The NFL combine annually gives small-school prospects a chance to shine alongside higher-profile players from bigger programs, with former Chattanooga/current Cleveland Browns CB Buster Skrine and former Nicholls State/current Baltimore Ravens CB Lardarius Webb being recent examples. This year's event (Feb. 22-28) will be no different, and there is an interesting storyline developing in this year's small-school crop.
The 2012 batch of small-school defensive backs is the deepest, most talented I've seen in that position group in the five years I've been with Scouts Inc. It helps that the list includes two players who transferred from SEC schools -- North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins and McNeese State's Janzen Jackson -- but the overall talent level is still impressive.
Of the 12 noteworthy prospects listed below (grade in parentheses), I expect at least seven to hear their names called in the draft, including several who could come off the board in the early rounds.
North Alabama CB Janoris Jenkins (94)
Montana CB Trumaine Johnson (83)
Coastal Carolina CB Josh Norman (79)
McNeese State S Janzen Jackson (72)
Cal-Poly CB Asa Jackson (70)
Furman CB Ryan Steed (65)
Presbyterian CB/S Justin Bethel (50)
Appalachian State CB De'andre Presley (46)
Wayne State (Mich.) CB J.J. Jones (42)
Samford S Corey White (44)
Hampton CB Micah Pellerin (34)
Maine S Jerron McMillian (30)
Three prospects in particular deserve some attention, beginning with Johnson.
At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Johnson should impress with his combination of size and athleticism. He shows good range on tape, as well as above-average ball skills when tracking and playing passes downfield.
He's somewhat similar to Baltimore Ravens CB Jimmy Smith, another big corner who boosted his stock with a fast 40-yard dash time, and, if Johnson runs the 40 in under 4.5 seconds, his stock could get a big boost. Johnson carries a late-second-round grade as it stands now and could get himself into the top 40 overall with a solid combine.
I've also been impressed with Asa Jackson in recent film study. Jackson shows quick-twitch movements, excellent man-coverage skills and impressive balance and change-of-direction on film, and his closing burst and recovery speed jump out. He left the Senior Bowl with an injury, but, assuming Jackson is at full strength at the combine, he could help himself with a 40 in the 4.4 range. Posting a time in that area would help him remain on the fringe of Day 2.
Finally, Steed comes to Indianapolis looking to regain some momentum after a disappointing showing late in the season and in Senior Bowl week. He's a good overall player who is physical in press coverage, shows toughness and quickness, and contributes on special teams, but Steed was exposed a bit in man coverage at the Senior Bowl and had problems with the top-end speed of Florida's receivers in the Paladins' season finale.
Steed did a nice job against early-round WR Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) in 2010, but his overall speed and ability to recover are in question, so it is vital to Steed's stock that he run well. Doing so will help build some positive momentum and keep Steed in the Day 2 mix.
Talent at other positions, too
There is also plenty of small-school talent at other positions, including these three noteworthy prospects:
Appalachian State WR Brian Quick (75)
Another FCS prospect who stumbled at the Senior Bowl, Quick (6-3.5, 222) is a very good athlete and can make some acrobatic catches, but his hands and route-running skills are inconsistent. Quick should shine during drills with his combination of size and athleticism, though, and, if he can post a 40 time in the 4.5 range, he'll help his cause.
Midwestern State G Amini Silatolu (73)
Silatolu (6-3.5, 312) is another athletic big man who should shine during drills. He has good foot quickness and agility, and, although he needs to clean up his technique, Silatolu is strong, aggressive and knows how to finish blocks. He played tackle in college but is likely to move to guard in the NFL because of a lack of length, but a strong showing in Indianapolis would give him a chance to get into Round 3.
Regina DT Akiem Hicks (57)
Hicks was a junior college signee at LSU in 2009 but did not play for the Tigers that season as improprieties during his recruitment were investigated, and he left the program in early 2010. He's been off the radar in Canada since then, but his impressive measurables (6-4⅝, 324; 10⅛-inch hands; 35⅛ arms) and movement skills for his size are sure to turn some heads.
Hicks is raw and needs coaching, but he showed quick hands and feet during East-West Shrine week, and, if he should break 5.0 in the 40, the hype machine will begin cranking at full capacity for Hicks.