Some NFL legends have taken the path from unheralded recruit to small-school prospect to big-league stardom.
This week at SB Nation, we’re shining the spotlight on the NFL’s most underappreciated — from our favorite underdog stories to the most overlooked players and teams. Now’s the time to give them their due.
Being a five-star recruit won’t guarantee you a spot in the NFL, but it certainly makes it a little easier to get there. Playing for a powerhouse Power 5 program can turn you into a household name and inundate scouts with plenty of opportunities to study your game. A blue-chip pedigree can also help teams overlook a lackluster college career in hopes of banking on the unknown quantity of untapped potential.
But NFL rosters don’t solely consist of can’t-miss high school stars. Some of the league’s best players were under-appreciated teenagers who never earned the adoration of scouts or collegiate assistant coaches. There are several standouts who played their college ball in front of small or disinterested crowds before overcoming the odds and earning a spot in the pros. In fact, you could probably put together a pretty good all-star team filled with them.
Let’s do that. Let’s say you had to make a team of all the best NFL players who were enrolled from non-FBS colleges from 1978 onward — the year the NCAA split Division I into I-A and I-AA distinctions that would later become the FBS and FCS, respectively. How would it look? How many Hall of Famers would you find?
It turns out, a whole bunch. I padded out the depth chart with a handful of backups for the especially solid positions — settling with 22 players wasn’t an option thanks to the level of talent the NCAA’s lower levels have pumped into the league.
Here’s that slightly unbalanced but totally stacked roster of non-FBS programs.
QB: Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa
Phil Simms, Morehead State
Warner’s Hall of Fame career was built on his ability to revive both the Rams and Cardinals en route to Super Bowl appearances at each stop. That journey began in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as a single-year starter for Northern Iowa, weaved through various low-level feeder leagues like the NFL Europe and Arena Football League, and eventually landed in St. Louis as a lottery ticket backup. This crooked path to greatness put him ahead of a host of other celebrated names among the least-lauded high school passers.
Simms gets tabbed for backup duty after a pair of NFL championships in a Giants career that seems downright quaint when stacked up against the high-powered offenses of the 2010s. Only seven times had passers ever thrown for 4,000+ yards in a season when he pulled off that feat (along with Neil Lomax and Dan Marino) in 1984. As of 2019, it’s been done 175 times.
Check out the list of also-rans:
- Ken Anderson, Augustana
- Steve McNair, Alcorn State
- Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois
- Rich Gannon, Delaware
- Joe Flacco, Delaware (after starting at Pittsburgh)
- Ron Jaworski, Youngstown State
- Ken O’Brien, Cal-Davis
WR: Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State
Terrell Owens, Tennessee-Chattanooga
Andre Reed, Kutztown
Rice is the greatest NFL player to come out of the now-FCS, then I-AA after the 1978 split. One of the few receivers even in his orbit statistically is Owens, who managed to be a longtime game-changer both on and off the field. Reed, the third Hall of Famer in the bunch, was a force in the early 90s and part of the Bills’ fearsome offensive Cerberus alongside Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas.
There are even a couple of stellar backups available. Jackson State’s Jimmy Smith had nine seasons in which he had more than 1,000 receiving yards, but he was largely underrated as he toiled away for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Alcorn State’s Donald Driver rose up from the seventh round of the 1999 NFL Draft to account for more than 10,000 receiving yards for the Packers.
RB: Terrell Davis, Long Beach State (kinda)
Brian Westbrook, Villanova
David Johnson, Northern Iowa
Tailback is one of the thinner positions culled from these ranks, but if we cheat a little we can still find a Hall of Fame veteran. Davis started his college career at Long Beach State, then wound up at Georgia after the school discontinued its football program. Otherwise, you’re looking at the ultra-versatile Westbrook to hold down the top spot on the depth chart.
Behind him is a useful receiving threat who can also churn out yardage on the ground, though Johnson’s spot on the team is dependent on proving he’s more than just a one-season wonder after failing to follow up on his breakout 2016 in Arizona.
FB: Larry Centers, Stephen F. Austin
Centers, who played from 1990 to 2003, was ahead of his time as a pass-catching dynamo out of the backfield who could also pick up blitzes in a pinch. If he came to the NFL two decades later, he’d be a perennial Pro Bowler. Instead, he only went three times, which is still pretty good.
TE: Shannon Sharpe, Savannah State
Ben Coates, Livingstone
Two of the top pass catchers of the 90s each make the team, just in case we end up throwing a lot of 22-formation sets into the mix.
Sharpe, who spends his days in retirement waking up early to battle a purposefully contrarian Vandy grad, was the decade’s most dominant tight end — an athletic specimen who stretched defenses and chipped blockers despite suboptimal size. Coates was often the best thing about a woeful Patriots’ offense, serving as Drew Bledsoe’s No. 1 target in a pass-happy offense.
OL: Nate Newton, G/T, Florida A&M
Matt Birk, C, Harvard
Tom Newberry, G/C, UW-La Crosse
Jahri Evans, T, Bloomsburg
Larry Allen, G, Sonoma State
Adam Timmerman, G, South Dakota State
Tunch Ilkin, G/C/T, Indiana State
Protecting Warner and clearing a path for Westbrook is a heady brew of Hall of Famers and sturdy pros who range from the FCS to Division III. The headliner is Allen, who made six All-Pro teams while anchoring the Cowboys’ offensive line for 12 seasons and was athletic enough at 325 pounds to stop pick-sixes in progress. Behind him are a combination of players who can hold down multiple positions at an all-star level.
Howie Long, Villanova
Richard Dent, Tennessee State
Michael Strahan, Texas Southern
Jared Allen, Idaho State
Charles Haley, James Madison
There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to smaller-school pass rushers. I went four deep and still had to exclude Mark Gastineau (attended East Central University after Arizona State), Charles Haley (James Madison), and Lyle Alzado, whose alma mater — Yankton College — no longer exists.
Update: In an egregious oversight, I forgot Villanova didn’t drop to I-AA football until 1981 — the year after Long graduated. As a result, he’s off the list and Haley joins the ranks. Thanks to Loonardi on Twitter for the correction.
Instead, you’ve got three Hall of Famers and Allen, who will likely join them once he’s eligible. Between them they’ve got 499 career sacks and the chops to completely terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
DT: John Randle, Texas A&M-Kingsville
Clyde Simmons, Western Carolina
Pat Williams, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College
That pass-rushing punch only gets stronger with Randle leading things on the inside; the undersized tackle had nine seasons with 10+ sacks in his Hall of Fame career. He’s bolstered by an out-of-position Simmons, who moved inside late in his career but is best known for a 19-sack breakout season as an Eagles defensive end back in 1992.
If it’s thickness you crave, you can throw Williams into the lineup; the 317-pounder was a blocker-absorbing vacuum up front in 14 years as a pro.
LB: Karl Mecklenburg, Augustana
Sam Mills, Montclair State
London Fletcher, John Carroll
Greg Lloyd, Fort Valley State
MORE BEEF. This lineup provides two run-stopping tackling machines in the middle and some extra power at the edge in Mecklenburg and Lloyd. The outside guys combined for more than 120 sacks, while Mills and Fletcher have nearly 3,300 career tackles between them.
And if you don’t like those guys, you could always sub in Bart Scott, Jessie Tuggle, Charles Haley, Mike Merriweather, Bryan Cox, or Jeremiah Trotter.
CB: Everson Walls, Grambling State
Albert Lewis, Grambling State
Aeneas Williams, Southern
Darrell Green, Texas A&M-Kingsville
Cornerback is stocked with players who were very good for very long, including a pair of Eddie Robinson-coached bookends in Walls and Lewis, who have eight Pro Bowl selections together. They’re stuck in a rotational role behind Williams and Green, however — two Hall of Famers who played for a combined 34 seasons.
S: Eugene Robinson, Colgate
Tyrone Braxton, North Dakota State
Rodney Harrison, Western Illinois
There’s a lot of range and some big hits from our center fielders in this lineup. Robinson gave the league 16 solid years. Braxton was a versatile defensive back who could line up at either corner or safety and played a major role as Denver crashed through to glory in the late 90s. Harrison brought the lumber over a borderline Hall of Fame career with the Chargers and Patriots.
K: Adam Vinatieri, South Dakota State
Still going at age 46. Few kickers are surefire Hall of Famers, but Vinatieri’s one of them. He’s kicked 582 field goals so far in his career — most in league history and 141 more than the next closest active kicker. His 56 postseason field goals are the most the NFL’s ever seen by a double-digit margin.
P: Sean Landeta, Towson
A pretty good punter! Landeta stuck in the NFL for 21 seasons and was a three-time first team All-Pro. Like Simms, he won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants.
What if we had to make a starting 22 based on only active players? I’ve got some ideas there, too.
QB: Carson Wentz, North Dakota State
FB: Kyle Juszczyk, Harvard
OL: Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
J.C. Tretter, Cornell
Julie’n Davenport, Bucknell
Ryan Jensen, Colorado State-Pueblo
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, McGill (Canada)
and, for depth, free agents Jermon Bushrod from Towson and Brandon Fusco from Slippery Rock
DT: Damon Harrison, William Penn
Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State
Brandon Williams, Missouri Southern
K: Adam Vinatieri, South Dakota State
P: Jordan Berry, Eastern Kentucky
You can find elite players from the NCAA’s smaller schools at every position in the league. Most of them can even be picked up on Day 3 of the NFL Draft or later. If you’re looking for underdogs just waiting for the opportunity to make good on Sundays, you can start looking toward the gridiron’s non-FBS programs on Saturdays first.