The NFL and Utilizing the FCS (formerly I-AA Division) for Talent Acquisition

As the FCS to FBS gap has gradually gotten smaller, the talent pool continues to rise overall in the FCS despite the loss of talented programs to the FBS level including Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Many “small school” (in name only) athletes continue to pour into the NFL either through the NFL Draft or signing as undrafted free agents. While the majority of names may never pan out, the talent level of the secondary division remains a quite viable option for NFL teams all over the nation.

Unearthing Gems Once Upon a Time
As late as the 1980s, a lot of historical black colleges became home to prominent talent in large part due to the lack of recruiting by big time colleges and the gradual growth in accepting black players overall. RB Walter Payton and TE Jackie Slater were both teammates at Jackson State in Mississippi after Payton backed out of attending Kansas State University. Jackson State was also the collegiate home to wide receivers Harold Jackson and Jimmy Smith. Other talented black athletes would find themselves at colleges where they arguably raised the playing level overall despite not being considered top tier programs in general including DE L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas-Pine Bluff) and more infamously, WR Jerry Rice whom attended Mississippi Valley State. Another defensive lineman, Ed “Too Tall” Jones attended Tennessee State University.

Steve McNair chose to attend Alcorn State because they offered him a chance to play quarterback whereas most college programs were recruiting McNair to play defensive back as was usually the custom of the time when athletic black quarterbacks were often being converted to defensive back despite the success in the NFL of such players as Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon. Another Alcorn State alum was WR Donald Driver whom escaped being near homeless to being drafted by the Green Bay Packers.

Even well into the 1990s, the FCS (then known as Division I-AA) became a haven for little heralded athletes as well as troubled athletes. Chad Pennington was recruited by just two FCS programs at the time, Middle Tennessee State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He attended a training camp and landed a spot on the roster of Marshall where he would team up with WR Randy Moss whom had been kicked out of Florida State University.

Another star wide receiver, Terrell Owens, found himself at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Current Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback Tony Romo attended Eastern Illinois, a school that also had Saints head coach Sean Payton as an alum and current New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Chicago Bears defensive end Jared Allen attended Idaho State and was a 4th round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. Another Idaho State alum was running back and current ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge.

NFL Scours the FCS in Recent Drafts
Since 1997, Deadspin highlights that the FCS has produced over 300 picks, similar to the FBS’ Big East with a large percentage being wide receivers, offensive linemen, and defensive backs.

Here’s how the FCS breakdown has been the past several NFL Drafts

  • 2005: 17 Selections
  • 2006: 16 Selections
  • 2007: 17 Selections
  • 2008: 24 Selections
  • 2009: 15 Selections
  • 2010: 19 Selections
  • 2011: 21 Selections
  • 2012: 15 Selections
  • 2013: 19 Selections
  • 2014: 19 Selections
  • 2015: 17 Selections

Since the 2005 NFL Draft, there have been 199 players drafted from the FCS level, not even including undrafted players who have had success such as CB Kyle Arrington of the New England Patriots. More notable names include Baltimore Ravens starting quarterback Joe Flacco, Cleveland Browns running back Terrance West, and Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon.

The FCS continued to make an impact in the 2015 NFL Draft. CB Tray Walker out of Texas Southern was selected in the 4th Round by the Baltimore Ravens. The Southland Conference saw two players selected in the 7th Round, both AFC East teams. Samford’s Jaquiski Tartt was selected early in the draft, the 2nd Round, by the San Francisco 49ers. The offensive line continued to see success with Ohio Valley’s tackle Anthony Morris taken in the 7th Round by the Oakland Raiders and guard Robert Myers taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the 5th Round.

The Baltimore Ravens made a noticeable move towards the FCS level, selecting players from the division with 3 straight picks: Tray Walker, TE Nick Boyle out of Delaware, and Robert Myers. Seattle, despite losing the Super Bowl to New England, selected CB Tye Smith out of Towson in the 5th Round.

Super Bowl Impact
Many of the NFL’s Super Bowl winning squads have featured prominent small school, I-AA or FCS level contributors. CB Malcolm Butler, the hero of the Patriots came even deeper out of Division II West Alabama. Patriots FB James Develin came out of the Ivy League, attending Brown University. He actually converted from defensive line to offense at the NFL level, initially with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The early 1990’s Dallas Cowboys were loaded with then I-AA players including Charles Haley out of James Madison, future Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett out of Columbia, and offensive lineman Nate Newton out of Florida A&M. In 1996, the winning Green Bay Packers had safety Eugene Robinson out of Colgate and key offensive lineman Adam Timmerman out of South Dakota State. Center Frank Winters came from Western Illinois.

FCS Relying on Local Talent
Although talent continues to jump down from the FBS to the FCS level, notably including such names as quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and quarterback Pat Devlin in recent years, head coaches continue to mine the areas around them for under scouted players without relying on the ease of a network that most FBS programs employ.

Programs such as Tennessee at Chattanooga have started experiencing success in the recruiting trail aiming for players in their backyard while competing with lower level FBS programs for talent. Even as far back as 2009, head coach Dean Hood made reference to the acceleration of the recruiting madness in the FBS and the ability to take time and really pursue or identify talent that fits the FCS program, “Yes, we are recruiting a different caliber of player, but in many ways we get much more time to do it without the pressure of feeling like we have to be ready to offer in the spring,’ says Hood. ‘Simply put, we can actually evaluate senior tape here and that would never have happened at Wake (Forest) with how the recruiting calendar has become so accelerated recently.”

Dino Babers, the new head coach at Bowling Green coming from Eastern Illinois illustrated the change in recruiting from FCS to FBS, “We had good players there, but we might not have had more than 22, 24, 25, 26 good players. Here with the FBS schedule and the non-conference schedule that you play, you need to double that. You need to have somewhere from 50 to 60 good players out of 85 scholarships.”


Written by David Hunter

David Hunter enjoys writing about wrestling, sports, music, and horror!

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