If you can play, the NFL will find you, or so the adage goes. You've no doubt heard about North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, who is among the top prospects at his position in this draft. But you may not have heard of some of these slightly under-the-radar prospects from the FCS ranks. You can believe us when we say that NFL coaches, scouts and front office personnel know all about them.
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Dillon Radunz, OT, North Dakota State
If you want to win, you should draft Radunz. It’s really that simple: The 6'6", 300-pound North Dakota State left tackle arrives in the world of professional football with a streak of 33 consecutive starts on the Bison O-line. And in terms of losses during that starting streak?
“Zero. We never lost once in those 33 games,” Radunz says. “Oh, and we just won the Senior Bowl, too,” he adds.
He’s not kidding, and he’s able to give a decent analysis of how his National team offensive line held up in a 27–24 win over the American team in Mobile, where Radunz was considered a standout. In fact, everything Radunz does on a football field has led him to victory, so much so that he can recall with crystal clarity the last time he was on a losing team.
“It was the first game of my junior year of high school; we lost by a field goal at the end. We actually scored one more touchdown than they did, but we couldn’t kick a single PAT. So it was 24–22, then they kicked a field goal to win.”
It’s no secret by now that North Dakota State is both an FCS powerhouse and a familiar brand for the NFL Draft, producing quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Easton Stick, who will soon be joined by Trey Lance. But NDSU has become a reliable program for turning out professional linemen. So while many FCS NFL prospects are on a second chance or had a strange turn in their collegiate careers, Radunz is one of the rare future NFL players who sought out an FCS program for its acumen in developing pro talent.
“That, and it was close to home [in Minnesota], and my mom could come see me. They were my first-ever offer my junior year, and I loved the O-line coach [Conor Riley, now at Kansas State], who became like a father figure to me,” Radunz says.
So while NDSU’s hastily scheduled fall game at home vs. Central Arkansas was thought of as a showcase for Lance, plenty of scouts were on hand to see Radunz, who wishes his Bison career hadn’t ended so strangely.
“It was such a roller coaster of emotions. First, the season is canceled, and the seniors are all saying goodbye, and some guys even moved away or got jobs, then the coaches call and we’ve got one more game. I wish the fans could’ve been there because normally our place is packed. It was a strange way to end it.”
Cade Johnson, WR, South Dakota State
Sometimes it’s not talent; it’s timing. Johnson quit football in the seventh grade, but his dad encouraged him to pick the sport up again his sophomore year of high school, if for nothing else than to play with his older brother C.J., who would go on to play at Wyoming.
“My older brother was Gatorade Player of the Year [in Nebraska], breaking every state record as a receiver. I thought I was going to end up having the same recruiting success he did, but I waited too long,” Johnson says.
Johnson had offers from FCS South Dakota and South Dakota State but opted to push for a potential spot on a FBS team.
“I had a lot of interest from Iowa State and some other schools,” he says. “It was always ‘Hey, come to camp with us, let’s see how you do,’ and then South Dakota and State both filled their scholarships. Luckily my parents were straight financially and gave me the opportunity to walk on.”
Cade selected SDSU, where he set a single-season record for kickoff return yards (837) as a freshman. That moved him to a scholarship role, and Johnson never looked back, becoming a dynamic threat for the Jackrabbits offense and an FCS All-American. Johnson finished his three-year career with 162 receptions and 28 touchdowns. Against Minnesota in 2019, he caught six passes for 90 yards and had one 25-yard carry.
Johnson’s dominance in FCS play combined with his effectiveness against a Big Ten program that won 11 games gave him the confidence to shine in the Senior Bowl, where he stood out among his position group as a reliable, fast option for any team in need of a slot receiver.
“I definitely believe God had a purpose for me going to SDSU, even though there wasn’t money on the table,” he says. “To look at the entire journey now, I can only say you have to work hard for everything you have. Everything since high school has been about asking how hard you want to work for what you want.”
Spencer Brown, OT, Northern Iowa
Brown measured in at 314 pounds and just a smidge under 6'9" at the Senior Bowl. With that frame and a reputation as a powerlifting freak, it’s a little strange to see his high school stat line back home in Lenox, Iowa: “SENIOR YEAR — 24 receptions for 388 yards, 7 TDs.”
“I was a beanpole, man. Around 6'8", but I was maybe 215 pounds — maybe. I basically played tight end in eight-man football, in a small town. No one knew me,” Brown says.
During his junior year of high school, a friend convinced Brown to make a highlight tape to send out to colleges, something Brown felt too embarrassed to do.
“So finally I got talked into it, and we made an actual disc, burned it to a DVD. There was no Hudl profile, nothing online. And we mailed it out to schools.”
When UNI head coach Mark Farley came to town to scout Brown, the Panthers head coach was watching another recruit’s film on his phone.
“So I said, ‘Hey, have you seen my tape?’ He hadn’t, so I had to take him into the computer lab of the high school, during a class, to this one computer that had my tape on iMovie. So we’re sitting there watching my homemade tape on this computer while there’s a class going on,” Brown says.
After a redshirt year and life as a very large tweener, Brown made the move to the O-Line, which meant bulking up. A lot. Like, 75 pounds in a single year.
“It’s pretty miserable, honestly,” he says. “Eating 6,000 calories and lifting twice a day. Waking up at 2 a.m. to drink a protein shake and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s a lot, man.”
Brown’s latest challenge was keeping his now 315-pound frame in football shape, as the Senior Bowl was his first football game in 14 months. While the break certainly helped him rest, he came to Mobile with anxiety about facing actual contact and taking part in actual practice for the first time in over a year.
“The first day out there was a big learning curve. I was concerned a lot about technique stuff and my hands, and the second day I just went out there and played, which helped my confidence a lot.”
Brown’s absence from the game during the pandemic was self-imposed, technically, but he couldn’t live with the path other NFL prospects were taking. Because of his talent, he could’ve easily transferred to another program, likely an FBS school, to finish out his career and get even more attention going into the draft.
“I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “I would’ve been on TV and it would’ve said some other school’s name, not UNI. I couldn’t do that after all the time my school spent working with me and developing me.”
Robert Rochell, DB, Central Arkansas
FCS players with NFL aspirations typically battle for recognition from media and scouts, but one of the weirder byproducts of COVID-19 was the sudden spotlight for Central Arkansas. The Bears literally took on all comers in 2020, including playing the first college football game of the season on national television against Austin Peay in August and embarking on an ad hoc, ever-changing independent season that ended with nine games (they played Eastern Kentucky twice).
So while Rochell might’ve been off the radar in a normal season, 2020 was anything but, and the physical, fast corner who loves to play man and press coverage suddenly saw his stock rising.
“I like man, and we ran a lot of that in college, but I can play zone too. Really anything out there, I’m ready for,” Rochell says.
Rochell was a track star in high school in Louisiana, finishing third in the state with a 10.8-second 100-meter dash. And he’s not just fast; he’s got hops. A viral video of Rochell doing box jumps onto the top of a pickup truck tailgate made its way through social media and the scouting community, giving Rochell the (positive) label of “freak.” He is considered to be a hidden gem of athleticism for a team that can develop his skills, earning comparisons to Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn, formerly of Southern Illinois (and featured by Athlon in 2020 as an FCS player to watch). Rochelle hopes to create a lineage of overlooked FCS secondary players who blow up expectations in the pros.
“I don’t mind that at all [the comparison],” he says. “I love using that negative perception as a motivation to surprise people.”
— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for the Athlon Sports' 2021 NFL Draft Guide.
(Top photo by Tim Sanger/NDSU Athletics)