OL prospects putting small schools on NFL map

Posted Feb. 25, 2011 @ 12:55 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

INDIANAPOLIS — If I said your team could have an offensive line of, left to right, Michael Roos, Todd Herremans, Eugene Amano, Jahri Evans and Willie Colon, would you take it?

Of course, you would. That's a darned good group right there.

What if I threw in Jermon Bushrod, Jared Veldheer, Vladmir Ducasse and Frank Omiyale as backups?

Icing on the cake. You might be talking about one of the two or three best offensive lines in football, those guys together.

Now for the reveal …

Hint: You didn't watch any of their schools during bowl season.

Yes, when Roos, Herremans, Amano, Evans, Colon and Co. were rookies, the hazing-ritual school fight songs they no doubt were requested to sing to the veterans had to be unfamiliar hymns. That's because these talented players, all quality offensive linemen in the NFL, and some of them Pro Bowlers, came from places such as Eastern Washington, Saginaw Valley State, Hillsdale and Bloomsburg.

And this year, the NFL has turned its sights on schools such as Slippery Rock, Montana State, Villanova, Missouri State and Lehigh. Offensive line appears to be one position where you can go to some remote places and find some real gems.

"There are some small-college kids that are going to come in and they'll be the guys who were 215 pounds, 225 pounds coming out of high school," Vikings GM Rick Spielman explained. "They just weren't physically mature, maybe were overlooked because they didn't have the size. But they go to this small school, they mature and become dominant football players. You can find them in these places. They're there."

That was the case for Lehigh OG Will Rackley. He was 6-2 and 260 pounds coming out of high school in Georgia, lightly recruited by Georgia Tech and not at all by the other ACC and SEC schools, landing in the Patriot League because of academics. But the growth spurt happened and Rackley — who is now a 6-3, 309-pounder — started to dominate.

"I definitely went out there to try and embarrass guys," Rackley said.

Slippery Rock C Brandon Fusco, the 2010 Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year, also was a late-bloomer. The 240-pound high school senior wasn't touched by Pittsburgh or Penn State, the biggest schools near where he grew up, only getting a walk-on invitation from Youngstown State.

Now Rackley and Fusco rate as mid-round picks.

Farther down the list is Montana State's Mike Person, who has some physical shortcomings, but anyone doubting his heart, intelligence or leadership might be missing out.

"There's only one way to play this game, and that's with your heart on your sleeve — but playing it smart at the same time," Person said. "That's what I am most proud of as a player."

Person played left tackle in the Big Sky but probably rates as an NFL guard. He was the captain of his college team and was voted the Bobcats' toughest player. Losing his mother his redshirt freshman year not only made him tougher but more mature.

"I've come a long way in college," Person said. "That was one thing that helped me grow as a person, more than anything. My first year in college, I was a knucklehead. I didn't take school as seriously as I should have. My dad told me, 'Your mom was very proud of you as a football player, but she would be more proud of you if you walk across that stage and get that diploma.'

"So that is something that has been in the back of my head and been a real motivator for me for the last three years."

Of this year's small-school guys, the best prospect probably is Villanova OG Ben Ijalana. A bilateral sports hernia will keep him from working out at the Combine, but he had an impressive college career and has used his wrestling background to help him maul Colonial Athletic Association opponents the past four years.

"Wrestling is probably the hardest physical activity I've ever been involved in," Ijalana said. "It's intense. It's insane. You're moving around. A match is six minutes. It's about movement and staying up. It's a matter of what you do after you get tired.

"Because you're going to get tired. You're going to get exhausted. And you still have to move and fight through it.

"When you think of a (football) game — 60, 70 plays, fourth-quarter drive, overtime, guys putting their hands on you. It definitely helped me."

As a freshman, Ijalana was tested immediately with a start in his first game against Maryland, and his offensive line coach told him before that game that he could be an NFL player one day. He went on to start all 53 games in his career and played the last four through the hernia.

Ijalana is a bit on the short side (6-foot-3) for tackle, which is what he played in college, but could end up inside or outside in the pros. He knows he's not going to be Jonathan Ogden or Tony Boselli as far as his height is concerned, but he's undeterred.

"When I wake up tomorrow," he said, "I'm still going to be this height. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not 6-6. I'm not 6-8. But if you put some cleats and a helmet on me, I can be (that tall). I'm just trying to show them my skill set."

Size wasn't Missouri State OG David Arkin's issue in high school, nor is it now: He's a little less than 6-foot-5 and right at 300 pounds. In high school, he just didn't get much attention from Kansas or Kansas State after growing up in the Wichita area.

"I don't know," he said, "I guess I just slipped through the cracks."

But NFL teams see a player with great effort, versatility and durability. Arkin routinely played through the whistle in college, played both inside and out (right guard for three years and left tackle as a senior) and never missed a game in his career.

Ask him what he prefers as far as blocking, and there's little hesitation.

"I love run blocking, that's fun to me," he said. "Pass blocking, you've got to be passive and that's not really my personality on the field. But getting down in a three-point stance and coming off the ball and knocking somebody around — that's what I like to do."

Arkin also fared well in four games against Division I teams — Kansas State (twice), Arkansas and Oklahoma State. Former UMass OT Vladimir Ducasse faced a similar level of competition as Arkin and Ijalana last season, and a sterling performance against K-State was one of the big things that convinced the Jets to spend a second-round pick on him last season.

Ijalana says he hopes to go higher than the 61st pick, which is where Ducasse landed.

"I was watching him go through the process last year because it was where I wanted to be," Ijalana said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to (be drafted higher). I am not sure I'll go as high as (former CAA player) Joe Flacco, but you have to start somewhere."

According to NFL decision makers, there's no reason Ijalana and the other small-school guys can't have success — no matter where they are taken. All you need to do is look around the NFL — they are making waves.

"I think the small-school guys that have been successful in the NFL, they all played at a very high level in college and were kind of the men among boys," said Eagles GM Howie Roseman, whose team found success with Herremans coming out of Saginaw Valley State as a fourth-rounder in 2005. "They dominate at their level and have the traits — being athletic and having great feet, being able to withstand the bull rush — NFL linemen have.

"We saw that in Todd, and there are some guys here who have those traits, too."

Ijalana believes that now. He doesn't think it's just a line that talent evaluators say when media members ask questions about the feel-good stories. It all goes back to that first start at Villanova when his offensive line coach, Mark Ferrante, planted that first NFL seed in his head.

"He said, 'You're a small-school (guy),' " Ijalana recalled. "But what he said then has stuck with me to this day: 'If you can play, they'll find you.' I truly believe that.

"It's why I'm here now. There might be knocks on my level of competition. But it's what you do out on the football field that matters."

Perhaps one day, five years from now, we'll reprise this story with the small-school batch of players gearing up for the 2016 NFL draft and wondering if they have a chance to make it. And we'll offer this option: If your team could have an offensive line of, left to right, Ijalana, Arkin, Fusco, Rackley and Person, would you take it?

You just might.