Division II star emerges among NFL's small-school prospects

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Fayetteville State cornerback Joshua Williams recites the Kyle Dugger story as if he wrote the book.

He talks about how the late-blooming safety chose to play Division II football in small town North Carolina after receiving just three scholarship offers. And how Dugger went from being an overlooked prep recruit to a second-round draft pick in just a few years.

So as Williams watched Dugger's journey from less than 200 miles away in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the budding cornerback figured he would follow Dugger's lead. Next week, it could become a reality.

“He ended up in New England and is doing great things now," Williams said during the NFL's annual scouting combine in March. “He went to the Senior Bowl like me, he went to the combine like me, and I'm hoping maybe I can follow in his footsteps and showcase my talents the same way he did.”

There are many similarities between Williams and Dugger.

Both have the long, lanky body frames scouts want in defensive backs, possess top-end speed, and needed to prove they could outplay the more familiar big-time college names.

Dugger convinced the Patriots he was good enough in 2020. Now, it's Williams' turn.

NFL.com gives the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Williams a grade of 6.18 — an above-average backup who may eventually become a starter — though it's unclear where that puts him in next week's draft.

Still, Williams has already achieved more than most people ever expected.

The son of a track coach, he grew up in Fayetteville, a military town where nearly 20% of residents live in poverty. Locals follow basketball more than football and while Williams certainly looks as if he might have succeeded on the court, his dream always was to play in the NFL.

So after moving from receiver to defensive back as a high school senior, Williams went to a South Carolina prep school for one season before returning home.

It's a 10-minute drive from Fort Bragg Army Base to the Broncos' campus. The 5,000-seat Luther “Nick” Jeralds Stadium seems more suited to hosting a large high school game than college stars. But it was this turf that helped Williams emerge as a legitimate draft prospect and possibly the league's next big star from a historically Black college or university.

The list includes Hall of Famers such as the late Walter Payton of Jackson State, Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State, and Donnie Shell of South Carolina State, along with Super Bowl champs such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones of Tennessee State and Doug Williams of Grambling.

Last year, though, no players from HBCU schools were taken in the draft. The shutout prompted league officials to put a higher emphasis on those players at the Senior Bowl and the HBCU All-Star game in New Orleans.

This year, four players made the combine cut: Williams, defensive backs Markquese Bell of Florida A&M and Decobie Durant of South Carolina State, and offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter of Southern. Each understands the long odds they overcame to reach this point and the even longer odds they face in trying to replicate the success of Indianapolis Colts linebacker and South Carolina State grad Darius Leonard, a three-time All-Pro.

“Me and Darius, we always talk," said Durant, a high school quarterback. “He talks about keeping your mindset and going in and having that dog mentality, no matter the school, no matter the size, no matter the speed. Everybody's always got something bad to say, so just overcome the critics.”

Even after getting noticed by the league's scouts, it hasn't been easy.

Durant traveled to the University of South Carolina for his pro day workout. Williams, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds at Indianapolis, then wound up at North Carolina State where he performed drills against the Wolfpack's top players. One of those, offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu, is a top-five talent who some have discussed going No. 1 overall. Williams didn't flinch.

“I'm just appreciative they let me utilize their facilities," he said.

This year's list of small-school talent doesn't begin or end with the HBCU prospects.

Offensive lineman Trevor Penning of Northern Iowa and receiver Christian Watson of North Dakota State, two FCS schools, could be first-rounders. Tyler Smith of Tulsa and Cole Strange of Chattanooga, FCS offensive linemen, could go in Round 2.

Pierre Strong of South Dakota State, Adam Vinatieri's alma mater, impressed the league's decision-makers by completing the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the combine. He tied Isaih Pacheco of Rutgers for the fastest time among running backs.

Then there's Williams, who saw former college teammate Kion Smith sign with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted rookie last year. Williams knows it could happen to him, too.

But after seeing Dugger's blueprint, Williams believes he will become the first Fayetteville State draftee since the New York Jets took running back James Godwin in Round 16 in 1976.

“I want to put my best foot forward coming from Division II, a smaller school, showing what I have to offer, that there's no knock against D-II football," he said. “I want to show everyone I'm just as talented, if not more talented, than these other guys.”

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