Small schools make big contribution to St. Louis Rams' roster

BY BILL COATS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/16/2009

Stuck at an out-of-the-way school in Canyon, Texas, Keith Null wondered how NFL scouts would find him.

"They're going every which way around the U.S.," Null said. "For them to take time out to come to Division II schools, (the chance) is pretty slim."

The Rams found Null at West Texas A&M, where he passed for 5,097 yards and 48 touchdowns his senior year. They drafted him in the sixth round last April.

Null is the exception, however. Although a number of players from non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools have put together fine NFL careers, their path to the league is littered with roadblocks.

Yet nine of 53 players on the Rams' active roster plus two more on the eight-man practice squad have motored their way along that path to the NFL. The small-school players make up 18 percent of the workforce at coach Steve Spagnuolo's behest.

Contrast that to the Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who have four small-school products among their 61 players, or about 6.5 percent of coach Mike Tomlin's talent base.

Of the 11 Rams, only Null and cornerback Ron Bartell (second round, 2005) were drafted. The rest arrived as free agents and, despite long odds, found a way to stick. That group produced three current starters Bartell, safety Craig Dahl and linebacker Paris Lenon as well as wideout Laurent Robinson, the Rams' leading receiver before he suffered a season-ending leg injury.

LIMITED OPPORTUNITIES

NFL scouts fan across the country looking for prospects, and they don't ignore the smaller colleges. But they don't spend nearly as much time scouring their rosters for prospects.

"Those big-time programs, they have scouts coming through all the time," running back Samkon Gado noted. "If you have a bad day, you have the benefit of hopefully doing a better workout the next time the scout comes through. When I was at (Football Championship Subdivision) Liberty, there was only one day. And you had to be 'on' that day."

Guard Roger Allen said he didn't see a single scout his junior season at Division II Missouri Western State. They began to trickle in during his senior year.

"It's an uphill battle," he said.

Allen and Null are the only non-FBS rookies on the active roster.

Tight end Daniel Fells, from FCS California-Davis, said scouts are wary because the talent pool is limited in smaller divisions.

"Guys kind of get pegged as, 'Well, the competition level is not necessarily up to par,'" he said. "You're not getting too many guys recognized, whether it's that they're undersized, not as fast, not as big, whatever it may be."

One way for small-school prospects to elbow their way into the NFL picture is at all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game.

"Now they're going against the elite competition, and if they show that they can hang and they're still competitive, then obviously you feel a lot better about them," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said.

Still, teams must decide whether they're willing to be patient with such "project" players.

"There's a learning curve, whether you're playing at Missouri or USC or wherever," Devaney said. "For the (small-school guys), the learning curve is going to be even longer. ... You can almost add a year onto their development."

TRANSITION TIME

Once a small-school player gets noticed and gets signed, he faces another formidable hurdle: He must prove that he can make the transition to the NFL, despite not benefiting from major-college amenities (training tables, weight rooms, high-level coaching, etc.) or top-shelf competition.

"The speed of the game, especially the ability of the defensive players, it was so much better and so much faster," Null said. "That was definitely something I had to get accustomed to."

Said wide receiver Ruvell Martin of Division II Saginaw (Mich.) Valley State: "A lot of the things that get taught at a smaller school aren't necessarily the same as at the bigger-school level. ... The bigger schools have the NFL guys that come back and give the guys tips ... on what it's like at the next level, and guys can get prepared in that way. That wasn't the case for me."

Spagnuolo insisted that all roster candidates are evaluated equally.

"Once they're here, we've obviously evaluated them as guys that have a chance to play in the league,'' he said.

It didn't feel that way, though, Martin said. "You think, 'I have to do more to prove myself.'"

As a result, "you come into camp maybe with a little more juice in your tank," said Dahl, a product of FCS North Dakota State.

Ultimately, Devaney pointed out, if a player is good enough, he'll carve out a place for himself.

"We can evaluate his on-field performance and measure his 40 and do all the timing and testing," he said. "But if the guy's got it inside of him whether you're playing at Elon or you're playing at Auburn if you've got some physical tools and you've got the burning desire to be successful, those guys find a way to make you happy."