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Senior Bowl Day 5: Hidden Gems Can Be Found

Posted Jan 25, 2013

Scouts are eyeing the likes of Elon and Central Michigan prospects.

MOBILE, Ala. – Eric Fisher would be hard to miss on any football field being that he stands 6-foot-7 and weighed in at 305 pounds on the first day of Senior Bowl practices. But the Central Michigan tackle has led the charge among small school players making waves this week.

Fisher is one of 12 athletes from non-traditional programs on the North Team roster and 19 overall, which is the biggest number in recent years. NFL scouts, coaches and general managers have discovered that more and more quality additions can be found among this group because so many top-notch high school recruits have gone the small school route for a number of different reasons.

Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland knows what he’s looking for in a potential draft pick long before the Senior Bowl week arrives, and if that player meets his criteria it doesn’t really matter where he played. Back in 2009, defensive end Kendall Langford stood out in Mobile even though he was from Hampton University and Ireland used Miami’s third-round pick on him because he met the most important requirement in Ireland’s mind during the week.

“Just belong,” Ireland said. “The players that have not consistently gone against the Michigan’s, the Alabama’s, the LSU’s, and you get a guy that’s from Missouri Southern out there, the key is to belong. You need to compete your butt off and belong in this group. This is the best group of seniors in college football, so when you belong, you start catching the eyes of personnel decision makers. That’s the first thing that you need to do, and then be consistent.”

Defensive lineman Brandon Williams is that Missouri Southern player Ireland was alluding to and he also is on the North roster. Linebacker Ty Powell hails from Harding University, San Jose State linebacker Travis Johnson was a late replacement to the roster, defensive back Phillip Thomas went to Fresno State and defensive back Duke Williams played at Nevada.

Seven offensive players in addition to Fisher highlight the North roster, led by wide receivers Aaron Dobson out of Marshall and Aaron Mellette from Elon. Diminutive running back Robbie Rouse was a teammate of Williams’ at Fresno State and two of the three tight ends on the roster – Western Kentucky’s Jack Doyle and Ryan Otten out of San Jose State – are from smaller schools. Harvard fullback Kyle Jusczyk and San Jose State tackle David Quessenberry round out the group on the North and they all share the same motivation.

“It definitely gets the competitive juices flowing just to show them that even though they don’t know where my school is or never heard of Elon, this is my chance to earn some respect,” said Mellette, who at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds is one of the bigger receivers in the Senior Bowl. “I just want to let them know that just because the level of competition I played was lower, don’t write me off. I can play with the best of them and I have that confidence in myself.”

Jusczyk intends on showing the scouts that the Ivy League schools are capable of producing NFL-caliber talent again. He took an aggressive approach to the practices in hopes of standing out and plan on doing the same in tomorrow’s game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

One area that will not be a concern to any of the NFL teams considering Jusczyk or Tretter is their intelligence. In fact, Jusczyk cracked a smile as he recalled jumping offsides on the first day of practice Monday and one of the coaches reminding him that he’s from Harvard and that should never happen. But the physical part of the game was where the 6-3, 240-pounder wanted to make an impression, especially since he didn’t play as much fullback for the Crimson but was more of a slot guy and a running back.

“Our very first play we ran an iso and I was head on with the linebacker from North Carolina (Kevin Reddick) and after that hit I knew right then that I belonged here and that I could hang with the big-time guys,” Jusczyk said. “I want to show that a small school guy can play with these guys and that my skill set will work in the NFL and will help better an NFL team’s offense. I want to prove that I can just basically fit in and contribute.”

Perhaps the closest player in size to Fisher among the men in the trenches is Garrett Gilkey out of Chadron State, the same school in Minnesota where New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead played. Gilkey measured in at 6-6 and 314 pounds, nearly a foot taller and more than 100 pounds heavier than Woodhead.

But it was another Chadron State connection that helped get Gilkey to Mobile – former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Don Beebe. He was Gilkey’s high school football coach at Aurora Christian in Illinois.

“That’s how I got out here and I’m representing Chadron State,” Gilkey said. “My goal is to show that I’m a guy that come in and compete. I want to let the scouts and GMs know that I can come into camp and compete right away for a starting spot.”

All 17 of these players have the same goal, and the fact that there are this many small school players in town this week is a testament to the fact that they can leave an impression. Their game film obviously is taken with a grain of salt by scouts because of the competition, but they can’t hide anything at the Senior Bowl.

Mike Mayock of the NFL Network breaks down more film than just about any television analyst and he makes it a point to go back each day after these practices and watch even more. So he has a keen take on just how much the small school players can improve their draft stock.

“There’s a great equalizer when a small school kid gets to come here because what happens is that whole quality of competition comes up in the film room,” Mayock said. “And then you get the coaches and the scouts and everybody’s arguing about it saying, ‘What about the Division I-AA kid from here, what about the Division II kid. Well, he’s from the Ivy League, he can’t play.’ Well, when that kid gets a week out here and he walks in the huddle, they all wear the helmets from their school.

“So the kid from Harvard walks in the huddle and he sees Florida and Georgia and Cal and Stanford, all of a sudden there’s no longer any quality of competition issues. If a kid can come out here and adapt, move forward and get a little better each day he can make a mark. We’ve seen a lot of football players come out of this Senior Bowl over the last several years who came from nowhere and became first and second rounders from small schools because they answered questions out here.”

ODDS AND ENDS

As of this morning, there were seven new players listed on the South roster compared to the roster that was released last Sunday, and three new players on the North. Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore replaced teammate Trevardo Williams and San Jose State linebacker Travis Johnson replaced Ohio State linebacker John Simon. Syracuse wide receiver Alec Lemon was added to the North squad. For the South, offensive lineman Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and South Alabama defensive back B.J. Scott increased the number of small school players on that side of the ball to six. LSU wide receiver Russell Sheppard, University of Miami running back Mike James, University of Houston linebacker Phillip Steward, Louisiana Tech offensive lineman Jordan Mills and Mississippi State defensive lineman Josh Boyd joined them. … Alabama offensive lineman D.J. Fluker and Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh are the first non-seniors to play in the Senior Bowl in the game’s 64-year history. Both players have earned their degrees and have been in school for four years, so they were cleared to play even though they have one year of eligibility left. Both also have declared for the NFL Draft.

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