Small-School Stars Run With Big-Time Ability

Five FCS running backs are competing against their big-school peers at the Scouting Combine, including three from a single conference.

In a loaded class of running backs, the cup runneth over with several first-rate runners from the second-tier FCS. NFL Combine Coverage
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According to the league’s own rankings, provided to by head NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas, Northern Iowa’s David Johnson is the eighth-ranked back and a potential third-round pick. He’s joined at the Scouting Combine by North Dakota State’s John Crockett, Stephen F. Johnson’s Gus Johnson and South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner. Yale’s Tyler Varga is considered the No. 2 fullback.

And if that’s not enough firepower, consider this: David Johnson, Crockett and Zenner played in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“It’s probably the toughest conference in the FCS,” Johnson said on Thursday. “There’s three running backs along with the other guys who have a good chance of making it to the pros. Playing there, I felt like I was in a D-1 program. Every team we played in our conference was good. I feel like all the teams in our conference probably could have made it to the playoffs. It was definitely a challenge.”

Scoff at the competition if you will, and it’s a legit question mark, obviously, because they’re running around and through defenders not good enough for the Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC.

“I think there’s a little bit of that, yeah, and that’s natural just because it is FCS. There’s a reason it’s FCS,” Zenner said. “We’re not in the same division. Is it closer than it has been? I think so, as far as talent difference, but there’s a difference for a reason.”

However, it should be noted that Zenner piled up 202 yards against Nebraska in 2013 and had 100-yard games against Missouri and Kansas in his career. David Johnson didn’t find much running room against Iowa in the 2014 opener but dominated with nine receptions for 203 yards. So, it’s not as if their eye-popping production came solely against the Sisters of the Poor and Nowhere State.

“At the core you are still scouting and evaluating his quickness, his feet, his balance, his athleticism, his hands and his ability to block,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said. “I mean, certain things don’t change. It’s not his fault he’s playing against whatever small school it is. At the core, you still scout him as an athlete and as a football player.”

David Johnson was deemed good enough for the Senior Bowl. In scouting circles, the 6-foot, 224-pounder has been compared to Chicago’s Matt Forte. Johnson had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and topped 1,700 career receiving yards to finish 13th in FCS history with 6,859 all-purpose yards. His combination of size and receiving ability make him an ideal fit as teams search for three-down backs.

“In high school, I actually was a running back and wide receiver,” Johnson said. “Coming out of high school, because of my height and I was only about 180-190, a lot of colleges were talking to me about playing receiver. Going into college, all I was working on was receiving. My college actually recruited me as an athlete to play receiver. I played receiver for the first week of camp. That’s where it came from, training for that.”

Only three players in FCS history have more than 8,000 all-purpose yards: Former Eagles star Brian Westbrook, former NFL defensive back Jerry Azumah and Zenner. He’s the only college player to ever turn in back-to-back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons. He was also an Academic All-American and part of the Allstate Good Works Team.

Crockett was a second-team All-American. He rushed for 1,994 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, including 139 yards and three scores in a blowout win at Iowa State. In his three seasons with North Dakota State, it won three national championships. Varga played three seasons for Yale, having started his college career in his native Canada. As a senior, he rushed for 1,423 yards and 22 scores, then scored twice in the Senior Bowl. Stephen F. Austin’s Johnson was the FCS first-team All-American as a senior with 1,683 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground.

“It’s special,” Zenner said of so much FCS backfield power at the Combine. “It’s cool to have that opportunity.”


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Related: NFL Scouting Combine Coverage

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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