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NFL Draft 2018: Small Schools, Big Prospects

Mike White

Mike White

If you can play, the NFL will find you, or so the adage goes. Rarely are players from Alabama and Richmond 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.

NFL Draft

Every season brings dozens of players who are unknown to even the most ardent football fans. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting prospects from the FBS small conferences and FCS ranks.

Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky

College recruiters had no idea what to make of White as a quarterback prospect — for the longest time, he had no high school film. 

More of a baseball player at University School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., White was content to back up his friends and wait his turn when it came to football.

“They’d come to watch me practice, but what can you really get from that?” White says of college assistants. “Are they really going to offer you a scholarship based on a high school practice?”

When he did earn the QB1 tag as a senior, White found a truer calling. The team went 13–0, winning a state title while averaging 40 points per game. Despite a 90 mph fastball and a chance to play pro baseball, football had suddenly become his passion.

“I grew into my body and got the hang of the sport. I took it more seriously. I fell in love with it,” White says of a revelation following his junior year. “When you throw your first touchdown, I swear, there’s nothing like it.”

The senior season showcase was enough for USF, then coached by Willie Taggart, to give White a shot.

After a couple of years in Tampa, another Miami-area product, Brandon Doughty, suggested White join him at Western Kentucky. Doughty thought Jeff Brohm’s wide-open offense seemed to be a better fit.

After a year, Brohm left for Purdue, and Notre Dame coordinator Mike Sanford took over at WKU. By the end of his five-year college career, White had played for three head coaches. And he had had five different coordinators and five different quarterbacks coaches.

He played in a pro-style offense under Taggart, a more spread-oriented system with Brohm and then a hybrid of the two under Sanford.

“I’m pretty much ready for anything. There isn’t an offense you can throw at me and catch me off-guard,” White says. “I think that’s one of the biggest things I have compared to other quarterbacks in this draft class.”

The last of White’s position coaches, Western Kentucky’s Steve Spurrier Jr., commends White as one of the most accurate passers he’s ever been around.

White had a pedestrian 51.6 completion rate at USF — but it jumped to 66.4 percent in the two seasons at Western Kentucky. He threw for 8,540 yards and 63 touchdowns (15 interceptions) while winning 17 games for the Hilltoppers.

“He’ll have a real chance (in the NFL),” Spurrier Jr. says.

As a relative newcomer to the sport, only six years into on-field experience at this point, White says he feels like it’s an asset that he has not yet approached his ceiling. 

Footwork in particular is something he continues to work on leading up to the draft. White has worked for years with renowned quarterbacks coach Ken Mastrole, who is based in South Florida.

“I could play 15 years or one year, and I’ll work on footwork as long as I play this game,” White says.

In a parallel universe, maybe White is a pitcher in a minor-league system somewhere. He says he actually has friends from back home doing just that.

“I talk to them and, yeah, with the bus trips and everything, maybe that’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” White says. “I committed to football and told myself I’d never look back. I love doing what I’m doing.”

Darius Jackson, DE/Siran Neal, CB 
Jacksonville State

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An excited shriek came from Jackson’s table as the 6'3", 245-pound specimen rose to his feet. One of his family members couldn’t contain her joy after the Jacksonville State defensive end was named the winner of the Buck Buchanan Award for the country’s top FCS defender.

Even with JSU’s high level of success in the past decade or so, Jackson was the school’s first Buchanan finalist. He then went ahead and won the trophy.

Jackson ended his college career as the school-record holder in tackles for a loss (60.5) and sacks (27.5). Not too bad for a player who arrived as a raw, underweight safety prospect.

He beamed in early January as he addressed the banquet room in Frisco, Texas.

“Man,” he said, “I’m just turned up.”

Gamecocks coach John Grass laughs as he thinks of Jackson’s genuine, heartfelt speech. 

“That was just him. He’s lit up all the time,” Grass says. “His personality is very contagious. I guess I’ve known him five-and-a-half years now, and I think I can remember him having maybe two or three bad days. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always grateful.”

In fact, Grass says the attitudes of his two defensive stars, Jackson and Neal, will be as important to their future NFL franchises as their physical attributes.

“They’re going to affect any building they walk into in a positive way,” Grass says. “It’s special enough to be good football players, but it’s even more uncommon to be the types of people that they are.

“They’ll be community leaders when ball’s over. I’m probably more proud of that.”

In the interim, there’s ball. 

Neal leveraged a Senior Bowl invite to demonstrate his size (6'1", 205) and versatility for scouts. At Jacksonville State, Grass says that Neal played every position in the defensive backfield.

He showed in Mobile, Ala., that he’s more than capable of covering as a corner. One analyst noted that he locked down Oklahoma State standout James Washington, the Biletnikoff Award winner, in one practice session.

Grass believes Neal will also be a special teams whiz, always vital in pro teams’ assessments.

“I think he really helped himself,” Grass says of the Senior Bowl experience. “He doesn’t mind contact. He can do about anything you ask him to do.”

That includes winning. Jackson’s and Neal’s Jacksonville State teams finished with a 43–8 record. They didn’t lose a conference game. They played in the FCS national title game in 2015.

“Anything they could do to help the team, those two did,” Grass says. “I’m really proud of both of those guys. They set the standard for us.”

Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond

NFL coaches, scouts and general managers entered Senior Bowl week curious to see what Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and Wyoming wild card Josh Allen had to offer at the quarterback position.

By the end of the week in Mobile, Ala., they were raving about an FCS-level QB who outshined Mayfield, Allen and others to earn the game’s Most Outstanding Player honor.

Lauletta entered in the second half and completed 8-of-12 throws for 198 yards and three touchdowns in the South team’s 45–16 romp over the North. 

The Richmond product’s precision at fitting passes into tight windows stood out to those watching and evaluating. He repeatedly hit well-covered targets on time, even though he’d just met those receivers days earlier.

As much as Lauletta opened some eyes, almost certainly boosting his stock, the performance didn’t exactly come as a shock to the 6'3", 215-pound native of Exton, Pa.

“It was big for me to prove that I belong and that I’m as good as those other quarterbacks out there,” Lauletta says, “but I’ve never been a guy who’s lacked confidence in myself. I’m not a guy who gets nervous on those big stages.”

Cases in point during his Richmond career: In a 2016 rout of FBS big brother Virginia, Lauletta threw for 337 yards and three scores. 

And when ESPN’s College GameDay showed up in 2015 for the rivalry game at James Madison, the Lauletta-led Spiders put up 59 points and 720 total yards in victory.

“I feel like that brings out the best in me. I’ve performed best in those moments,” he says. “If you’re an NFL team, that’s what you want: someone who plays big in big moments, and it doesn’t bother them. They’re not nervous. It’s what they thrive on. I feel like I thrive on those moments.”

Lauletta excelled in college despite nearly constant coaching turnover while at Richmond — turmoil that figures to pay unintentional dividends. He says that playing in four different offenses in four seasons will only help him as he works to learn an NFL playbook.

“I feel like I could create an entire offense, if I had to, just with all the things I’ve run and been around,” he says.

Regardless whether it’s fair, Lauletta acknowledges that he believes FCS quarterbacks have a different burden of proof when it comes to their résumés.

The success stories of Joe Flacco (Delaware) and Carson Wentz (North Dakota State) help — but only so much, he says.

“All you can do is play your game, but you do hear a lot about level of competition,” Lauletta says. “So I think you do have to answer more questions. You do have to perform at a higher level. Your film does have to stand out even more so. It’s part of it.

“That’s why the Senior Bowl was really important for me.”

Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA

University of Texas-San Antonio coach Frank Wilson does not mince words when considering what he thought of Davenport when he took over the UTSA program in early 2016.

“Not much, to be honest,” Wilson says, letting out a little laugh.

He estimates that, at that point in time, the 6'7" Davenport weighed about 215 pounds. He was lanky and showed intermittent promise, but he was simply too light to make an impact; he was too often pushed around by opposing offensive linemen. When the competition level went up in the Roadrunners’ non-conference games, he was all but helpless.

Wilson and his strength staff responded by putting Davenport on a program to beef up. The results, based largely on his work ethic, were astonishing: Davenport completed his college career at 262 pounds. Subsequently, he left UTSA as the school’s all-time leader in tackles for a loss (38), sacks (22) and quarterback hurries (21). His senior season included 17.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 of them sacks.

The lightly recruited San Antonio native turned himself into an elite-level pass rusher, to the point that Wilson, a former SEC assistant, says he compares favorably to two exceptional linemen he saw in that league: Greg Hardy (Ole Miss) and Barkevious Mingo (LSU).

Hardy was a Pro Bowler before off-field issues derailed his career. Mingo was a top-10 pick in 2013.

“He’s not as thick as Hardy, and he’s bigger and as athletic as Mingo,” Wilson says, adding that pure desire was central to the weight gain that allowed Davenport to become a legitimate pro prospect. “His want-to was always there. It wasn’t a lack of motivation or anything like that. He wanted to be a really good player and thought he could be.

“He believed. Everything he thought he could be, it started to happen. He played with that type of vengeance.”

With that attitude and his confidence soaring, Davenport had a monster Senior Bowl week in January to bolster his draft stock. In the game itself, Davenport sacked Baker Mayfield and later returned a fumble for a touchdown.

“From everybody I talked to, coaches and GMs, they were pleasantly pleased,” Wilson says, adding that “level of competition” could no longer be a factor for NFL evaluators. “He was the best against the best there.”

Showing his athleticism, Davenport also recently won an all-star skills competition for outgoing college players.

Wilson sees a player who’s bigger in size, yes, but one who is still only scratching the surface of his potential.

“He’s still a raw player that has a skill set that’s being refined,” Wilson says. “There’s still a lot of room for growth. He will be an outstanding NFL player.”

Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis

Just after Miller (right) became Memphis’ all-time leading receiver this past fall, setting school records in a number of categories, a reporter asked him if he thought all that was possible when he arrived on campus in 2013.

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“As honest and genuine as he could be, he said, ‘Yes,’” Memphis coach Mike Norvell says. 

What’s incredible about that statement is that Miller began his college career paying his own way. The local product from Christian Brothers High School was a walk-on.

“That competitive drive that he has, that’s what makes him him,” Norvell says. “Having that chip on his shoulder, he’s been determined to do something special.”

He certainly did, considering that he’s Memphis’ record holder in catches, yards and touchdowns. And he holds all those marks for the trifecta of career, single season and individual games. Amazingly, Miller notched all those records in just three seasons. (He redshirted in 2013 and missed 2014 due to injury.)

He had 47 catches for 694 yards and five scores as a sophomore in 2015. That was Justin Fuente’s final season at Memphis. Miller then took off in Norvell’s high-octane system. “He knew, in our offense, he would be given an opportunity,” Norvell says. “We challenged him to the maximum every day. He responded.”

As a junior, Miller jumped to 95 catches, 1,434 yards and 14 scores. He met with Norvell after the season, weighing whether the timing was right to jump to the NFL. 

He’d set a high bar for himself, but Miller did opt to return. And he managed to clear that bar as a senior, just barely. Miller finished the 2017 season with 96 receptions for 1,462 yards and 18 scores.

In the process, he became Memphis’ third consensus All-American.

“When you have close to 1,500 yards in a season as a receiver, you’re one of the nation’s elite,” Norvell says. “He had as good of a two-year run as anyone in college football.”

More than the numbers, Norvell says his offensive staff worked in 2017 to move Miller around. He played every receiver position in the offense and even got some reps in the backfield.

“It was one of the greatest decisions he could have made,” Norvell says. “He showed that he could do it all.”

That includes blocking, something the NFL will certainly value — even with Miller standing at just 5'11" and 190 pounds.
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