If you can play, the NFL will find you, or so the adage goes. Rarely are players from Alabama and Ashland 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 some of the most interesting prospects from the FCS ranks.
Tom Flacco, QB, Towson
You’re the brother of a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, himself a former FCS star at Delaware, and just as you wrap up your college career and start focusing your dreams and hard work on becoming an NFL player, everyone’s comparing you to… Taysom Hill?
Welcome to Tom Flacco’s life. He’s Joe’s brother, but the media, scouts and NFL seem more interested in whether he can play like former BYU star and New Orleans Saints multi-tool quarterback Hill.
“People were always asking me what I was learning from Joe in this process and I’d say, ‘Well yeah, obviously I’m very close with someone who has done this, and then in terms of comparing me as a player, it’s ‘Would I be willing to be Taysom Hill? Will I be Taysom Hill?’” he says.
Flacco threw for 2,831 yards and 22 touchdowns as a quarterback for Towson in 2019, but what’s got everyone intrigued is what he can do with his feet. At just 6'1", Flacco is a bit shorter than the “ideal” NFL quarterback of old, but he’s roughly the same height as 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray. And, yeah, Taysom Hill.
How Flacco got to Towson is a testament to perseverance, and to treating the college game like a professional endeavor if you’re serious about playing in the NFL.
“Out of high school in 2014, I greyshirted,” he says. “I sat out that fall, enrolled at Western Michigan in January to be a freshman for 2015. I transferred to Rutgers after a coaching change at WMU and had to sit out a year. I went to Rutgers for Jerry Kill, and he ended up resigning. I stayed that spring for the new OC and ended up fourth on the depth chart. I wasn’t gonna get on the field as a QB. Then Jared Ambrose at Towson called me. Just meeting with them, I knew I’d have a great relationship with that staff.”
All in all, Flacco played for six offensive coordinators and enrolled at three universities in his college football career.
“Coaches are always leaving; that’s what happened to me. But I don’t want to blame it on that. If you believe in yourself and you want to play, well, you’re not going to be able to show any film as a backup. That’s the reality. It definitely took a lot of time and patience. I was very frustrated, but I can’t be any more grateful for Towson.”
Flacco enters the draft with a high football IQ and a seasoned viewpoint on life as a pro thanks to his big brother, who has helped teach him a love of the game as well as serve as an invaluable sounding board.
“I grew up with the NFL. Joe got drafted when I was in the seventh grade. I’ve watched it religiously. I can always have an awesome resource in Joe.”
If Flacco’s path to the league can serve as inspiration to another road-warrior quarterback just looking for snaps, he’s happy, but he’s certainly not alone.
“Look, the Heisman winner this year, the guy who is going first overall [Joe Burrow], he transferred. It’s part of it. Different coaches have different ideas. You have to adapt and stay believing in your ability.”
Jeremy Chinn, S, Southern Illinois
There’s a really easy way to overcome the perception of being a “small school” player when you’re selected for a postseason all-star game: Be first at everything you do.
“Hop in the front of the line. Be first to a drill. Be first to volunteer. If you’re going to feel like you’re getting overlooked being from a smaller school, how you set yourself apart just in the little things can change perceptions,” says Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn, who played in this year’s Senior Bowl.
While the Salukis are a rising FCS program, Chinn is anything but small. At 6'3", 212 pounds, Chinn measures closer to a body type that’s both old-school and new-school — he’s big enough to move up against the run and play traditional strong safety like a linebacker, but he’s fast enough to move in space and has played man coverage as a corner. At his size, Chinn is ideally suited for the NFL’s trend of matching up on tall, big-bodied wide receivers.
“Jeremy is an unbelievable person first. I have never coached anyone that was as focused and disciplined as him from day one,” Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill says. “I think the best thing is once people start to get to know him the more they like him. Physically there isn’t a better-looking player in the country at any level.”
James Robinson, RB, Illinois State
James Robinson’s career at Illinois State defined endurance. The Illinois native ran for 1,899 yards and 18 touchdowns on a whopping 364 carries in 2019, up from his 205 carries in 2018. That included a 41-carry, 297-yard single-game effort (both career highs) in a win vs. Southeast Missouri in the FCS playoffs.
“We wanted to do that in every game, but what I remember that day is how special our line played by getting into the defense, creating double teams and making holes I could immediately see. When your linemen are opening huge holes, it’s easy to find,” Robinson says.
Robinson, a 5'10", 220-pound back, has been described as a “thumper” who seeks out contact and creates opportunities — and yards — after contact. He’s also a workhorse who basically functioned as the Illinois State offense in 2019.
The workload taught Robinson early on how to condition his body for the next step of his career and adopting a professional mindset to his athletic development.
“The biggest thing is taking care of your legs during the week, making sure you’re fresh and not overdoing it,” he says. “Then when Saturdays come, you have to keep that endurance. Some backs, their legs are so tired after a game day they won’t work them on Sundays. You have to be consistent. And get ice a lot.”
The former two-star recruit received only one FBS offer (Iowa), but he isn’t focused on changing his perception — just his speed.
“It’s all about technique right now. That’s what I’m focusing on. You’ve just got to be able to stay low and not pop up right away. When people run high, that’s why they run slower. Stay low and drive.”
Bryce Sterk, DE, Montana State
How does one pick a favorite sack? When it’s the end result of a very long journey and proof of concept all wrapped up into one.
“I had 15 sacks this season,” Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk says, “but my favorite is actually from my first game during my first season at MSU. It was the fourth quarter vs. Western Illinois. We were up 26–23 and they were driving. I got in the backfield on fourth and long and sacked the QB to end the game. Any doubt I might have had about my game, or coming to Montana State, it was definitely erased after the game.”
Sterk, a native of Lynden, Wash., was recruited to play for Chris Petersen's Washington Huskies by former defensive line coach Jeff Choate. Despite winning awards for his work in the weight room, Sterk grew frustrated with his lack of playing time in his sophomore year.
Choate left UW after recruiting Sterk to become the head coach at Montana State. “Because Coach Choate recruited me to Washington, he believed I could play at that level,” Sterk said.
Sterk thrived at Montana State, both on the field and off. He also didn’t mind being moved around on the defensive front. He spent 2019 as a 5-technique defensive end, which often involved opening lanes for linebackers as much as it did sacking the quarterback himself. It’s also helped Sterk to fall in love with the psychological game-within-a-game.
“It’s great. You’re going up against a particular offensive lineman and it’s its own game on every play. I might hit them with a power move for three passes in a row, and then the fourth time go speed and shoot right by them. It’s the mind game. I love it.”
Sterk is hard at work on his technique and his explosive speed, but his calling card for NFL GMs will be his perseverance on every play. He is, to borrow the cliche, a classic “high-motor” defensive end.
“I want to be relentless. There are very, very few plays where I won’t be running towards the ball. I’m always heading towards the direction of the ball. Like Coach Petersen said, he made a good point back when I was a freshman [at Washington], just ‘See ball. Get ball.’”
— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for Athlon's 2020 NFL Draft Guide. With in-depth scouting reports on 230 of the top prospects, position-by-position rankings of 526 draft-eligible players, NFL depth charts and personnel needs, features, and more it's the most complete preview of the upcoming draft. Click here to get your copy.
(Top photo courtesy of ENP Photography)