Division III's draft prospects looking up

Jake Kumerow has a Division I background and NFL history in his family to help him stand out. And the skills.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

By Adam Turer

It’s been three years since Albion cornerback Chris Greenwood was selected with the 148th pick in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. The Division III draft drought will almost certainly end this weekend, and a deep class of D-III talent will populate NFL rosters come Sunday.

Hobart offensive lineman Ali Marpet is projected to hear his name called within the first 100 picks of the draft. He is in line to be the highest picked player from Division III since Ferrum running back Chris Warren was selected with the 90th pick by Seattle in 1990.

It will be a few more rounds before another Division III prospect hears his name called, if any. This could be the first year since 2007 to feature multiple Division III draftees. Wide receivers Rasheed Bailey (Delaware Valley) and Jake Kumerow (UW-Whitewater) may be selected in the final rounds on Saturday. If not drafted, Bailey and Kumerow will likely sign as free agents quickly after the conclusion of the seventh round.

Once those calls start coming in, a host of other Division III prospects should be on the receiving end. Kicker Andrew Franks (RPI), running backs Domonique Hayden (Thomas More), Rasheed Williams (Alfred State) and Cartel Brooks (Heidelberg), quarterbacks Kevin Burke (Mount Union), Aaron Wilmer (Delaware Valley) and Matt Behrendt (UW-Whitewater), and defensive back Jake Bussani (Wesleyan) are among the players who have been working hard since the 2014 season ended in the hopes of catching the eyes of NFL scouts. Just hearing their names mentioned in the same sentence as the NFL draft is exciting for the small-school prospects.

Rasheed Bailey was practically uncoverable in Division III last season. How will that translate?
Delaware Valley athletics photo 

“It’s a wild feeling. It’s been like a dream come true,” said Bailey. “I never had intentions [of playing in the NFL]. My intention was to be the best college football player I could be. The rest is history.”

“I know a lot of people don’t get these opportunities, so I am thankful and know I have to make the most of it,” said Hayden.

Hayden graduated in December, then spent two months training in Denver. Kumerow won the Stagg Bowl then headed to Florida to train with his uncle, former second round pick John Bosa. Burke, coming off the Stagg Bowl defeat, was eager to get back to football. Whether the season ended on a high or low note, getting back on the field and in the weight room helped these players move on from their final college season.

“Losing is something that you never get used to. Having this whole process is something that helped me come to grips with that,” said Burke. “I’m not used to not having a plan for my future. The way I operate, I have to go 100 percent in one direction and that’s what I’m doing with football right now.”

“It wasn’t too hard to come back and get reenergized, knowing what’s at stake,” said Kumerow. “I’m as energized and motivated as I’ve ever been.”

Most of these players were able to attend local pro days and received individual attention from NFL teams. Williams worked out for the Houston Texans. Franks had individual workouts with representatives from the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts. Wilmer and Bailey worked out for their hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Hayden worked out at the University of Cincinnati pro day. Kumerow showed off for scouts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison pro day and made a private visit to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Despite the feedback from NFL organizations, every prospect enters draft week with uncertainty, especially those on the draft bubble. Greenwood went through the experience three years ago and remembers it well.

“I heard a lot of different things going into the draft,” said Greenwood. “I tried to get that out of my mind and focus on working out and just let God take over.”

Greenwood, now with the Baltimore Ravens, advised the 2015 rookie class to be ready for the physical and mental grind of the NFL. He learned that he has to take care of his body year-round, and that there really is no NFL offseason.

The players who have committed themselves to continue their training beyond their final college season have the passion for the game that is required at the next level. Those that are unsigned will look for a rookie minicamp invitation. If the NFL doesn’t come calling, they are prepared to try to make it in the CFL, AFL, or other professional league that could be a stepping stone toward something greater.

“All I want is that chance to get on that field and show what I’ve got,” said Brooks. “I feel like I’ve got to play football this year. Somehow, someway, I’ve got to get there.”

“There’s no secret formula. If you really want it, you put the time in,” said Bailey. “If you really want something, you have to sacrifice.”

Andrew Franks has a big leg, and while kickers rarely get drafted from any level, Franks has a good shot to keep playing.
RPI athletics photo by Tom Killips

The NFL wasn’t the goal for these players when they arrived on their respective campuses. For Franks, it became a possibility when he spent an offseason working out with then-NFL kicker Justin Medlock. Brooks started to entertain the idea after his record-breaking 465-yard game during his junior season. Bailey felt like he belonged when talking with Heisman winner Marcus Mariota at the Maxwell Football Club award ceremony last month, where both players were honored.

“It’s something that when I came here wasn’t expected, to say the least,” said Franks. “The fact I’m even getting exposure as a Division III student-athlete has been exciting.”

There is also an underdog mentality shared by these players. When they worked out with Division I and II players in preparation for the draft, they gained confidence.

“It’s tough to come from a lower division and get noticed,” said Burke. “One thing I’ve always had is a chip on my shoulder.”

That chip doesn’t go away, even after making it to the NFL.

“You always want to prove to others and to yourself that you belong, no matter where you went to school,” said Greenwood. “Coming from Division III, you almost have to prove yourself more than other guys. There’s always that chip there playing against guys who got scholarships.”

This year’s hopeful rookies are encouraged by players like Greenwood, Cecil Shorts III, Pierre Garçon, Jerrell Freeman, and Matt Blanchard who have found NFL employment in recent years. All they want is one contract, one tryout, one chance to show that their skills translate to the next level.

“Seeing D3 guys in the NFL now gives you inspiration and drive to know that it’s in reach,” said Hayden. “No matter where you start, you have to take advantage of your opportunities. If you can play the game, you can play the game. Some guys just don’t get the opportunity.”

This week is not the end of the journey, but just the beginning.

“There’s nothing much I can do at this point,” said Kumerow, “but I feel like I’m not done playing football yet.”

Dec. 14: All times Eastern
1st - 10:08
0 Mount Union
0 Mary Hardin-Baylor
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Preview Audio Video
Dec. 14: All times Eastern
1st - 10:08
0 Mount Union
0 Mary Hardin-Baylor
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Preview Audio Video