Last week, we got a lot of good feedback from our War Story Wednesday conversation with former NFL defensive back and ex-Saints area scout James Jefferson. Today (thought it’s Thursday), I wanted to continue the discussion with James (here’s the entire interview) and get a few insights on small-school players.

As a former player at Division II Texas A&M-Kingsville (it was Texas A & I when James attended in the mid-80s), James has a keen understanding about what small-school players face. In fact, James went first to the CFL (with Winnipeg from ’86-’88) before launching his NFL career with the Seahawks in 1988.

James provides his thoughts on small-schoolers below, and I’ve added my own comments and thoughts after each passage. Enjoy.

  • “Jerry Angelo, who (served as GM of the Bears from 2001-‘11), when he was with (the New York Giants from 1982-1986 as a regional scout), he told me, don’t go (to the CFL). He sat right out here in this parking lot (after James’ pro day in the spring of 1986) and he tried to talk me out of going to Canada. He (told me he) would have the general manager here (the) next week because of some numbers he received in my scouting report (entering James’ senior season at Texas A&M-Kingsville). He showed me they had me running 4.6 (on the preseason scouting report), and I had run faster than that in high school.”

The two companies that provide a ‘primer’ for draftable players, BLESTO and National Football Scouting, have a big job. Often, especially when it comes to smaller schools at out-of-the-way places, 40 times are estimated by scouts or provided by coaches. This means one of the fundamental metrics for player evaluation is a best guess. This is one reason small-school players (and even big-school players, at times) get overlooked.

  • “(Angelo) really liked me as a player, and back, then you could kind of hide guys and do things, and I had switched from playing running back for three years to defensive back, and that was my first time. Nobody had really ever got to see me, and I didn’t even start the first two games my senior year at corner, so that was a little different.”

Late position changes are another big reason small-school (and, again, even bigger-school players) get overlooked. There’s a learning curve involved when a player moves to a new position, but when he comes from an athletic position to a high-impact position (running back to cornerback, tight end to offensive tackle), you often find a player who makes a late rush up the draft charts.

  • “We were fortunate (with the Saints in the early ‘00s) because Jim Haslett was the head coach there and (he had been) a D2 guy at Indiana (Pa.).”

For varying reasons, some teams value small-school players more than others. Teams with coaches and/or scouts that took circuitous routes to the league (small school, other leagues, etc.) are a prime example. The Colts, under GM Ryan Grigson, are one team that tends to look ‘outside the box’ to find talent. Grigson scouted and coached in the CFL and AFL before reaching the NFL.

  • “When I look at all the D2 guys, they have to dominate. That’s instilled in all the scouts. At a D2 school, they have to dominate. You can’t afford to go out and have a bad game, because they’ll assume you’re not playing against the greatest talent week in and week out. In D1, you may go out and have a bad game because you may have two first-rounders going against each other, two second-rounders going after each other, and somebody’s gotta lose. . . (In D2), you were supposed to dominate that guy, and if this guy catches six or seven passes on you and beats you for two or three touchdowns, and he’s not on anybody’s radar, you must not be that good. That can happen at a D1 school, and it’s just, ‘well, he had a bad day.’”

In Division II, and in FCS as well, players have far less margin for error. A player has to stick out like a sore thumb. His dominance has to be evident to casual observers. If that’s not the case, he’s probably not a prospect. I know this is hard to take for many agents representing small-schoolers (as well as the players themselves), but it’s no less true.