What do D-I powerhouses Miami and Penn State have in common with tiny Mt. Union?
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There's Quarterback U. (Miami) and Linebacker U. (Penn State).
Where's Wide Receiver U.?
A few schools jump to mind – USC and Ohio State, for example – but the dark horse candidate for Wide Receiver U. might be in the tiny town of Alliance, Ohio. About an hour outside Cleveland, there's a school with 2,200 students and two No. 1 receivers in the NFL.
Yes, a Division III school has produced two former teammates who now have starting jobs at the top of NFL depth charts: Pierre Garcon of the Washington Redskins and Cecil Shorts III of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
They were teammates not too long ago, in the dormitory they shared at a school with a 142-acre nature center that's bigger than its campus.
"I watched [Garcon] on the TV last night," Shorts said Tuesday, sitting in front of his locker here. "We were in the dorm room playing, listening to music. It was all a dream not so long ago. Crazy."
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It is crazy. It's rare when a player makes an NFL roster from Abilene Christian or Harvard. But those are Division I schools. Mount Union is D-III – it has about the same number of students as the NFL has players. And Mount Union also produced Chris Denton, a wide receiver trying to catch on with the Bucs, and Kyle Miller, a tight end for the Dolphins who also served as a long snapper back in Alliance.
"A lot can happen if you work hard," Garcon said by phone from his NFL locker in Virginia. "It's a good feeling."
What's even odder is Mount Union, despite a fantastic winning tradition that has brought in 11 national titles since 1993, has never been a passing team.
"We're more of a balanced offense," says longtime coach Larry Kehres, who retired last season with the best winning percentage in college football history (332-24-3 since 1986, 92.4 percent). He says what impressed him most about Garcon wasn't his ability to catch the football.
"He is a great blocking wide receiver," says Kehres. "Half the plays or more are run plays. He was a great blocker. And he still is. That's a great quality and that really endears you to your teammates."
Shorts was more "silky smooth," according to Kehres, but watching Garcon changed his life. He was a backup quarterback who played occasional snaps at receiver when he got to Mount Union. Like Garcon, he also ran track. When he saw Garcon get drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 Draft, Shorts shifted into a different gear.
"The moment he got drafted," Shorts says, "I wanted to work out that night."
The year after Garcon left, Shorts caught 100 passes for 1,736 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Still, good stats aren't enough for most Division III players to get noticed. Think of all the Division I and II players who compete every week against much better competition. Dominating in Alliance, Ohio, isn't like dominating in Columbus, Ohio. Buckeyes will get the benefit of the doubt; Purple Raiders will just get the doubt. Keep in mind, the backlash against using a pick on a D-III player can be immense if it doesn't work out. Shorts was the first-ever Division III player drafted by the Jaguars; they took him in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft.
"You can't just be good," says Shorts. "You have to prove that you don't belong [in Division III]."
A lot of the credit goes to Kehres and his staff. He taught Garcon and Shorts all phases of the game. NFL scouts were surely scouring for flaws, and didn't find many, if any.
"I feel like we did a good job developing Pierre and Cecil as receivers," Kehres says, hesitating out of fear he might be seen as boasting. "It's true, so it's kind of not bragging. I think we did our job."
So how did Mount Union discover the best receiver in school history – the one who inspired Shorts? There was hardly any tape on Garcon, so Kehres will tell you he used every available resource.
Then he'll let you in on the full story: Garcon emailed him. That's how it started – with an email from a future NFL starter.
Can we now expect a wave of Division III stars in the NFL? It's highly unlikely. Kehres says recruiting at that level is harder than ever because high school athletes can put together tapes much easier now than in years past.
"There aren't too many hidden gems," Kehres says. "It's harder now because if you're good, you can get your materials in front of D-I coaches."
Incredibly, all the D-I and D-II coaches missed these two guys (and Denton and Miller for that matter). And now they're weekly advertisements for tiny Mount Union.
"I loved everything," Garcon says. "The education, the football program, the tradition. I'm definitely proud to be affiliated with it."
Wide Receiver U. starts its season Sept. 7 against the Grizzlies of Franklin College.
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