INDIANAPOLIS — For Oklahoma State, it was a blip on the radar screen. The Cowboys' 61-34 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette was never close enough to cause any fear. Their season opener served mainly as a warm-up for Big 12 play.
For Louisiana-Lafayette, this was one of its few chances against a major conference opponent. And for Ragin' Cajuns players like Dwight "Bill" Bentley, this was one of their few chances to shine under the national spotlight.
Bentley seized the moment, with two interceptions, including one which he returned for a touchdown. His picks came off of NFL prospect Brandon Weeden, with one pass intended for Josh Cooper, who was also present at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Bentley said that the other pass was intended for Justin Blackmon, who is widely considered to be the top WR prospect in this year's draft. Bentley estimated that Blackmon came over to his side on about 40 to 45 percent of Oklahoma State's snaps, and thus, he was a major cog in a Louisiana-Lafayette secondary that kept Blackmon out of the endzone for only the first time in 13 games.
"It was a pretty good game, went out and competed against some of the best players in the country," Bentley said. "I just came out and competed, man. It's something I like to do, just come out and compete, refuse to lose, and I showed them at the Senior Bowl how I could come out and compete at the higher level with the better players all across the nation."
With those positive marks on his resume, Bentley was able to snag a spot at the Combine. And he is hardly alone in this year's crop of defensive backs. Similar stories of small-school defensive backs fighting their way into NFL draft consideration were abundant at this year's Combine.
Bentley is hardly the first small-school player to reach for football's highest level. Just this past week, Brent Grimes, originally out of Shippensburg, received the franchise tag from the Falcons. But Bentley is part of a development worth noting.
At the 2011 Combine, 44 of the 56 defensive backs invited were from one of the six major conferences. Another six were either from the Mountain West Conference, Western Athletic Conference or Conference USA, leaving just six exceptions to the rule.
The 2012 Combine, on the other hand, featured 15 defensive backs hailing from schools outside of the top nine conferences and Notre Dame. That means that schools like Samford, Cal Poly, Hampton, Furman and South Carolina State likely will find themselves represented in the 2012 NFL draft. And suddenly players like Asa "Ace" Jackson, Micah Pellerin and Dwight "Bill" Bentley are shooting up draft boards.
For Pellerin, this hardly comes as a surprise.
"You play well, they'll find you," Pellerin said, "and I felt like I played well my last two years and I felt like I had a good chance."
For Jackson, it's about time.
"The FCS players and the Division II players, they're not giving us a fair shot necessarily," Jackson said. "All of the guys that are here are great. Everybody knows that or else they wouldn't be here, but I think there are a lot of players at the FCS level like myself, like a Trumaine Johnson (of Montana), like the other guys that are here that are going to be able to play in this league and do really well. I wish that there was another way for guys to get a little more exposure out of FCS schools but unfortunately that's not the system that we have."
The question that the small-school defensive backs inevitably find themselves answering is whether they can succeed on football's highest level, even though they didn't compete at college football's highest level.
"They underestimated some of us so much, I had some pretty great receivers at my school," Bentley said. "Ladarius Green is a monster, man. He's 6-6 with humongous hands. Just competing with him every play, just trying to beat him to the ball, and just being prepared every Saturday I go out."
Pellerin, for example, had the exact same number of tackles last season as LSU's Morris Claiborne, and he has the same exact wingspan as well. Their heights, weights and 40-times are more similar than they are different, but Claiborne's game action came in the SEC and Pellerin's came in the MEAC. Not surprisingly, Claiborne is projected to be a first-round draft pick, and Pellerin is projected to fit into the middle rounds.
"Oftentimes, when you go to a small school, they try to discredit what your numbers say, just for the simple fact of lack of competition," Pellerin said. "At the skill positons, everything is roughly the same, to me at least, from the I-A level and the I-AA level."
The difference between I-A players and I-AA players, according to Cal Poly CB Asa "Ace" Jackson, is that the wide receivers on the higher levels aren't just one-trick ponies. They seem to have a greater mixture of talents.
"As far as the competition goes, it's kind of funny because at the FCS level, I faced receivers that were as fast as the guys I faced (at the Senior Bowl) and I've faced receivers that were as big as the guys I faced," Jackson said. "What I'll say about the guys there is they were all big and fast. It's the combination of both."
As a result, Jackson had the physical skills to guard high-profile wideouts. He just needed some time to adjust to the mixture of speed and size.
"It wasn't like, 'oh my goodness, these guys are blitzing me right now, blowing by,' " Jackson said. "Or it's not, 'oh my goodness, they're so big.' It was that combination. So, after about the first day, getting used to the technique that we played, I felt like I actually did a pretty decent job."
According to Pellerin, going to a small school isn't necessarily a death knell for one's professional football hopes. As he noted, schools like Hampton have become fairly dependable producers of NFL talent. The Pirates, for example, have had players drafted in 10 of the last 14 NFL drafts, including Kenrick Ellis in the third round of the 2011 draft, Kendall Langford in the third round of the 2008 draft and Justin Durant in the second round of the 2007 draft.
So, when Pellerin transferred from Southern Mississippi to Hampton, he never worried about what ramifications that might have for his potential NFL career.
"To be honest, Hampton probably has more players in the NFL than some of the Division I schools out here," Pellerin said. "So, I never thought that was a factor. Just as long as I performed and played well, I knew I would get my shot."
He did exactly that, tying for the FCS lead with 1.73 passes defended per game, and thus earned his way to Indianapolis.
A former wide receiver, Pellerin put those skills to use in the defensive backfield.
"Watching film, I feel like I can pick up quickly what receivers like to do as far as their tendencies and things of that nature," Pellerin said. "Some receivers when they are about to run a go, all of the sudden, they're really excited and their feet are moving up and down, and looking over at the band and that type of thing, so I know it's coming."
The stories of how these supremely talented athletes got lost in the shuffle are often quite entertaining. Frequently, it's an issue of not looking the part. Other times, it's a position change that launches a player to the next level. For Jackson, it was both.
He spent most of his time in high school as a quarterback, and failed to grab the interest of many teams at that position.
"Not too many teams were looking for a 5-9, 170-pound quarterback at the time," Jackson said. "I didn't play too much defense just because my coach wanted to save me more for offense, so I didn't have a lot of defensive film projecting me to the secondary."
His size combined with the limited exposure he received at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, Calif., turned out to be a deadly combination.
"My size was kind of a big, determining factor when I was coming out of high school because I wasn't a very big guy," Jackson said. "I didn't have too much exposure because I went to a small school — my high school was only about 1,100 kids — and we were never that perennial playoff team, never that perennial great team in California."
Bentley also believes that it was his size that cost him a chance at going to a better known school. He claims that his only offer out of high school was the one he took to attend Dodge City Community College, which ultimately led him to Louisiana-Lafayette.
"I guess I was kind of small," Bentley said. "They looked over me, but that is in my past, man. I'm a Ragin' Cajun. I thank the Lord for sending me there and giving me a great career there."
That being said, Bentley hasn't forgotten the way he was snubbed coming out of Pahokee (Fla.) High School. While many of his older friends went off to big Division I colleges, Bentley had to go in another direction.
"I've been holding that chip for a long time," Bentley said. "I had to take another route. I just felt like I had to work extra hard to get to where I'm at today. I just always put that in the back of my mind, where I want to go, where I want to be, and I just took it, put that chip on my shoulder and rolled out with it."
Pellerin has an unusual explanation for why he didn't receive more offers coming out of high school: Hurricane Katrina. When the storm hit, Pellerin, a New Orleans native, was forced to relocate with his family to Jackson, Miss., where he attended St. Joseph's Catholic School.
His new team wasn't all that good, and it was hard to receive much attention on a team that finished 5-5. That combined with a collarbone injury that caused him to miss his entire junior season cost Pellerin dearly.
"The school I went to in Mississippi is kind of obscure," Pellerin said. "It's not really a powerhouse or anything like that. We went 5-5 so I was surprised that even in January that I was getting offers."
As for his NFL future, Pellerin wasn't too worried, because he watched closely the path that Ravens CB Lardarius Webb followed to the NFL.
"The blueprint was laid out with Lardarius Webb. He went to Southern Mississippi, then he went to Nicholls State and then he got drafted by the Ravens," Pellerin said. "He's actually the reason I switched to corner. I'm a firm believer of if one man can do it, than another man can do it. If this guy can do it, I know I can do it."
Simply by reaching the Combine, and playing in various all-star games, many of these prospects have begun to generate attention and respect.
And for a talented crop of small-school defensive backs, all they need is that one chance.
"Getting to showcase your talent nationwide," Bentley said. "It seems like I was that stone hidden in the dirt for so long. Now, I'm kind of getting a little shine, so I'll take it and run with it, because if I didn't, if I wasn't getting it, I would want it, so why not take it and run with it?"