Collins leads class of D-III pro hopefuls
Jasper Collins hopes to follow in the Mount
Union-to-NFL footsteps of wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Cecil
Shorts III, who is working out alongside Collins to help him
By Adam Turer
Since 1991, sixteen players have been drafted from Division III into the NFL. During this time, there has not been a stretch of three straight years with a Division III draftee. A host of talented players, led by Mount Union wide receiver Jasper Collins, hope to change that this year.
Albion cornerback Chris Greenwood was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft by the Detroit Lions. Mount Union wideout Cecil Shorts was picked in the fourth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011. Shorts's selection ended a two-year draft drought for D-III players. Collins is projected as a sixth- or seventh-round pick this year and is consistently rated the highest draft prospect among his Division III peers.
"The entire process has been very humbling," said Collins. "It is a blessing to be able to represent Division III and a tremendous program like Mount Union."
As more draft "gurus" populate the internet and more postseason all-star games sprout each year, the number of opportunities for exposure has increased for small-school prospects. Collins benefited from playing in the East-West Shrine Game, where he was the only D-III player on the roster. The success of recent D-III alums like Shorts, Pierre Garcon, Fred Jackson and Jerrell Freeman has also helped draw scouts' attention.
"I think [their success] has shown that the talent level has improved a little bit in D-III," said Josh Buchanan, who has covered the draft for the past ten years. "There are players who instead of going to a lower-level D-II or FCS, they go play for a winner like Mount Union or Mary-Hardin Baylor knowing they will get a shot, if they want it."
Those who have made it have done their part to continue the trickling pipeline from Division III to the NFL. Collins has been working out with Shorts in preparation for the draft.
"He's been with me every step of the way," said Collins. "He's like a big brother."
Mary Hardin-Baylor linebacker Javicz Jones has received inspiration and motivation from Cru alum Freeman, who had a breakout season for the Indianapolis Colts after years of NFL tryouts and a stint in the CFL. Jones is projected by many to follow a similar path. He worked out for the Houston Texans and will likely receive some NFL tryouts, but most see him as a CFL starter.
"Jerrell gave me some insight and tips into what he went through," said Jones. "He seized an opportunity, but it took some time. For a lot of us, it's a matter of timing."
Buchanan, who ranks small school prospects at www.buyscouting.com, has Collins, Cal Lutheran wide receiver Eric Rogers and UW-Platteville safety Ryan McWethy rated as his top three players from Division III.
|Javicz Jones hopes to follow
in the footsteps of Jerrell Freeman, but even then, it took Freeman
years to make it to the NFL.
UMHB athletics file photo
"All three of them possess something that I could see a team taking a shot on in the seventh round," said Buchanan.
The draft preparation process is different for a small-school athlete. While some players draw NFL interest earlier in their college careers, most have surfaced on scouts' radars within the past year. They are eager to jump at any opportunity to show off their skills, whether it's by playing in a postseason all-star game or working out at a larger school's pro day.
"It's harder to get a chance if you don't have NFL measurables," said Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban. "It helps a small-school player anytime they get an opportunity to show what they can do, especially against different levels of competition."
Rogers has the measurables that NFL scouts look for in a wide receiver. He moved from defensive back to wide receiver prior to his senior year of high school and was not recruited by many programs. Scouts first noticed him after his junior season at Cal Lu and head coach Ben McEnroe started challenging Rogers to work hard enough to get to the next level.
"I didn't really plan on giving this a shot until last year," said Rogers. "Coach Mac kept motivating me to put in the work."
Urban knows where these players are coming from. Before he embarked on a coaching career, Urban was a captain and wide receiver for Washington and Lee. He is one of many NFL coaches with D-III playing experience. In addition to Urban, the Bengals staff boasts coaches who played for Cortland State, Trinity (Texas), and Ursinus. They know that football instincts translate across levels of competition.
"We take pride in our schools," said Urban. "It's all football to me."
The players vying for a spot on an NFL roster feel the same way.
"Football is football," said Collins. "At the wide receiver position, no matter your size you can still run and catch and make plays."
Other notable D-III players who have worked out for NFL teams include Coe defensive lineman Frank Weymiller, UW-Oshkosh quarterback Nate Wara, Albion running back Clinton Orr and RPI quarterback Mike Hermann. Most of these players know they will not hear their name called from a podium in New York City, but hope that they are given an opportunity to earn a roster spot, either as a college free agent signee or training camp invitee. Some use their small school beginnings as a chip on their shoulder.
"I want to prove that it doesn't matter what division you're in," said Jones. "If you can play football and work hard, you can make something happen."
The players have also stayed true to their Division III roots. Jones continues to take classes and will graduate in May. Collins is one semester away from graduation and will finish next Spring, following in the footsteps of Shorts, who went back to Mount Union for classes after his rookie NFL season. Rogers is currently taking 18 units while working out for NFL teams and will graduate with his class.
Eric Rogers is maintaining
his full course load while getting ready for his shot in the
"I wouldn't have it any other way," said Rogers of his heavy workload. "I feel like I'll be able to represent the D-III level and show people that you can go to a small school and still excel and ultimately get the chance."
One, maybe two, will be drafted; a few more will sign as free agents; a few more will get invited to tryouts. Saturday will be a long day and night with players and their agents waiting for just one phone call. That call means an opportunity. Sometimes it takes a few opportunities to secure a roster spot, but players like Freeman have shown that it can be done. It all starts with that first phone call, then hard work and perseverance take over.
"I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but there are guys who keep coming back year after year, knocking on the door," said Jones. "Now it's just a waiting game to see which team takes a chance on you."
The prospects each plan on spending Saturday with family. Hopefully, they will have a plane to catch on Sunday.
"I continue to work hard and pray every day," said Collins. "What's meant to be, will be."
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