Small-School Targets for Dallas

When the NFL Draft rolls around each spring, even the most casual football fans know the high-profile players from the nation's marquee programs.

In other words, nobody is going to be called a football savant after identifying Nick Fairley and A.J. Green and Cam Newton as top NFL prospects.

Most scouts take as much pride in finding the unheralded stars most fans have never heard of ... or legitimate players at schools most fans can't locate on a map. Part of the challenge scouts face is determining whether a small-school star's numbers are a result of superior ability, or merely get inflated because of inferior competition. Uncovering little-known stars is an inexact science, but has learned of 10 small-school stars in whom the Dallas Cowboys have shown considerable interest. The first installment of this series highlighted some of the offensive players the Cowboys are considering. Today … looks at the potential targets on defense:

• Hampton (Va.) defensive tackle Kendrick Ellis (6-5, 340) doesn't look a lot like Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff, but their playing styles are more similar than most might suspect. At a reported 340 pounds, he is much larger than Ratliff was when he was selected in the seventh round as a defensive end out of Auburn. But as Ratliff has grown into his current position in the middle of the Dallas defensive line, he has remained a player who has relied on his quickness, even after he has grown to more than 300 pounds. Ellis, who transferred to Hampton from South Carolina, has battled to keep his weight under control, but runs a surprisingly quick 5.05 in the 40-yard dash and used those wheels to finish second on his team in tackles (94), tackles for loss (15, for 37 yards) and sacks (2). A first-team All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference honoree, Ellis played one year at South Carolina before transferring.

• Kent State safety Brian Lainhart (6-1, 207, 4.55) is a strong, tough playmaker who finished his KSU career as the NCAA leader in career interceptions among players on Bowl Championship Subdivision (BCS) teams with 17, the second-highest total in school history. Lainhart is a rugged player with the proverbial nose for the ball and is a capable player against both the run and the pass; over the last two seasons, he was responsible for 20 takeaways in 30 games (15 interceptions and five fumbles) and cause two other fumbles that were recovered by the opposition. An extremely durable, productive player, Lainhart racked up 344 career tackles in his career with the Golden Flashes and projects as a strong safety (and special teamer) in the NFL.

• Southern Illinois cornerback Korey Lindsey-Woods doesn't have Dallas 2010 rookie cornerback Bryan McCann's speed, but not many NFL players do. He has ideal size (6-0, 190) and strength, and at 4.54, he has enough speed to get by. But while his speed may be considered by some to be average, his overall play is not. One of just three players in school history to earn FCS All-America honors twice and was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award (given annually to the best player in the FCS — formerly Div. I-AA). Lindsey-Woods plays a little like Mike Jenkins, using his size and strength to slow down opposing receivers and then go up in the air and battle them for passes.

• Central Florida's Bruce Miller's appearance on this list inspires a change to the name of the list. Rather than defining these players as "small-school stars," perhaps it would be more accurate to portray them as "lesser-known school" stars. After all, with more than 56,000 students, it's impossible to refer to UCF as "small." Miller is an intriguing prospect. At 6-2, 255 pounds and with a 40-yard dash timed at 4.76, Miller has as relentless a motor as anyone in the country. As a collegiate defensive end, the 2010 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year ended his career as UCF's all-time leader in sacks. He projects as an inside linebacker as a professional, meaning he'll have two adjustments — getting used to starting plays in a stand-up two-point stance, and also seeing the field and opposing offenses from the middle of the field, rather than out on the edge (the perspective won't be completely new — Miller did also played some defensive tackle while at UCF). Miller is not just a pass rusher. Yes, he led his team with 13.5 tackles-for-loss and 8.5 sacks, but he also intercepted a pair of passes (both of which he returned for touchdowns) and forced a pair of fumbles.

• Nevada's Dontay Moch (6-1, 245) played defensive end (very well — he was the Western Athletic Conference's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 when he collected 19.5 quarterback sacks, and was first-team All-WAC in 2010) in the Wolf Pack's 4-3 defense, but projects as an outside linebacker in the NFL, for either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. He has decent size and strength for the position, but what he also has is unbelievable strength. He has clocked in the mid-4.2s consistently, and there is talk of some times in the 4.1s — remember, McCann got his shot in the NFL largely on the strength of having run the fastest 40-yard dash in the nation last year (4.28) … and that was with the wind, and he plays a position that regularly includes some of the fastest players on the field. With 28 sacks over the last two seasons and his absurd times in the 40, Moch has a chance to go on the first day of the draft, as some personnel executive will believe he has discovered the NFL's next great pass rusher.

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