Small-School Stars Get Big Chance in Mobile

The Senior Bowl allows under-the-radar prospects like Ali Marpet and Bryan Bennett a chance to prove themselves against top-tier competition. (Glenn Andrews/USA TODAY)

MOBILE, Ala. — Ali Marpet knows none of his Senior Bowl counterparts from Ohio State and Texas have ever heard of his school.

Hobart College is hardly a football factory, but Marpet still made it from the tiny private liberal arts college in upstate New York onto the radar of NFL scouts and ultimately to the Senior Bowl. And this week he's finally getting to compete on a level playing field with those major college guys in their shared pursuit of pro careers.

Marpet, an offensive lineman, isn't alone. The rosters for Saturday's Senior Bowl have 14 players who competed below Football Bowl Subdivision, including Division III non-scholarship Hobart.

"Honestly, just to be here is awesome but I do want to show that I can dominate this level of competition," Marpet said.


Quarterback Bryan Bennett, who transferred from Oregon to FCS Southeastern Louisiana, joined South practice Wednesday, five hours after arriving in Mobile to replace Auburn's Nick Marshall (now playing defense). The group also includes Ivy Leaguers Tyler Varga (Yale) and Zack Hodges (Harvard).

Some of the small-school guys, like Marpet and Tennessee State offensive lineman Robert Myers, started their college careers with few other options. Bennett left Oregon after getting beaten out by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, while linebacker Lynden Trail moved from Florida to FCS Norfolk State in pursuit of playing time and a more academically centered life studying mass communications.

"The biggest knock is being a small-school guy or playing against lesser competition," said Trail, Norfolk State's first Senior Bowl participant. "But being here is an opportunity to show that, yes, I am a small-school guy but at the same time I am able to play with major D-I prospects as well. I'm just here to showcase my versatility."

The 6-foot-6, 262-pounder, who had been a highly touted recruit, thrived in three seasons at Norfolk State after leaving Florida, where he couldn't get on the field. He was a two-time finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS.

They're all trying to follow the route of players such as Tusculum's Ricardo Colclough, who became a second-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers after playing in the 2004 Senior Bowl.

Myers also wants to follow former Tennessee State teammates Daryl Richardson and Edmond Gates into the draft. He has gone from introducing himself to scouts checking out those players to drawing an increasing amount of NFL interest himself during his career.

"My mentality is to come down here and prove that I can play with these guys at this level and most importantly play at the next level," the 6-5, 329-pounder said. "It's motivating. It's a positive pressure. I know I've got to come down here and work hard and show them that I can make my way there and I can be successful in the NFL."

Marpet has followed a more unlikely route. The Liberty League co-offensive player of the year cheerfully offers some insight into Hobart: about 2,300 students. Located kind of in between Syracuse and Rochester. And an unlikely destination for NFL scouts.

Marpet didn't have a fancy training table but bought a gold meal plan so he could eat every meal in the school cafeteria, fighting every step of the way to put on weight. Marpet went from 205 pounds as a high school junior to 255 pounds as a college freshman to a 6-4, 307-pound NFL prospect.

"It's not easy for me," Marpet said. "This is not my natural weight. Every meal is a struggle. It's a job."

Now he's trying to make football a job, too.

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