Small-school prospects in the 2020 NFL draft class were definitely hindered by the coronavirus pandemic, with six FCS-level prospects drafted, plus three more from the Division II and III levels.
Those numbers are down from seven and five, respectively, in the 2019 NFL draft, and in 2018 there were a combined 23 players drafted from the FCS and Division II and III levels.
There’s a fear that the 2021 draft could suffer a similar fate as the 2020 class with smaller-school prospects. In addition to schools losing out on having Junior Day workouts, which help put lower-level prospects on the scouting map, there’s also the very real fear that some college football — especially at schools with smaller budgets and staff — could be canceled amid ongoing health risks.
But there are still very talented players from all levels of college football, and we wanted to highlight some of the sub-FBS players who already have scouts doing homework on them.
This is not a complete list, of course, but it’s a good primer for some of the smaller-program gems for the 2021 draft — even if they don’t get to fully showcase their skills this coming season.
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance
The Lance hype has been on full blast, even since before the 2020 NFL draft. He’s an extremely talented thrower and runner who accounted for 2,786 yards passing and 1,100 rushing in leading the Bison to a 16-0 national-title season as a redshirt freshman.
Even more impressive, perhaps, is Lance’s 28-0 TD-INT ratio and 66.9 completion percentage in his first year starting. Some even have gone on record to say that Lance is way ahead of where Carson Wentz was at a similar stage of development. It’s possible that’s the case.
But as one NFL evaluator implored, pumping the brakes a bit on Lance might be wise. His skill set oozes with potential, but we’re talking about a player with 288 career pass attempts. A lot can happen between now and whenever he chooses to declare.
If the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder is able to put up monster numbers again, it’s possible he declares early for next year’s draft. But can we in good faith place him among the Trevor Lawrences and Justin Fields of the prospect realm? No, we cannot — not yet, anyway.
NC A&T RB Jah-Maine Martin
The HBCU Player of the Year in 2019 is a slashing, dashing dart whose fourth-quarter performance against Charleston Southern last year was one for the ages. In that game, he ran for touchdowns of 84 and 76 yards — both on counter-trey runs. Watch how many guys Martin made miss on the second of the two scores:
Although Martin has yet to show he can catch the ball effectively (10 receptions over three seasons), he has the juice to be an NFL runner. Turn on the Duke tape from last year for proof of that, as Martin burst for a 66-yard TD.
We’d love to see the 5-10, 203-pound runner get a chance to add more wrinkles to his game in 2020, but Martin is already earning Day 3 grades from NFL scouts.
South Dakota State WR Cade Johnson
Johnson caught the attention of scouts early last fall with a strong performance in the Jackrabbits’ near upset of Minnesota, taking an early handoff for a 25-yard gain and catching six balls for 90 yards. On two of those grabs, he was tackled just short of the goal line.
The 5-10, 180-pound slot receiver has averaged more than 100 yards receiving per game over the past two seasons combined and also has been a beast on kickoff returns. If we have a college football season, Johnson has a showcase game against Nebraska that can help boost his profile with NFL scouts.
Right now, he’s viewed as a Day 3 prospect.
Lenoir-Rhyne WR Dareke Young
Kyle Dugger was a fantastic story last season, vaulting from virtually unknown prospect to the 37th overall pick in the draft this spring by the New England Patriots. He was the Bears’ first NFL draft choice in 20 years.
But the Division-II program appears to have another fascinating athlete in the hopper this year. Young is a terrific athlete at 6-3, 220 pounds who filled a variety of roles for L-R last season and is expected to be unleashed more as a receiver this season.
The Bears had a wild offensive scheme where they’d jump from a four-wide spread formation one play into a triple-option concept the next. Young lined up everywhere — backfield, slot, tight end, out wide — and was a dual threat: 49 rushes for 335 yards and four scores, plus 25 grabs for 515 yards and eight TDs.
New coach Mike Jacobs is expected to run more of a traditional attack this season, and Young should be their go-to weapon. A source at the program said Young tested extremely well this spring — a 42-inch vertical, a 130-inch broad jump and a hand-timed 4.52-second 40-yard dash — and that he could be “more prepared for the next level mentally than Dugger was at this point last year.”
Here’s Young’s third TD last year vs. Virginia Union, a terrific grab in the corner of the end zone:
Charleston WR Mike Strachan
The Bahamian-bred Strahan is a physical marvel at 6-5 and roughly 225 pounds, accounting for 68 percent of the team’s passing TDs with 19, 36 percent of its receptions with 78, and 41 percent of receiving yards with 1,319 yards. He scored in 10 of the team’s 11 games, too.
Although the redshirt senior remains a bit raw, he’s come a long way the past two seasons and received a healthy initial grade from BLESTO this spring, placing him in the mid-Day 3 range. National Football Scouting was a little less enthusiastic about his potential, but Strachan is still considered one of the stronger D-II prospects coming out next year.
Central Missouri TE Zach Davidson
The 6-7 Davidson is the rare double-duty player — tight end/punter! — but has opened eyes for scouts more at the former position.
Last season, Davidson broke out as a pass catcher after mostly focusing on punting earlier in his career. He caught 40 passes in 13 games for a whopping 894 yards (a 22.4-yard average) with 15 TDs, including an 80-yard score.
Right now, Davidson appears to be grading out as a priority free agent, but the 2020 draft rise of New Orleans Saints fourth-rounder Adam Trautman is a reminder that small-school tight ends who dominate can still go fairly high.
And with Davidson, offering emergency punting skills (he’s averaged 42.4 yards over three seasons) isn’t a bad little feather in his cap.
North Dakota State OT Dillon Radunz
The 6-5, 298-pound Radunz helps block for Lance, who was sacked only 12 times last season — zero allowed by the left tackle. Radunz’s athletic skills are impressive, and he’s roundly regarded as one of the best small-school blockers in the entire 2021 draft lot.
Although Radunz must improve as a run blocker, his natural pass-blocking skill cannot go unnoticed. And there’s enough nastiness in his game to suggest that he’s going to be given every chance to play left tackle in the NFL.
One of Radunz’s biggest supporters in the early going has been Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who posted this eye-opening tweet and later said he felt there was even first-round potential in his game:
Northern Iowa OT Spencer Brown
Not to be overlooked in the FCS offensive line discussion is Brown, who received strong initial grades from both scouting services after dominating his competition last season. He’s a massive guy (6-9, 321 pounds) who moves extremely well for his size and is the best blocker on an offensive line that returns four of five starters.
Brown has been bit by a few injuries, first a knee injury earlier in his career followed by a foot injury last October, but has started the past two seasons at right tackle. Not bad for a high-school tight end who has put on nearly 80 pounds since arriving on campus.
If we get a season, the Panthers are slated to travel to Iowa in the opener. That would pit Brown against the Hawkeyes’ latest talented pass rusher, Chauncey Golson, in a fantastic draft test for both players.
UNI also has another NFL prospect on the other side of the ball in EDGE Ellerson Smith — a long, powerful rusher earning respectable grades at the outset of his senior campaign.
North Carolina Central CB Bryan Mills
Mills is a long, strong corner who looks like a future Seahawks defender — and he’s said to emulate former Seattle CB Brandon Browner as a pro model.
The 6-foot-2 Mills had five interceptions last season, with three of them coming against Morgan State, tying a school record in the process. Two of those picks came in the end zone, too. Right now, he’s very much on the Day 3 spectrum.
Central Arkansas CB Robert Rochell
Rochell earns even higher marks than Mills by some scouts, offering good length on his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame and bulking up over the past few years after coming into the program at a spindly 170.
Over the past two seasons, Rochell has intercepted five passes and defended another 28 balls. His best projected matchup this season will come at Missouri, where he could see a potential matchup against 6-5 Virginia Tech transfer Damon Hazelton (or 6-4 Angelo State transfer Keke Chism).
Rochell’s initial grades place him in the early Day 3 range now, but his testing — especially the 40-yard dash — could end up having a pretty good effect on where he’s eventually picked.
Illinois State S Christian Uphoff
Uphoff might not be receiving as much attention as his Redbirds teammate, OT Drew Himmelman, who is said to measure close to 6-foot-10. But the 6-foot-3 Uphoff is very much an NFL prospect in his own right, having put up some strong performances last year (especially against Eastern Illinois and in the FCS playoff loss at North Dakota State).
He’s played both safety spots, is strong in coverage and run support and is a very good kick returner (career 27.1-yard average). We’re hoping he and his talented ISU team get a chance to strut their stuff against an up-and-coming Illinois program in the season opener.
In addition to Uphoff and Himmelman, the Redbirds have two other NFL prospects in EDGE Romeo McKnight and CB Devin Taylor.
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