|Michael Joseph, left, and Matthew Gono have gotten a lot of attention from NFL teams.
Dubuque, Wesley athletics photos
By Adam Turer
The Division III players preparing for next week’s NFL draft and rookie free agency period are a coach’s dream.
Not because they have superior talent compared to their D-III teammates and opponents, and not because they have been offered this opportunity to compete at the next level.
These players are a coach’s dream because they are living, breathing, running, weight-lifting, film-watching examples of what a young man needs to do in order to pursue his most ambitious goals.
The highest-rated Division III prospect this year, and most likely to hear his name called during the draft, is Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph. Not long ago, Joseph was too undersized to earn a starting spot on his high school team. He grew enough physically to earn his way onto the field for the Spartans, but it took much more than just a few inches for Joseph to reach his current height.
It's a short list
Just seven Division III players have been drafted in the past 10 years. The majority of Division III alumni in the NFL over this span were signed as undrafted free agents.
|2015||Ali Marpet, OL||Hobart||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||2-61|
|2012||Chris Greenwood, CB||Albion||Detroit Lions||5-148|
|2011||Cecil Shorts, WR||Mount Union||Jacksonville Jaguars||4-114|
|2008||Andy Studebaker, DE/LB||Wheaton (Ill.)||Philadelphia Eagles||6-203|
|2008||Pierre Garcon, WR||Mount Union||Indianapolis Colts||6-205|
|2007||Michael Allan, TE||Whitworth||Kansas City Chiefs||7-231|
|2007||Derek Stanley, WR||UW-Whitewater||St. Louis Rams||7-249|
“We’re so pleased to have him as an example of a guy who never stops working and continues to grind and get better. It’s exciting for us, it really is,” said Dubuque head coach Stan Zweifel. “It’s an example of what people can do if they continue to give their best effort. He’s a self-made player who worked extremely hard.”
Joseph did not even play as a freshman. But in the spring before his sophomore year, he competed against All-American receiver Tyler Rutenbeck and more than held his own. Joseph continued to develop physically and dedicated himself to doing whatever it took to stay on the field once he earned a starting role for the first time since before high school.
“That’s when we knew he had the chance to be special,” said Zweifel. “He grew about an inch-and-a-half. That’s number one. He just seemed to physically mature, put on close to 15 pounds that first year. He never missed a weight room, I think he ate better, but he wasn’t done growing when he came out of high school.
“For us in D-III, that’s a lot of the type of kids we get, kids who haven’t reached their height or weight yet.”
Niles Scott arrived at Frostburg State as a 255-pound defensive end. He earned second team All-America honors at defensive tackle as a senior, and weighs in at 326 pounds now. Scott has the numbers and the measurables to be a priority undrafted free agent following the draft. He understands how special it is for a Division III player to be in this position.
“I always appreciate the people that paved the way first. It gives me hope,” said Scott. “The scouts come out and see that these D-III players can play. I’m happy to see any D-III players out there getting a shot, being able to go out there and prove themselves.”
Postseason opportunities gave these players a chance to shine on a bigger stage. Joseph played in the Senior Bowl. Scott played in the Tropical Bowl. Wesley offensive lineman Matt Gono and Hobart wide receiver Brandon Shed played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Shed arrived as a 150-pound freshman, and is now an imposing 6-3, 200-pound specimen. He draws inspiration from the D-III greats who earned their way on to NFL rosters in recent years, like former Statesmen teammate Ali Marpet and another Palm Beach County, Florida product, Mount Union's Pierre Garcon.
"Seeing those guys do it after playing Division III gives you motivation and confidence that even though I’m a D-III player, I can play in the NFL," said Shed. " It’s definitely a brotherhood."
Gono and Shed both come from programs that have produced NFL players in recent years. The measurables are often all that separates top prospects in Division I from those in D-III. The Division III players understand that they have to stand out even more than their scholarship counterparts.
“Matt has always looked unbelievably great for a small college lineman. The difference with Matt is we’ve never had anyone make a commitment to the weight room like Matt made,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass. “He looks more fit and in better shape now than he did four years ago.”
More from Matthew Gono
Gono grew from 270 pounds to 316 pounds. Scott likewise put on additional muscle, but realized that he would need to pile up stats at a similar rate.
“As soon as I came into Frostburg, this was always the goal. That thought really never left my mind. I held on to it tight,” said Scott. “At the D-III level you have to be able to outperform the guys playing at the bigger levels. You can’t afford to take a game off. I took that thought with me.”
Sam Mentkowski also had the same dream and goal. He learned from his former teammates who took advantage of their opportunities. The UW-Oshkosh wide receiver made the most of his shot at the University of Wisconsin Pro Day, impressing with the day’s fastest 40-yard dash (4.41 seconds).
“It was always a dream growing up, but I don’t think it became realistic until I saw Joe Sommers and Zach Kasubsoki get the opportunity (at the 2016 UW-Madison pro day). They told me if I kept working hard, I’d get the same opportunity,” said Mentkowski. “I didn’t really talk about it, but deep down I knew I was going to give it my all and see if I could make it a reality.”
All these players want is an opportunity. That’s all they feel they need. But they know how tenuous that can be. An invitation to rookie minicamp could be life-changing. You can be consumed by that pressure, or you can enjoy every moment of this potentially life-changing journey.
“At the end of the day you’re doing what you love, playing football and having fun. If you can constantly remind yourself of that, things become fun,” said Scott. “You see how far football has taken you and hopefully how far it will take you, Lord willing. When you get your opportunity, you can show what you can do.”
Joe Callahan was an undrafted free agent after winning the Gagliardi Trophy, but three years later remains one of Aaron Rodgers’ backups. The former Wesley quarterback has been an inspiration to his former teammate Gono.
“What I learned from him was to stay humble, work hard, and keep your head down,” Gono told Pat Coleman on the Around the Nation podcast. “That’s how I approach things. I don’t have much to say about what I’m doing; I’m just working.”
The NFL attention helps raise the profile of these small schools. Everyone knows about Mount Union. Callahan has helped put Wesley on the map. Marpet has proven worthy of the second-round pick that made the Hobart offensive lineman the highest drafted D-III player of the modern era. Committing to a Division III program is far from a path to the NFL. But these players have opened the eyes of current and future D-III players.
“It’s very exciting and it certainly helps recruiting,” said Drass. “We’ve been able to sit down with every recruit and every recruit’s family and tell them about Matt Gono’s story at Wesley College.”
Being scouted and interviewed by NFL teams has also been an eye-opening experience. No matter how dedicated these players were in college, the NFL is digging deeper than ever to uncover these potential diamonds in the rough.
“Every little thing you do is being watched and graded,” said Mentkowski of the pre-draft process. “You have to stay locked in and look athletic the whole time. They’re watching you even when you don’t know they’re watching you.”
Some of the players spent their second semester training off campus. Gono has balanced all of his NFL visits with his coursework. He plans to graduate this spring with a degree in legal studies. The formerly undersized prospect who moved from Liberia at the age of five and is preparing for final exams while preparing for free agent visits might be the most Division III story of all D-III stories.
“I wasn’t expecting any of this or anticipating any of this. I just came here to play football. They ended up finding me, thankfully,” Gono told Coleman. “Sometimes I’m just as surprised by it as everyone else is, but I’m just enjoying the process.”
Each of these players put himself in position by playing at a high level from August through December. But it was the work they did from January through July that set them apart and gave them the chance to be one of the few D-III prospects invited to compete at the highest level of football.
“For a coach, it reaffirms that you can point to a young man and say ‘If you do this, you might have a chance.’ It’s a storybook tale right now, but we don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said Joseph’s coach, Zweifel. “The best thing for our football team was the example of how to do things and do things right and what kind of things can happen for you when you do things right.”
Names to know
Here are some of the names you might hear when the draft winds down and the signing period begins.
Wide receiver, Franklin
Second team All-North
Alexander ran a 4.4 in his 40 at Ball State's pro day and had a 37.5-inch vertical. He caught 50 passes for 1,137 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Grizzlies this past season, to go with 64 more catches for just short of a thousand yards in 2016.
Franklin athletics photo
Defensive tackle, Mary Hardin-Baylor
Adams has the size to play along the defensive line in the NFL. He ran a 5.5 in the 40 at a pro day at Texas A&M-Commerce but followed it with a 5.2 at Baylor. Adams topped out at 29 reps on the bench press and a broad jump of 8-10. For the 2017 Cru, Adams racked up 20.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
Wide receiver, St. John's
Clark, a threat to stretch the field, finished with 49 catches for 496 yards and six touchdowns for the Johnnies in 2017. At the University of Minnesota's pro day, Clark clocked in at 4.51 in the 40, had 18 reps on the bench press and had a 37.5-inch vertical. But his size will detract potential NFL suitors.
St. John's athletics photo
Punter, Catholic U.
DiNardo averaged 46.5 yards per punt in 2017, the most in Division III this past season by nearly a yard. He placed 16 of his 62 punts inside the 20-yard line, with 15 touchbacks. He attended the University of Delaware Pro Day.
Catholic University athletics photo
Gono, a two-time D3football.com All-America selection, projects as a guard in the pros. He impressed scouts at Villanova's pro day with a 9-foot-10 broad jump, a 5.1 run in the 40 and 26 reps on the bench press. He's worked out for nearly 20 NFL teams on Wesley's campus and had visits with the Vikings, Bears and Lions. Gono played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena in January.
Wesley athletics photo
Defensive tackle, UW-River Falls
Jacobsen had three and a half sacks and eight and a half tackles for loss for the Falcons this season, becoming the first UW-River Falls player to be named a D3football.com All-American. At the UW-Madison pro day, Jacobsen posted 22 reps on the bench press and a 5.17 time in the 40.
Defensive end, East Texas Baptist
Johnson posted a 4.75 time in the 40 at North Texas' pro day in March, as well as 22 reps on the bench press. He posted 13 tackles for loss and 10 and a half sacks for the Tigers in 2017, as well as 13 quarterback hurries. Defensive linemen with this type of size in Division III typically are looked at as linebackers in the NFL (see Andy Studebaker).
East Texas Baptist athletics photo
6 foot, one-half inch, 187
Joseph was the only Division III player invited to the Reese's Senior Bowl, and the only one invited to the NFL Combine. He intercepted eight passes for the Spartans this season, and had 16 pass breakups, leaving him with 15 interceptions in three seasons.
From NFL.com: "He can run and he can go get the ball. He's raw, but he has the talent you want from a cornerback. Why would you want a technician who can't play the ball? He (Joseph) can be coached up." -- AFC Personnel Director
Wide receiver, UW-Oshkosh
Mentkowski turned heads at UW-Madison's pro day in March, posting a 4.41 40. Of course, that would not surprise Oshkosh's opponents, who allowed Mentkowski 113.6 receiving yards per game, including 22 yards per reception. He had receptions of 64 yards, 70 yards, 82, 86 and 96 for the Titans last season.
Long snapper, Mount Union
Rieman took part in Bowling Green's pro day, but for a long snapper, a 40 time is not the most instructive piece of information. He has been working with a professional long snapping coach and also got plenty of exposure at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Photo by Ohiosi.com
Defensive tackle, Frostburg State
Scott racked up 29 reps on the bench press, had a 8-foot-5 broad jump and recorded a 5.21 time in the 40 at Temple's pro day. He also got exposure at the Tropical Bowl, a scouting bowl in Daytona Beach, Florida. Scott finished the season with 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks for the Bobcats, who advanced to the national quarterfinals.
Frostburg State athletics photo
Wide receiver, Hobart
2016 First-team All-America
Shed and the Hobart offense had a bit of a down year in 2017, as he had 48 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns. He clocks in at 4.53 in the 40. He'll get attention for his ability to stretch the field.
Hobart athletics photo