9 small-school players who could turn heads at NFL combine
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The NFL combine is the last chance for players to show NFL executives every skill they have, and while most of the attention will be paid to a select few, many others will fight simply to keep their lifelong dream alive.

This year's elite prospects in Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Saquon Barkley, to name a few, have received constant coverage as potential No. 1 overall selections, and several others are already pegged to go in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, there will be a plethora of players competing just for a professional opportunity - players who spent their college careers far, far away from the bright lights of prime time and the College Football Playoff race.

Though it's rare for players to rise up from the NFL draft's lower ranks to become reliable starters, it's far from impossible. Here are 10 potential diamonds in the rough who could begin their ascent at the combine:


Chase Litton, QB - Marshall

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The top of this year's quarterback class is stunningly deep, but for teams interested in taking a chance on a mid-to-late-round pivot, Litton could be the best bet. The main knocks on him following his senior season at Marshall were his decision-making and mobility, but his 6-foot-6 frame allows for a high ceiling. Improving decision-making comes with coaching and maturity, and that isn't accomplished overnight.

Roc Thomas, RB - Jacksonville State

Thomas spent two years in a reserve role at Auburn before transferring to Jacksonville State and rushing for 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior. He showed flashes of brilliance that once put him in the same company as current classmates Sony Michel and Royce Freeman, as well as NFL backs Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon. Having played against FCS-level defenses may discredit his numbers, but Thomas did show an ability to catch passes, which could make him a solid secondary back one day.

Jaleel Scott, WR - New Mexico State

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Scott made the most of his last collegiate season with New Mexico State, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark while reeling in nine touchdown catches. The 6-foot-6 target put his athleticism on display all season, most notably when he made one of the catches of the year.

Scott isn't included with the likes of Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, James Washington, and Christian Kirk, but he could see his stock rise significantly if he can prove his quickness is up to par with his pure athleticism.

Adam Breneman, TE - UMass

A lot of focus has been on the emergence of Dallas Goedert as the small-school tight end to watch out of South Dakota State, but Breneman could also make a leap if he flashes a well-rounded game at the combine. The former Penn State commit finished the past two seasons second in the nation in receiving yards by a tight end, proving during his time at UMass that he can be as reliable a target as any at the position. His blocking ability has been questioned, possibly due to the effects of what were once thought to be career-ending knee injuries while with the Nittany Lions. He may be able to turn a few more heads if he can show well in that area at the combine.

Brandon Parker, OL - North Carolina A&T

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Teams looking to add a gargantuan, athletic rookie to their offensive lines may find that Parker fits the bill. At 6-foot-7 and nearly 315 pounds, he used his size and ability to garner three consecutive MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year awards from 2015-17 and has the potential to add more muscle to an already imposing frame. Parker didn't face the best competition while at North Carolina A&T, but if he shows well at the combine, his size and raw ability make him a worthwhile investment.


P.J. Hall, DT - Sam Houston State

Hall's combination of size and athleticism helped earn him a pre-combine grade of 5.49, and he's amassed 42 careers sacks in four years at Sam Houston State. His height could be a concern, as his 6-foot-1 frame might limit him against bigger offensive lineman. If he can prove that suggestion wrong at the combine, he could be a solid mid-round selection.

Nathan Shepherd, DL - Fort Hays State

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After finishing his career at Fort Hays State, Shepherd gained a lot of attention during the Senior Bowl before suffering a hand injury during practice. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle hasn't been officially ruled out of the combine, but it'll be an obstacle moving forward nonetheless. His presence at the Senior Bowl may have already worked in his favor, as he reportedly made a strong impression with coaches and general managers with his attitude.

Darius Leonard, LB - South Carolina State

One of the most promising small-school prospects in this year's crop, Leonard gained attention while at South Carolina State for his explosiveness and ability to reach the quarterback. His 8.5 sacks put him among the best in the FCS last season, and he recorded a game-high 14 tackles at the Senior Bowl.

Kameron Kelly, CB/S - San Diego State

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A three-year safety for San Diego State, Kelly switched to cornerback in 2017 and was a natural. The senior finished the season with three interceptions, two sacks, two forced fumbles, and seven passes defended, and teams will likely be even more impressed with how his 6-foot-2 frame will aid him in one-on-one matchups. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Josh Jackson, and Denzel Ward are the stars of the class, but Kelly could attract some attention if he can impress with his fluidity in man-to-man coverage by showing well in the agility-based drills.

9 small-school players who could turn heads at NFL combine
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