If you can play, the NFL will find you, or so the adage goes. Rarely are players from Alabama and Grand Valley State on equal footing, but when the draft process comes along, front offices will dissect each player for signs that he can help win football games on the professional level.
Every season brings dozens of players who are unknown to even the most ardent football fans.
Here’s a look at four of the most interesting prospects from the FBS small conferences and FCS ranks. Each is listed among Athlon Sports' top 100 prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
Brock Jensen won three FCS national championships as the starter at North Dakota State from 2011-13 — but he might not have been the best quarterback on the roster according to one member of the Bison’s staff.
Chris Klieman, NDSU’s secondary coach in 2011, couldn’t help but be impressed with a young true freshman named Carson Wentz.
“He carved us up with a bunch of young scout team receivers,” says Klieman, who was promoted to the program’s head coach two years ago. “He was the best quarterback we faced all year.”
Jensen remained NDSU’s starting quarterback for two more national championships while Wentz remained the backup.
“We saw great promise in Carson,” says Craig Bohl, who won three national titles at NDSU before leaving for Wyoming in 2014. “When you’re in a winning phase, it’s not like you’re going to change horses in the middle of the race. Carson was always watching and observing and playing the game vicariously.”
And when it was time to play the game for real, Wentz guided the Bison to a 20–3 record and two FCS national championships in his two seasons as the starter. Wentz, however, was still a relative unknown in the college football world until he showed up at the Senior Bowl in early January.
He had the size (6-5, 232), and his record as a winner was impeccable. There were questions, though: How would he fare against FBS defenders (and with FBS receivers)? And how would he handle this first big moment in the draft process? After all, this was a kid who graduated from Bismarck (N.D.) Century High, whose father played linebacker at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., and whose brother was a four-year starting pitcher at NDSU.
“I think there’s, obviously, a lot of doubts coming from the FCS level,” Wentz said at a Senior Bowl press conference. “I want to address that right away. Prove I can play at a high level, play at a fast level, compete with these guys and just really excel. I feel I have the mental and physical abilities to play at this level, and I’m ready and really excited to prove that.”
Wentz more than answered questions in Mobile. He became the story of the week, improving his status from one of the top five QB prospects to a potential top-10 pick.
The Senior Bowl wasn’t the first time in the month of January he had to ease doubts.
In 2015, Wentz led North Dakota State to a 4–2 start, the first loss by three in the opener to Montana. In the second, he suffered a wrist injury early in the game. After the 24–21 loss to South Dakota, Wentz learned that he had suffered a broken wrist that would keep him out 6-8 weeks.
Backup Easton Stick led North Dakota State on an eight-game winning streak through the FCS semifinal against Richmond. The layoff between the Dec. 18 semifinal and the Jan. 9 championship game against Jacksonville State opened a window for Wentz. After the Christmas break, Wentz returned to practice, and by the Monday before the title game he was medically cleared.
Wentz completed 16-of-29 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions while rushing for 79 yards and two scores to help North Dakota State win its fifth consecutive national title.
“People asked if I was worried about him being rusty or throwing off the team chemistry so to speak. Not one bit,” Klieman says. “It’s Carson Wentz, and he’s the best player on the field every time he’s on the field.”
Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky
Even though Dean Hood had known Ohio State coach Urban Meyer since their days growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio, he had never known Meyer to call in many favors.
That is, Meyer never called on behalf of a player until Noah Spence, a former top-10 recruit, had seen a promising career at Ohio State end due to off-the-field issues.
“He’s never texted me or called me about a player ever, anywhere he’s been,” says Hood, then the coach at Eastern Kentucky. “He texted me on Noah, so I knew it was a special case right away.”
Other than Carson Wentz, Spence may be the most intriguing FCS prospect, and that’s mainly because of where he started.
Spence was the top signee in Meyer’s first recruiting class at Ohio State, signing the same year as quarterback Cardale Jones, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and offensive linemen Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein. Spence was a star player as a sophomore with 7.5 sacks in 2013 (tied for the team lead with Joey Bosa) and 14 tackles for a loss (second on the team to eventual Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier).
But his abuse of the drug Ecstasy meant that his days as a Buckeye were numbered.
He tested positive for Ecstasy after the 2013 Big Ten title game. He told coaches and family that he suspected someone slipped it into his drink. By the time he tested positive a second time in September 2014, he couldn’t hide anymore. Per league policy, he was permanently banned from the Big Ten.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” Spence says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Meyer connected Spence with Hood, and together they started to lay out a recovery plan. Spence would meet with an off-campus counselor. He would be put in the pool any time EKU drug tested. The staff would also monitor his class attendance, something usually reserved for underclassmen.
Spence bought a calendar and wrote different goals — numbers of sacks, tackles for a loss, All-America nods and an invitation to the Senior Bowl among them.
He had one slip-up at Eastern Kentucky, a charge of alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct. The record was later expunged.
On the field in 2015, Spence picked up where he had left off. He was fifth in the FCS in sacks (11.5 in 11 games) and fourth in tackles for a loss (22.5). He was an FCS All-American, earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl and graduated.
Spence hasn’t lost the explosiveness that made him a top recruit, but there’s a question of where he fits in a pro system. At 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, he could be a designated pass rusher or play weak-side linebacker for some teams.
Spence also knows he will continue to face non-stop questions about his troubled past and the circumstances that led him to Eastern Kentucky. He must convince NFL teams that he’ll be able to continue his progress while making the move from Richmond, Ky., to an NFL city with more distractions.
Spence says his support system — family, friends and coaches — is firmly in place, and the fast life has no allure for him anymore.
“I’m in a better place mentally right now,” Spence says. “I don’t need to go out to have a good time. Certain things don’t excite me like they would before. I’d rather go to the movies than go to a party. I’d rather go out
and get good food than go out (and socialize). That’s the biggest change.”
Miles Killebrew, S, Southern Utah
If Killebrew didn’t look the part of an NFL prospect when he graduated from Henderson (Nev.) Foothill, it was by design.
Killebrew’s father, David, kept his son away from weights even though Miles was an all-state running back and safety. David Killebrew was an elite athlete in his own right, making it to the Olympic trials for velodrome cycling. At his peak, he squatted 750 pounds, but he steered his son to more cardio work and warned him against pushing himself to the max in the weight room.
Like any teenager in that situation, Miles doubted this philosophy. But as Killebrew went through his college career at Southern Utah, he never had any ligament or joint issues, and for that, he credits his father’s hardline stance.
“He knew what he was doing, man,” Killebrew says. “He just wanted my body to develop. He knows I’m a late bloomer just like he was. He didn’t want to stress out my joints and ligaments.”
Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb, now an assistant at BYU, didn’t know if Killebrew could play running back at the collegiate level, but thought he had the length, athleticism and speed to contribute somewhere once he filled out.
The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Killebrew finished his senior season as an All-Big Sky safety and has been compared as a prospect to Arizona Cardinals 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon out of Washington State. With his big-hitting ability, Killebrew could fit as a big nickel back or as a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Deiondre’ Hall, CB, Northern Iowa
When Hall was in his final two seasons at Blue Springs High School in Kansas City, he didn’t play enough football to get looks from major conference schools.
Up to that point, he focused more on basketball and track than football and didn’t have the grades for Power 5 programs.
By the end of his time at Northern Iowa, he had all the football he could handle.
When Hall was a sophomore, Northern Iowa played him at cornerback and as a small outside linebacker. When he was a senior, the Panthers needed him to play corner, return punts and line up at receiver.
“Sometimes I didn’t come off the field,” Hall says. “The transition from defense to special teams to offense to special teams to defense — you’re taking twice as many snaps as other guys on the team. It came down to taking more snaps than everyone else. I was OK with that. That’s what you want. I look at it as a blessing to do all that.”
In the NFL, he’ll likely stay at corner, where he could excel as a playmaker and disruptor. He had six interceptions as a senior despite playing most of the year with a broken hand. Thanks to his long arms (34 3/4 inches) and wingspan (82 1/4) — the latter a figure closer to that of a defensive end — he’ll be one of the more intriguing physical prospects in the 2015 draft.
This is just one of the features found in Athlon Sports' 2016 NFL Draft Preview Magazine. The most complete preview of this year’s draft, Athlon has once again enlisted the expertise of Dan Shonka from Ourlads Scouting Services, to provide our scouting reports and rankings. With his guidance, our perview magazine dives deep into the 2016 draft class with in-depth scouting reports on 218 of the top prospects and position-by-position rankings of 554 draft-eligible players. We also take a detailed look at every NFL team with depth charts and needs for the upcoming season. Our draft magazine also includes a profile of sure first-rounder Joey Bosa, a mock draft, a draft board, a peek ahead at the 2017 draft and much more. Click here to order your copy today!
(Noah Spence photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky Sports Communications, Carson Wentz photo courtesy of North Dakota State Sports Communications; Miles Killebrew photo courtesy of Southern Utah Sports Communications)