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Small Schools Have Equalled Big Success For Dolphins

Posted May 16, 2014

From Vern Den Herder to Mark Duper, the Dolphins have had success in the past with draft picks from non-FBS schools.

The Miami Dolphins drew a lot of attention during draft weekend when they selected five players from Football Championship Subdivision schools, better known as small-school prospects.

As General Manager Dennis Hickey indicated, the goal was to find quality players regardless of what school they attended. Besides, it’s not like the Dolphins haven’t had success in the past with draft picks from non-FBS schools.

Here are nine that come to mind (listed chronologically starting with the most recent). Keep in mind the list does not include players like John Offerdahl and Jason Taylor, who didn’t play in “power conferences” but still were Division I-A prospects.

2011, Jimmy Wilson, Montana — Three years after drafting Montana running back Lex Hilliard, the Dolphins selected Wilson in the seventh round. Wilson made a quick impression as a rookie and three years later is a valuable member of the secondary. In addition to intercepting two passes and forcing one fumble in 2013, he also recorded the third blocked punt of his career, tying the Dolphins franchise record that belonged to Tim Foley.

2008, Kendall Langford, Hampton — The NFL 2008 draft was unique in that two small-school prospects were selected in both the first (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Joe Flacco) and second rounds (Jerome Simpson, Dexter Jackson). With the third pick of the third round, the Dolphins went that same route by taking Langford, who had experience in the 3-4 defense they were employing. Langford was in the starting lineup at left defensive end as a rookie in 2008 and he would go on to start 55 games in four seasons before leaving as a free agent.

2003, Yeremiah Bell, Eastern Kentucky — Bell ranks as one of the greatest draft success stories of the past 20 years for the Dolphins because he not only came from a small school, he also didn’t play a down his last year in college after sustaining a knee injury in a pick-up basketball game. Bell spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad before contributing as a backup and on special teams for the next two seasons. Bell eventually became a starter in 2006 and he ended up starting all but one game during his last four seasons (2008-11) with the Dolphins.

1991, Bryan Cox, Western Illinois — As a result of trades, the Dolphins had only two picks in the first four rounds of the 1991 draft and used both on offensive players. In the fifth round, they selected a little-known linebacker from Western Illinois named Bryan Cox, who would become one of the most colorful Dolphins players of the 1990s. But Cox also could play. He won a starting job as a rookie, started all 77 games he played in his five seasons (1991-95) and was selected to the Pro Bowl three times.

1982, Mark Duper, Northwestern State — Duper not only played at a small school, he also was a relative novice, having walked on to the football team only in his junior year. But he was fast. Boy, was he fast. So Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Shula decided to take a shot with the speedster in the second round, knowing full well he would need time to develop. The gamble paid off in a big way. After Duper spent the 1982 season learning the ropes — he appeared in only two games and didn’t catch a pass while the Dolphins were making their way to the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened season — the wide receiver produced his first of four 1,000-yard seasons in 1983. Duper ended up playing 11 seasons with the Dolphins, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and still holds the franchise record for career receiving yards with 8,869.

1981, William Judson, South Carolina State — After being selected in the eighth round in 1981, Judson began his career with the Dolphins by spending his entire rookie season on injured reserve. He then appeared as a backup for all nine games during the strike-shortened 1982 season and there was little reason to think he’d become an important player. But Judson became a starter in 1983 and stayed in the starting lineup for seven seasons before his career ended after the 1989 season. Lankford ended up starting 106 games for the Dolphins and he’s tied for sixth on the team’s all-time list for interceptions with 24.

1981, Jim Jensen, Boston University — Four rounds after taking Judson, and seven rounds after they had drafted a quarterback by the name of Brad Wright, the Dolphins drafted the Offensive Player of the Year in the Yankee Conference. Jensen didn’t have much of a career as a quarterback in the NFL — he attempted a grand total of seven passes — but he became a fan favorite along with being one of the most versatile players in franchise history by lining up at running back, tight end, wide receiver and on special teams. Jensen’s versatility and hustle made him a fixture in Miami for 13 seasons.

1978, Doug Betters, Nevada-Reno — The University of Nevada, alma mater of current 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Dolphins wide receiver Rishard Matthews, currently competes in the Football Bowl Subdivision as a member of the Big West Conference, but it was a Division I-AA program until 1992. Betters was an All-American at Nevada-Reno in 1977 before he joined the Dolphins as a sixth-round pick. Better wasted little time showing off his pass-rushing ability, recording eight sacks as a rookie while starting only six games. Betters became a full-time starter the next season and in 1983 he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors after recording 16 sacks. Betters added 14 sacks in 1984 and his total of 65.5 in his 10 seasons with Miami ranks third in franchise history.

1971, Vern Den Herder, Central Iowa — The 1971 draft was memorable for the Dolphins because their first-round pick was sent to the Baltimore Colts as compensation for the hiring of Don Shula, a transaction that has to rank as the greatest in franchise history. But the draft also produced a steal in the ninth round when the Dolphins selected Den Herder from Central Iowa of the NAIA. Although sacks didn’t become an official stat until 1982, Den Herder led the team in that category four times, including during the perfect 1972 season when he had 10.5. Den Herder, who started for 10 seasons at left defensive end, is fourth on the Dolphins’ all-time sack list, trailing only Jason Taylor, Bill Stanfill and Betters.
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