MOBILE, Ala. – There are plenty of eyes on the horses from all of the BCS schools represented this week, but time and again it’s the players wearing the unrecognizable helmets that steal some of the thunder.
Coastal Carolina running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and Georgia Southern cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks are two of the 11 true small school talents looking to stand out among the big boys and spark a rise up the draft boards of NFL teams. Westbrooks’ college teammate, running back Jerick McKinnon is in the same boat, along with cornerback Walt Aikens of Libery, Montana outside linebacker Jordan Tripp, offensive tackle Billy Turner from North Dakota State, Tennessee State guard Kadeem Edwards, Pierre Desir, a cornerback from Lindenwood and wide receiver Jeff Janis of Saginaw Valley State.
There also are two Ivy League players that fall into this category – Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid and long snapper Tyler Ott from Harvard. The one thing all of these men have in common is a burning desire to show that they are just as skilled and productive as their higher profile teammates and counterparts on the North and South teams in the Senior Bowl.
“You take that approach always when you’re coming from a small school like Coastal,” Taliaferro said. “Most importantly I’m just here to have fun and play football, but it’s definitely more of a business trip to me than most of these guys.”
A little bit of research by Taliaferro and the others reveals plenty of encouraging examples that small school players can make an impact here and as a result in the National Football League. He pointed to Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman from his school and Oakland Raiders running back Rashad Jennings from Liberty as two recent ones having success at the highest level.
At 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds (his official weigh-in measurements), Taliaferro is an impressive physical specimen who has been working out with former Dolphins quarterback and Coastal Carolina alum Tyler Thigpen. Just like the other nine players on this list, he is aware of the fact the NFL scouts, coaches and general managers don’t have a lot of game film to break down, so what they do on the practice field this week and in Saturday’s game holds a little more weight than one of the players from Alabama or Florida State.
“This really is their proving ground because they have the film but you’re saying okay, now you’re matched up against guys that we see each and every Saturday in a higher caliber of play week in and out so we want to see how you measure up,” said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, who played cornerback at Tennessee in the 1980s. “We all know small school kids make it in the NFL. It happens all the time and a lot of them are stars. That’s not an issue and there are probably just as many small school stars as large school stars when you get down to it. We just want to see how they hold up, how they measure up versus all of the best that you see every week.”
Aikens is one of those cases that began his career at a big school and had to transfer to a smaller school, opening at Illinois in 2009 and starting five games as a true freshman. His final three years with Liberty were very productive in the Big South Conference, as he was named to the Big South all-conference team each time and on the first team as a senior in 2013.
Having played for the Illini, Aikens has the added benefit of having been on the radar of some scouts already being that he was one of the more highly sought after kids from the state of North Carolina coming out of high school. He weighed in at 205 pounds and measured just under the 6-1 height he was listed as on the roster and is eager to remind the NFL scouts of his potential.
“I’ve been going against some of these same guys but just coming from a smaller school I feel like I’ve got something to prove and this is the perfect stage to prove that,” Aikens said. “I look back at the previous receivers and defensive backs that came out of here from smaller schools for inspiration and I study the receivers coming in this year and the DBs coming in this year just to see where I stand. What little tendencies I can pick up from them I feel can give me an edge.”
Janis is only the second player in Saginaw Valley State history to be invited to the Senior Bowl and it’s been 15 years since defensive end Lamar King played in the 1999 game. He’s also just the fourth player from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to be invited and the first since Wayne State University running back Joique Bell was here in 2010.
Of course catching 83 passes for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior will grab anyone’s attention, which is what Janis did for the Cardinals. That was after hauling in 106 passes for 1,635 yards as a junior, including a school and conference record 300-yard game at Lake Erie. At 6-3 and 205, his size is appealing to scouts and he feels like he can set an example for other Division II players.
“I think it’s something where I’m making my whole hometown of Tawas City, Michigan and the whole area proud and I want to prove that Division II guys can come up to this level and play with anybody,” said Janis, who compares himself to Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson. “I think that my size and speed is something that’s rare and they see that too and they like that. I just want them to think that I’m a reliable receiver that’s got good hands and can make big plays at big times.”
Janis, Taliaferro, Aikens and the others all share the same goal of leaving Alabama with their names on the lips of as many NFL teams as possible. They don’t mind admitting they have a small chip on their shoulders at this time.
“I’m very amped up just to go in here and prove I belong,” the 6-4, 290-pound Edwards said. “People don’t think I belong because I came from a small school and I just want to prove everybody wrong and that I can compete with the elite. They put their pants on just like I put my pants on and I’m not afraid of them.”