Big-Time Players From Small Schools

Ed Thompson profiles four players from small schools who have made their case as big-time players and should come off the board Friday night or very early Saturday morning during the NFL Draft. Learn more about them, and find out which teams have been hot on their trails in recent weeks.

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah l Cornerback/Safety l Indiana (PA)

When you pair 4.32-second forty-time speed with a 6-foot tall, 207-pound frame, NFL scouts are going to take notice. Then add in the ability to play any position in the secondary, dangerous speed and skill as returns specialist, and a couple of strong public performances during the months leading up to NFL Draft week and you've got a legitimate early-rounds draft pick on your hands.  

"Taking advantage of my opportunities on big stages--at the Combine and at my Pro Day--definitely helped," Owusu-Ansah told me this week.

Owusu-Ansah, at minimum, can make an immediate splash at the next level as a returns specialist. He returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns last year for IUP.

"Having the ball in my hands has always been natural for me--I enjoy it," he said. "I played running back in high school, so when I'm returning kickoffs and punts I just let my natural instincts take over."

The aggressive and confident defender snared eight interceptions during his junior year, so teams avoided throwing his way during his senior year. But he still managed to grab two interceptions, break up four passes and make 27 tackles. 

"It was a show of respect, but at times it got frustrating, because you want to help the team as much as possible," Owusu-Ansah said. "But you play through it and look for other ways that you can impact the game."

The versatile athlete has drawn the strongest interest from the Dolphins, Vikings, Chiefs, Bears and Cowboys over the past few weeks. Some teams would like to insert him on their depth chart as a safety while others are interested in him as a cornerback.

Andre Roberts  l Wide Receiver l Citadel

As you would expect from a prospect coming out of a military school, Roberts is a focused, disciplined and mature player who knows that hard work is one of the keys to success when pursuing a goal.

"I think work ethic is what helps people succeed. Some people work to get there, but once they're there, they stop working as hard," he told me a few weeks ago. "My goal is to be the best receiver in the league, so I'm going to be working to reach that goal the entire time I'm in the NFL."

Michael Conroy/AP

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound pass-catcher has 4.40-second forty-time speed and is very precise with his route running. And he's got such great acceleration at the snap that cornerbacks at the Senior Bowl quickly learned to back up a step or two in an attempt to compensate for Roberts' quick burst.

"I take a lot of pride in my route running," he said during an interview at the Senior Bowl. "With me being a shorter guy and being in the slot, that's something I do take a lot of pride in."

Roberts posted a team-high 77 receptions for 792 yards and eight touchdowns last year. He averaged 15.5 yards per punt return and 22.0 yards on the three kickoffs that he returned.

The talented receiver and returns specialist has been drawing interest from numerous clubs, but the Patriots, Browns, Ravens and Falcons have been showing the strongest interest in the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft.

Austen Lane l Defensive End l Murray State

The 6-foot-6, 274-pound player has startling quickness off the snap of the ball and good technique off the edge that allows him to be a real menace to quarterbacks. But with his 4.84-second forty-time speed and his effectiveness while playing in space, he might not be lining up as a defensive end in the NFL. 

"There are some 3-4 teams that are looking at me as an outside linebacker and 4-3 teams who see me as a defensive end. My junior year, we played a little 3-4, so I'm used to dropping back into both man and zone pass coverage," he told me this week.

Lane showcased his consistency during his last two seasons at Murray State. In 2008, he logged 68 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks. He followed that up with another impressive campaign last year with 64 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks.

In addition to his official visit with the Bills, Lane has drawn interest from plenty of teams, including the Jaguars, Titans, Saints, Panthers and Jets.  He's got a contagious, upbeat personality that will be a welcome addition to any NFL locker room.

"When you cross these white lines, nothing else matters, everything else goes away. I'm like a kid at a playground out here," he told me at the Senior Bowl. "When I'm out here, I'm smiling every day."

John Skelton  l Quarterback l Fordham

At 6-foot-6, 243 pounds, Skelton is an imposing figure behind the center who stands tall in the pocket.

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

The projected third- to fourth-round pick finished a highly successful collegiate career as Fordham's all-time leader in passing yards (9,923) while tossing an impressive 69 touchdowns. Since he took the reins as the team's starting quarterback halfway through his freshman year, Skelton has plenty of field experience. But at the NFL Combine, he spoke of the special challenge he faced while trying to secure his draft position this year.

"Being from a [Division] I-AA program, a lot of teams haven't seen me play live. If they did see me, it's maybe 1-2 films," Skelton explained. "I think there's a lot of mysteries about me, really."

But over the past few months, the strong-armed quarterback has been able to show scouts and NFL front office talent evaluators that he can throw a ball fifty yards or more with relative ease, and that he's highly intelligent about the game when they put him on the board. All Skelton really needs at this point to make the leap successfully onto an NFL roster is some polish on the finer details of the position.

"Ever since I was training out in Phoenix with Fisher Sports, the main focus was getting my footwork where it needs to be," he said.

The two-time team captain threw for more than 300 yards in eight games during his senior year. According to an NFL source, the Cardinals, Vikings, Bills, 49ers and Redskins have been showing the strongest interest in him recently.

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