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Small Schools Make Big Contribution To St. Louis Rams' Roster

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  • Small Schools Make Big Contribution To St. Louis Rams' Roster

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


    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.


    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."


    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."

Related Topics


  • r8rh8rmike
    Players From Small Schools Find NFL Homes
    by r8rh8rmike
    Players from small schools find NFL homes
    By R.B. FALLSTROM, AP Sports Writer

    ST. LOUIS (AP)—Last fall, Keith Null and Mike Reilly were opposing quarterbacks combining for 91 points, 883 yards passing and eight touchdowns in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.

    Never in their wildest dreams did the small-time gunslingers from West Texas A&M and Central Washington think they’d end up St. Louis Rams teammates.

    “It’s very weird that it happened that way,” Null said. “Pretty cool, too, to have another guy in the league that was a Division II quarterback.”

    It’s quite a jump to make at any position, even if the Rams are 1-14 and closing in on the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft. The vast majority of NFL rosters are populated by players accustomed to refining their game where television time-outs are commonplace.

    Entering the last two weeks of the season, according to the NFL and the Rams, only 72 players were on the 53-man rosters or injured reserve from college’s lower divisions, including 49 of them from Division II.

    In addition, nine players came from Division III, four from NAIA schools, two who didn’t make it past junior college, five from foreign colleges and two who had zero college experience.

    That’s just over two players per team.

    “It’s kind of few and far between us,” Reilly said. “Let alone somebody you played against.”

    The Rams and Redskins each had five lower-division players, while the Cardinals, Eagles, Bears, Lions and Browns had four each and the Texans three, one of them on injured reserve.

    Precious few are recognizable names. Perhaps the best known current player is Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (Division III John Carroll), who began his career with St. Louis and has 10 straight 100-tackle seasons. Maybe you’ve heard of these Division II alumni: Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver (Carson Newman), Cardinals guard Reggie Wells (Clarion) and Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox (Abilene Christian).

    Needles in a haystack, all. And it’s tough enough making your mark coming out of Southern California, Texas or Michigan.

    “There’s a learning curve no matter where you played or whether you’re a first-round pick,” Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. “Now add in the fact you’re coming from a smaller school and that learning curve’s going to be longer, especially at certain positions. This is almost like a redshirt year for those guys.”

    Null’s NFL baptism has been rocky, with nine interceptions and a lost fumble to go with three touchdown passes in three games. One of the picks in Sunday’s loss at Arizona was by rookie Greg Toler, the first player drafted out of Division II St. Paul’s College (Va.).

    At least he’s playing. Another Division II product, guard Roger Allen III from Missouri Western, is set...
    -12-29-2009, 07:34 PM
  • RamDez
    Rams happy with Day 2 results
    by RamDez
    By R.B. FALLSTROM | AP Sports Writer
    April 26, 2009
    ST. LOUIS - At first blush, the St. Louis Rams' third-round pick may not seem to fit the organization's oft-stated desire to populate the roster with character players.

    The team is convinced Iowa cornerback Bradley Fletcher's DUI in 2007 is an isolated case, so they took him Sunday to begin Day 2 of the draft.

    "We did our due diligence thoroughly with this guy and it kept coming back that he messed up, he made a mistake," general manager Billy Devaney said. "We weren't going to take anybody off the draft board just because they made a mistake or did something silly that a lot of college kids do.

    "We had everybody vouch for him at Iowa that he's a strong character guy."
    The Rams picked 312-pound defensive tackle Darell Scott, a three-year starter at nose guard for Clemson, in the fourth round. They waited until the fifth before addressing a shortage at wide receiver by taking Brooks Foster of North Carolina, dipped into Division II for prolific West Texas A&M quarterback Keith Null in the sixth and took Texas running back Chris Ogbonnaya in the seventh.

    Ryan Leaf, the former No. 2 overall NFL draft pick in 1998, was Null's quarterback coach for most of three seasons before resigning during an investigation for a drug crime last November. Devaney was with the Chargers when they selected Leaf, one of the all-time NFL busts, and did not consult Leaf about the pick.

    "I don't want to say you can't hold that against the guy," Devaney said. "It was kind of weird the way it worked out."

    On Day 1, the Rams took Baylor offensive Jason Smith with the second overall pick and added a linebacker with first-round grades, Ohio State's James Laurinaitis, in the second round.

    "We're like 31 other teams, we're pleased with the way it went," Devaney said. "For the most part, it went according to plan."

    The 6-foot, 196-pound Fletcher blossomed as a senior, when had three interceptions, a team-leading 10 pass breakups and was fifth in tackles. He was arrested in 2007 after running a stop sign.

    "That situation is something that I learned from," Fletcher said. "I made a mistake and I learned from it and Im ready to move forward."

    Scott, like Fletcher, fits coach Steve Spagnuolo's wish for larger players. He was on the Outland Trophy watch list as a senior before struggling due to a knee sprain, with numbers dropping off everywhere except for tackles for loss.

    "It wasn't the season I had hoped for," Scott said. "We had a young group of guys and I was forced to take a lot bigger role than I had previously, so it was OK."

    The Rams like Scott's quickness and pass rush ability for a big player and believe he can fit into a rotation....
    -04-27-2009, 12:34 AM
  • RamFan_Til_I_Die
    Rams hoping to strike gold again at QB
    by RamFan_Til_I_Die
    Rams hoping to strike gold again at QB


    He put up great numbers at the small-college level. He's an unabashed man of God whose pregame ritual includes reading the Bible. He once worked in a grocery store. Has been known to sport a 5 o'clock shadow. And just like you-know-who, he has come to the Rams deep from the heart of nowhere.

    OK, show of hands. When you heard the Rams might select a quarterback in the 2009 draft, how many had Keith Null, the pride of West Texas A&M, in the pool?

    Well, here he is, at the Rams minicamp this weekend. And yes, he's a big Kurt Warner fan.

    He's definitely a guy I look up to," Null said. "Just really out there with his spiritual life, and gives God all the glory for everything he does. I look up to that, extremely."

    Null put up extreme numbers in two seasons as a starter at West Texas A&M, an NCAA

    Division II school in Canyon, Texas. Null holds 22 school, Lone Star Conference or NCAA records. He

    finished his college career with 9,769 yards passing, a completion percentage of 67.5, and 92 touchdown passes. Seeing that Null played sparingly in his first two college seasons, those are staggering numbers.

    "We threw the ball probably 95 percent of the time in that offense," Null said.

    Null went out in a blaze of glory, completing 42 of 63 passes for 595 yards, seven TDs and no interceptions in his final college game. Believe it or not, West Texas A&M lost that Division II playoff game 93-68 to Abilene Christian.

    Somehow, Null escaped the attention of bigger colleges playing at Lampasas High, about an hour north of Austin in central Texas. The town of Lampasas (pop. 6,786) is known for its annual Spring Ho Festival, and is mentioned in the Hank Williams Jr. song, "Texas Women."

    "I think just somehow I slipped through the cracks," said Null, who wants to be a minister when his playing days are finished. "West Texas A&M found me, and it was a perfect fit for me. I was glad to go there."

    But how did the Rams find him?

    "The scouts," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said, noting that scout Steve Kazor "was there on the school call."

    But it wasn't until the Cactus Bowl, a Division II all-star game in Kingsville, Texas, that the Rams really got interested. With offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and scout Dick Daniels in attendance, Null was named Cactus Bowl MVP after completing a bowl-record 19 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

    Northeastern (Okla.) State wide receiver Jarrett Byers, who was signed Monday by the Rams as a rookie free agent, had the longest play from scrimmage in the Cactus Bowl, catching a 48-yarder from Null.

    "I turned it...
    -05-03-2009, 08:40 AM
  • MauiRam
    Null, others battling for Rams roster spots ..
    by MauiRam
    BY JIM THOMAS Thursday, September 2, 2010 10:45 am

    After starting the final four games last season because of injuries to Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller, Keith Null talked hopefully of having a chance to compete for the starting job in 2010.

    But that was before the Rams invested the No. 1 overall draft pick in quarterback Sam Bradford. And brought in A.J. Feeley, a veteran schooled in the West Coast scheme, and who had worked with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur previously in Philadelphia.

    So as the Rams enter their final preseason game, aka the Bubble Bowl, Null is fighting for a roster spot tonight against Baltimore. (Kickoff is 7 p.m. at the Edward Jones Dome.)

    "I feel like I've made some strides and I've taken the opportunities that I've gotten and used them to the best of my ability," Null said. "That's really all I can do is just go out there and do my best on that field. And I think that's what I've done."

    A sixth-round pick last season from NCAA Division II West Texas A&M, Null was something of a feel-good story for the Rams. But feelings don't have much to do with what takes place this time of year in the NFL. It's all about business — the business of trimming the roster from 75 players to the regular-season limit of 53 by Saturday evening.

    "I don't think anybody in this business can ever really get comfortable," Null said. "I think once you do that, then you're not really giving out your full effort — you're not really competing like you should. I still feel like I'm trying to get here (on the final 53), and even get on the field somehow."

    By the numbers, Null has been clearly outplayed so far by Thaddeus Lewis, an undrafted rookie from Duke. Lewis has completed 16 of 20 passes for 166 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, for a 97.1 passer rating. Null has completed only 10 of 27 for 101 yards, with no TDs, no INTs and a 48.5 passer rating.

    But Null did lead the Rams to fourth-quarter rallies against Cleveland and New England. Those comeback victories should count for something, right?

    "Who knows?" Null said, laughing. "I guess it's for you guys to decide on those things."

    Not exactly. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has final say on the makeup of the 53-man roster, in consultation with his coaching staff and general manager Billy Devaney. Bubble players have one last chance tonight to impress the head coach, or maybe even change his mind.

    "We have talked in these terms right from the beginning — that guys are evaluated on their productivity, their character, their ability to learn, and their durability," Spagnuolo said. "So, you've got to be a durable guy, you've got to produce out on the field, you've got to be a character guy, and you've got to learn the system.

    "At this point,...
    -09-02-2010, 10:00 AM
  • MauiRam
    Null continues fight for his QB position with St. Louis Rams
    by MauiRam

    In a way, it almost seems unfair.

    Keith Null was the Rams' starting quarterback for the last four games of the 2009 season. The two players ahead of him on the depth chart for most of the season, Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller, no longer are with the team.

    And yet as organized team activities continue at Rams Park, Null is in exactly the same situation that he was last spring: fighting to land the No. 3 QB job.

    "Wherever I end up by the season, I trust the coaches enough to put me in the right position," said Null, a sixth-round draft pick last year from NCAA Division II West Texas A&M.

    Null beat out Brock Berlin to make the 53-man roster as a rookie. Null dressed as the No. 3 quarterback until injuries felled Bulger and then Boller.

    That thrust Null into the lineup Dec. 13 at Tennessee for an NFL debut that was short on personal highlights. Null did throw a touchdown pass, an 11-yard toss to tight end Randy McMichael. But Null also was intercepted five times in a 47-7 thumping.

    The Rams were outscored 122-36 and went 0-4 with Null as the starter, wrapping up their franchise-worst 1-15 season. Null completed 73 of 119 passes (61.3 percent) for 566 yards and three touchdowns, with nine interceptions. His passer rating was a woeful 49.9.

    "I definitely wish I could get another chance to get back in and sort of redeem myself," Null said. "I don't think that I played as good as I could have."

    Coach Steve Spagnuolo agreed. "He had some ups and downs, like you would think in a rookie," Spagnuolo said. "Here's a guy that probably didn't expect to play at all, and we had the injury situation. He made some good plays, and he made some bad ones. I know it wasn't probably as good as he wanted it to go overall.

    "But I do think the reps he got were invaluable."

    Again, coach and player were in agreement.

    "These OTAs, as far as knowing the plays and calling the plays in the huddle, it's way easier than it was last year at this time," Null said. "Having one year under my belt, and then getting to go in and play four games, I'm taking all that with me ... and using that experience to help me."

    The Rams signed veteran quarterback A.J. Feeley to a free-agent deal in the offseason, then spent the No. 1 overall draft choice on Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford.

    Feeley has been getting all the first-team snaps during OTAs, with Null and Bradford alternating with the second and third units. Ultimately, though, Bradford will be starting and Feeley will be backing him up.

    That means that the 6-foot-4, 219-pound Null, 24, seemingly will have to best rookie free agent Thaddeus Lewis to retain his roster spot.
    -05-26-2010, 08:39 AM