, St. Xavier

Longest was one of only four place-kickers invited to the combine, and the only player from an NAIA school.

His longest field goal at St. Xavier was 55 yards, and he claims to have nailed one from 75 yards out in practice, quickly adding, "My coach was there."

In the RCA Dome last Friday were NFL scouts, who witnessed Longest struggle in his workout with the punters (he wanted to show teams he can be a backup at the position), then miss his first three field goal attempts. Once his nerves settled down, he went on to make his next 12 attempts, showing a strong leg in the process.

Like Garcon, Longest was not academically eligible for Division I, so he opted for St. Xavier on the South Side of Chicago. The school allowed him to play football and baseball, but he gave up baseball after two seasons as a relief pitcher (he claims an 88-mph fastball) to concentrate on football and a possible shot at the NFL.

As for the name? "Any room I go into here (at the combine) that is always the first question," he said. "Is that really your last name?"

It really is, and the headline possibilities -- should he make it in the NFL -- are endless.

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