By David Coulson, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
No one has to remind a player coming from the Football Championship Subdivision of the obstacles stacked against him when he finishes his senior year and gazes forward at the potential of a professional career.
You don't find many prima donnas in the FCS ranks. Most have had to overcome too much to take things for granted.
So when these players begin the process of being evaluated as potential professionals, most take their opportunities with the utmost seriousness.
One of the major stepping stones along the path to the NFL draft are the three remaining college all-star games, the East-West Shrine Bowl, the Senior Bowl and the Texas vs the Nations Challenge.
The first of these challenges took place Saturday, with seven FCS players going under the microscope for scouts, coaches and other interested observers at the East-West game in Orlando, FL.
Wide receiver Pat Simonds of Colgate, quarterback John Skelton of Fordham and cornerback Patrick Stoudamire of Western Illinois were part of an East roster that pulled out a 13-10 victory when Northwestern's Mike Kafka hit Penn State's Andrew Quarless with a two-yard touchdown pass with six seconds remaining.
The Eastern Washington pass-catching duo of quarterback Matt Nichols and tight end Nathan Overbay joined with Northern Iowa defensive end James Ruffin, North Dakota State running back Pat Paschall and Missouri State's Clay Harbor on a West squad that had taken a 10-6 lead midway through the fourth period of this defense-oriented game.
But the all-star contests are more about how players perform in practice and compete during games as they are about who wins and all of the FCS players had their moments.
Stoudamire and Nichols both had strong weeks in practice to raise their profiles, while all of the others experienced strong moments.
Stoudamire was a lock-down coverman all week and also showed off his return skills during practice. During the game, quarterbacks avoided him and Stoudamire had one assisted tackle.
Skelton showed off his physical tools, which remind some scouts of Delaware's Joe Flacco, now the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. But Skelton also struggled with his footwork and accuracy at times.
During the game, Skelton completed 7-of-10 passes for 63 yards, but 22 of them came on one play, a third-down pass to leading receiver Blair White of Michigan State to convert a first down.
Most of Skelton's completions were short balls and he looked uncomfortable as he was asked to move around in the pocket. The strong-armed, 6-5, 258-pound passer solidified many scouts' opinions that he is a long-term project.
Paschall was a late addition, so he had more to prove during the game and he did by leading all rushers with 28 yards on seven carries. Paschall showed a quick first step and good acceleration, particularly on a 16-yard burst in the fourth quarter that got the West's one touchdown drive off to a good start.
Paschall also made a nice catch of a pass from Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing for an eight-yard gain.
Two plays after Paschall's long run, Overbay turned in the biggest gain of the day when he broke free up a seam to haul in a 41-yard strike from Brigham Young's Max Hall to put the West in position for its touchdown.
Ironically, while Hall was teaming up with Overbay, Nichols was finding BYU tight end Dennis Pitta to be a target with one 30-yard pass connection.
Nichols, like Paschall a late addition to the roster, completed 3-of-6 passes for 42 yards and picked up 15 yards and a first down with his legs, but poor offensive line play stopped drives for the West.
Another player who took advantage of a last-minute invite was Harbor. He had a solid game as a blocker and a receiver, catching three passes for 22 yards to make the most of his time.
Simonds took some unfair criticism during practice for his hands, athleticism and route running, knocks that seemed ridiculous to those who had watched him during an All-American career at Colgate.
But on game day, Simonds showed his worth. He caught one pass for no gain when he was hit immediately on a wide receiver screen and then showed the ability to separate from a defender with a nice route and grab of a 13-yard pass from Kafka.
That second catch would have given the East a first down to the West 35 as Simonds walled off UCLA cornerback Alterraun Verner and leaped up high for the reception, but the play was wiped out by a holding call.
On the next play, UNI's Ruffin made a quick inside fake and then buzzed past his blocker on the outside to sack Kafka for a drive-killing, six-yard sack. Ruffin impressed observers during the week with his chiseled, 6-4, 263-pound frame and his speed.
On what was a sloppy day for most players until the fourth quarter, it was FCS players who scored some of the biggest marks.
While much of the media attention this week in Mobile, AL. will focus on former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida, four FCS performers will be trying to make their marks.
Two-time Walter Payton Award candidate Andre Roberts of The Citadel has been considered one of the top wide receivers and returnmen in the current draft class. But he was under-utilized by an injury-plagued Bulldog offense this season, making this a key week for the speedster.
Vladimir Ducasse, the 6-5, 330-pound All-American tackle from Massachusetts, has shot up draft boards of late and could be a first-day selection, if he continues to display his combination of strength, quick feet and versatility.
Austen Lane, another fast-rising candidate from Murray State, was originally slated to play in the Texas vs the Nation's game, but received a late invite to the more prestigious Senior Bowl.
Lane is a 6-6, 250-pound defensive end that is considered to be a late-bloomer with plenty of upside. Now Lane will play in two all-star games, adding to his chances to make a big impression.
Donald Jones, a wide receiver from Youngstown State, was invited to the game on Tuesday. Like Lane, this speedy pass-catcher is considered to be a project with a lot of potential.
Roberts will compete for the South, while Ducasse, Jones and Lane will be on the North roster. The game will be shown on the NFL Network at 4 p.m. eastern time on Saturday.
TEXAS VS THE NATION
No all-star game in the past couple of years has been as friendly towards FCS players as the Texas vs the Nation Challenge. A number of them have spring-boarded their success in this game into the NFL.
This year, the Nation's roster includes 10 FCS performers, Buchanan Award winning defensive end Arthur Moats of James Madison, cornerbacks Phillip Adams of South Carolina State and Marcell Young of Jackson State, safety Shann Schillinger of Montana, fullback Chris Zardas of UMass, defensive end Adrian Tracy of William & Mary, tackles Tyler Eastman of Maine and Derek Hardman of Eastern Kentucky and receiver Juamorris Stewart of Southern, along a late addition from Delaware, defensive tackle Brandon Gilbeaux.
The Texas roster, which includes players with Texas roots in addition to playing for Texas colleges, features seven FCS performers, Payton Award finalist Deji Karim of Southern Illinois at running back, safety Quentin Scott of Northern Iowa, quarterback Ryan Perrilloux of Jacksonville State, defensive ends Danny Batten of South Dakota State and Larry Hart of Central Arkansas, tackle Chris Campbell of Eastern Illinois and guard Casey Knips of South Dakota State.
With that array of FCS talent on hand, it should make the game worth watching when it is televised by CBS College Sports from the Sun Bowl in El Paso, TX. on Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. eastern time.
THE PRO BOWL
While the best of the senior class is looking forward to the college all-star games and later on the NFL draft combine, another group of FCS veterans is preparing for Sunday's Pro Bowl.
The Pro Bowl is being played a week before the Super Bowl for the first time, with 10 FCS alumni on the AFC and NFC rosters.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the 2002 Payton Award winner from Eastern Illinois, was named to replace injured starter Brett Favre from Minnesota on the NFC squad.
Romo will be playing with 2003 Buchanan Award winner Jared Allen, the Idaho State alum who now plays defensive end with the Minnesota Vikings and one of his Cowboy teammates, receiver Miles Austin of Monmouth.
Darren Sharper, the runner-up for the Buchanan Award to three-time Pro Bowler and two-time Buchanan Award winner Dexter Coakley in 1996, was scheduled to start at free safety for the NFC. But instead, the William & Mary alum will be playing for the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl.
Nick Collins of Green Bay will replace Sharper in the starting lineup. Collins played in college at Bethune-Cookman.
Another NFC starter, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of the Arizona Cardinals, will miss the game with a knee injury. The former Tennessee State star and Buchanan Award candidate made the squad in just his second year in the NFL.
On the AFC side, two FCS alums will miss the game to play for the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. Defensive end Robert Mathis of Alabama A&M fame was a starter and free safety Antoine Bethea was a reserve.
Bethea is being replaced by another member of the FCS club, Miami Dolphins strong safety Yeremiah Bell, an ex-Eastern Kentucky standout.
San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who played his college ball at Northern Colorado, has been added to the Pro Bowl squad for the AFC to replace Super Bowl-bound Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts.
The Ohio Valley Conference is represented by three Pro Bowlers (Romo, Bell and Rodgers-Cromartie), while the MEAC had two players picked (Bethea and Collins). The game will be telecast by ESPN from Miami at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.