Posted February 19, 2014

Combine Watch: Small-school stars who could shine in Indianapolis

2014 Scouting Combine
Jimmy Garoppolo will look to build off a solid Senior Bowl at the 2014 scouting combine. (G.M. Andrews/AP)

Jimmy Garoppolo will look to build off a solid Senior Bowl at the 2014 scouting combine. (G.M. Andrews/AP)

Every year at the scouting combine, there are those smaller-school players who seem to rise up from out of nowhere to impress the general public. Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum — you don’t get an invitation to the combine in the first place without a lot of good tape and some sort of proof that you would have potential against better competition. Here are a few names you should remember as the combine rolls along through this week and into the next.

QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois

Garoppolo broke just about all of Tony Romo’s college records and threw for more than 5,000 yards in 2013, but his play against strong competition at the 2014 Senior Bowl really got people to take notice. He’s not the most physically imposing quarterback and doesn’t have top-end velocity — common dings among smaller-college stars — but there’s enough to like, and the combine could be huge for his continued momentum.

RB Terrance West, Towson

West will try to match tackle Jermon Bushrod’s current NFL success as a Towson alum, and the numbers are certainly ridiculous — he ran for 2,509 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2013 alone, including 354 yards in the FCS quarterfinal against Eastern Illinois.

RB Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky

Andrews led the nation in yards from scrimmage the last two seasons, and he’s the only college player not named Barry Sanders to go over 3,000 total yards in a season, which he did in 2012. As a running back, receiver, and return man, he could provide ridiculous value to the right NFL team … but the secret will be out soon if he matches at the combine what he’s done on the field.

WR Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State

Janis lit it up in college, amassing more than 1,500 yards in each of his last two seasons. And when he got a shot against better competition during Senior Bowl week, he earned the praise of NFL coaches, including Atlanta’s Mike Smith.

“Every year, there’s guys that come from Division II and Division III schools that get an opportunity to get in front of NFL personnel people and NFL coaches and make teams, and he’s done a nice job,” Smith said as the week went along. “I know he’s caught the attention of our coaching staff. … I know the South’s defensive backs, they’re a good group, so he’s going to get an opportunity to go against some of the best in the country.”

Janis has the potential to run a 40 in the 4.4-4.5 realm, which would boost his profile even more.

TE Joe Don Duncan, Dixie State

Sadly, Duncan missed the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl with a hamstring injury, but he was invited to both, and it’s pretty clear why — a 6-foot-3-inch, 267-pound target with surprising quickness off the line can be valuable to a lot of teams. The combine is therefore huge for Duncan, as NFL teams are still waiting to see what he can do in a higher-profile environment. He’ll also need to be cleared by the combine’s medical staff regarding multiple leg injuries.

C Matt Armstrong, Grand Valley State

Armstrong was the 2013 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletics Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year, and he won  the Rimington Trophy. Few linemen at any level graded out as highly as he did last season (a 97 percent efficiency rating, per NFLDraftScout.com), and he’s put in time at every line position through his collegiate career.

OG/OT Dakota Dozier, Furman

Dozier played tackle in college, but the coaches moved him inside to guard for the Shrine Game, and that’s where he could find success in the NFL. He needs some finishing work from a technique perspective, but it’s tough to find a player on this list with more pure physical potential.

OT Billy Turner, North Dakota State

Turner started 54 games in college, 44 at left tackle, and was the protection mainstay for an organization that won three straight FCS national championships. Moreover, he looks the part of an NFL blocker at 6-foot-5 and 316 pounds. He played guard and tackle during Senior Bowl week and impressed a lot of people against supposedly superior competition.

DE Ethan Westbrooks, West Texas A&M

Westbrooks hit Texas with all he had after a stint at Sacramento City College. In 2012, he led the nation in sacks with 19.5, and he’s been a terror over the last two years. When it comes to amassing tackles for loss and quarterback pressure, he’s a very intriguing prospect. Wondering how he does in brighter lights? He was the 2014 Shrine Game Defensive MVP.

DE Larry Webster, Bloomsburg

A former basketball star, Webster brings all the size and athleticism you’d imagine to his new position. The 6-foot-6, 249-pound standout put up 13.5 sacks in 2012, the first season in which he’d played football since high school. And like Westbrooks, he showed off during Senior Bowl week. Webster needs some developmental work, but the potential is definitely there.

DT Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech

Ellis was a standout at both the Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, using his 6-foot-2, 342-pound frame to shoot through gaps and punish skill players just as he did in college. It’s rare to see a guy this big who can also be active and disruptive.

DT Ryan Carrethers, Arkansas State

Carrethers was on just about every possible watch list before the 2013 season began, and he didn’t disappoint, amassing 93 total tackles, the third-most in the nation for any defensive lineman. He’s more of an anchor and less a disruptor than Ellis.

ILB Andrew Jackson, Western Kentucky

Unlike a lot of the names here, Jackson has taken on high-caliber competition and impressed enough to get vocal endorsements from his opponents. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones told his own A.J. Johnson last September that Johnson would “get to play on the same field as an NFL linebacker’’ when the Hilltoppers and the Vols faced off. “He’s definitely got the skill set to be an SEC linebacker, and I can definitely see what the hype is about,” added center James Stone.

Now, it’s time for Jackson to build on those kind words.

OLB Howard Jones, Shepherd

Jones might be a tweener at the NFL level — he shows impressive field speed, but at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’ll need to hit it at a Dwight Freeney level (and probably gain some weight) before things really kick in. This week is a crucial step in his progress.

CB Pierre Desir, Lindenwood

You’re going to hear more and more about Desir — the buzz has already started. A soccer player through his youth, the Haitian-born Desir wasn’t noticed much by bigger schools, but the ease with which he was able to transition from small-college success to impressive performances at the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl put a lot of people on notice.

FS Jonathan Dowling, Western Kentucky

Dowling has been a machine for the Hilltoppers over the last two seasons after sitting out 2011 following a transfer from Florida. He was a big reason WKU ranked 10th in the nation in pass-defense efficiency, and he’s also a demon on special teams.

SS Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois

Ward showed the MAC that he was a problem for opposing offenses, but it was when he hit the Senior Bowl and did the same against a new level or competition that Ward cemented his status as a possible second-day pick. A successful week in Indy might just lock that up.

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