They always make for a good story. The underdog prospect from a small school that's invited to the NFL Scouting Combine with the opportunity to show he's on par with the elite players from the power college programs. From Appalachian State to Wayne State prospects are given invitations to compete at the Combine in Indianapolis every year. What one might be surprised to discover is there are now more small school prospects than ever.
Over the previous five years the small school representation at the NFL Combine has been respectable. From 2007-2011 the number of small schoolers has been anywhere from 20 to 29 prospects out of the 320-plus player pool. Generally six to almost nine percent of the prospects in the player pool hailed from college programs that weren't really recognized on a national scale.
This year however, that percentage has vaulted past 10 percent (11%) putting it on a par with the player representation of some of college's power conferences.
Not counting mid-major schools like the Mid-American Conference, this year's prospect pool has 36 players from "small school" programs. That's a greater percentage than the Big 12 conference will be sending to Indianapolis this year (34) and just four fewer than the Pac-10 (40).
So why the steady increase in small school representation at the NFL Combine?
"I think more people are doing a better job scouting," said Bills GM Buddy Nix. "I think there are more scouts and I believe we've always tried to do it here, but there are places that don't see a lot of scouts. That's a part of it now. Plus they're playing better too. You find them everywhere. People transfer now."
Nix is referencing prospects like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, whose off the field troubles led to a transfer from powerhouse program Florida to Division II North Alabama. Jenkins could very well be a late first-round pick. Still, there are legitimate small school prospects that will come off the board in the first two days of the draft.
"The FCS overall we see a handful of good players every year," said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. "Trumaine Johnson from Montana is very impressive and could come off the board in the second round. Josh Norman from Coastal Carolina has a chance to be a third-round pick at the cornerback position. I would guess that you'll have five to seven guys from the FCS come off the board in the first three rounds."
Bills scout Matt Hand believes the smaller schools have been able to close the gap with the more prominent programs for good reason.
"A lot of it has to do with technology," he said. "There's a greater awareness of the lifting and conditioning so it's better. Coaching is getting better across the board. A lot of these high profile high school coaches are getting college jobs in the lower divisions and they're working their way up."
The Bills college scouting department has long been known for mining the talent at the smaller schools. Don Beebe from Chadron State, Phil Hansen from North Dakota State and more recently Terrence McGee and Demetrius Bell from Northwestern State are just a few examples.
"Regina is the new one this year," said Nix in reference to the Canadian school DE Akiem Hicks. "Even back when I was coaching in Division II in 1971 we had one drafted in Dallas and he started from a little school that nobody ever heard of."
Getting the invite to the Combine is the first step. The small school prospects still have to prove they have the athletic ability and movement skills to play at the NFL level. If they can do that the small school players can sometimes give themselves a leg up.
"It's exciting when these small school guys show up and you think they might have a chance to develop at our level," said Bills scout Brian Fisher. "At the NFL level a player like that will have more resources and more time with coaching. In some instances the small school players are even viewed to have more upside because they haven't been developed in the same way as the larger program kids where it's all football all the time."
Nix said he's not surprised the number of small school prospects at the Combine has increased.
"You find them everywhere," he said.
That's why NFL scouting departments are more diligent than ever in getting a good handle on small schoolers that might have a chance, and they want to see them up close and personal in Indianapolis.
"You hear the term shake the bushes and look under every rock," said Hand. "You really have to now because kids are popping up all over the place."