The NFL is a league built on players from big schools, but that doesn't mean general managers and scouts don't have an appreciation for small-school talent. Last season, 19 players were drafted from FCS (formerly known as Division 1-AA) schools, including Southeastern Louisiana running back Robert Alford in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons. Factor in the success of small-school standouts like Joe Flacco, Victor Cruz, Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts, and there's growing interest in finding hidden gems at college football's lower levels.
Looking at the FCS playoffs last weekend, I paid close attention to a pair of small-school standouts, Jimmy Garappolo and Terrance West, battling it out in the Eastern Illinois-Towson State quarterfinal match up. Heading into the game, I was well aware of Garappolo's exploits as a passer after scouts started buzzing about his potential following the Panthers' win over San Diego State earlier this season. Evaluators were intrigued with his arm talent, athleticism and moxie directing a spread offense that places a premium on getting the ball into the hands of playmakers on the perimeter.
Against Towson, Garappolo lived up to his burgeoning reputation as a playmaker by completing 38 of 50 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns. While some of those numbers are inflated due to a scheme that features of host of bubble screens and quick hitters, Garappolo made handful of pro throws that showcased his arm strength and anticipation from the pocket. He frequently found open receivers downfield on second-effort plays, including a 39-yard bomb Jeff LePak on a scramble and toss. Additionally, Garappolo showcased solid anticipation and awareness finding the primary and secondary read in his progression. When throwing in rhythm from a clean pocket, Garappolo capably made accurate throws with zip and velocity.
However, I'm a little concerned about Garappolo's ability to throw from a muddied pocket. He missed a handful of open receivers with defenders in close proximity, indicating a lack of poise and awareness. Those traits are critical to succeeding in the NFL, which is why scouts are pausing a bit on Garappolo's long-term potential.
West, on the other hand, put on the kind of show that will lead scouts spend a lot of time studying his game in the offseason. He rushed for 354 yards on 39 carries with five rushing scores. Those numbers are certainly impressive, but they pale in comparison to remarkable displays of balance, body control and quickness West exhibited as the workhorse runner in a run-heavy offense. Additionally, West showed the kind of vision, agility and burst to be a productive runner at the next level. Now, he will get downgraded based on his level of competition, but my eyes tell me West has the goods to be a solid pro down the road.