Small school NFL prospects don’t often get a chance to make a name for themselves in a positive way for a chance to be noticed. Many scouts view smaller school kids as players with less talent playing against kids who will never see an NFL training camp, let alone make a team. Even physically gifted athletes are sometimes not given the credit they deserve because of the league they play in.
This year it is going to be doubly hard for players from lower divisions to become draft darlings because many of the leagues they play in suspended play because of the Covid 19 epidemic. This puts an extra emphasis on the Senior Bowl for kids who are eligible because it shows players actually playing football and not just running in shorts at Pro Days. Yet every year a number of players from small schools become big time players in the NFL. If you can find a diamond in the rough at a small school it is like adding a premium pick to your draft bounty but only costs you a later round pick.
There are numerous Hall of Fame players who come from small schools. Here are a few big time small school players playing today.
David Johnson- Northern Iowa
Cooper Kupp- Eastern Washington
Adam Thielen- Minnesota State
Dallas Goedert- South Dakota State
Terron Armstead- Arkansas Pine Bluff
Akiem Hicks- Regina
Matt Judon- Grand Valley State
Tarik Cohen North Carolina A&T
Tyrell Williams- Western Oregon
Delanie Walker- Central Missouri State
Javon Hargrave- South Carolina State
Josh Norman- Coastal Carolina
Malcolm Butler- West Alabama
Darius Leonard- South Carolina State
Brandon Williams- Missouri Southern
Damon (Snacks) Harrison- William Penn
Kyle Juszczyk- Harvard.
Point being that every year a few guys come out of nowhere to become quality NFL players and Pro Bowlers in many instances. With little chance to showcase their talents due to the cancelation of their league year many players will go unnoticed. At least one stood out at the Senior Bowl practices this year: Bryan Mills, a player with the physical abilities to play in the NFL.
Bryan Mills played in the MEAC in 2019 after transferring from the College of the Canyons in the JUCO ranks. In his only year playing he was voted to the first team All-MEAC and a FCS 2nd team All-American. He played in only 12 games, starting the last 10. Mills was 2nd in the league with 13 passes defended and led the league with 5 INTs.
Mills has good size (as measured by the Senior Bowl staff) - 6’ 0 3/4” 180 lbs with very good length, 32” arms. He is lean but has decent muscle with a frame that can easily hold more weight. He will need to get with a strength coach with his NFL team to develop more muscle to be able to better handle some of the larger receivers in the NFL.
Here is some footage of him at the Senior Bowl practices. It is worth noting that these drills are extremely difficult for CBs to guard a receiver for a number of reasons. First, they don’t allow press coverage so the CB has zero ability to control the WR off the snap. Second, he has zero help and is playing directly over the receiver. In game conditions CBs will shade a receiver to a direction where they have help (when not in press coverage). Third, they have no film study to understand the WRs’ releases, their route trees or any keys from formations.
What you want to look for is how quickly the CB reacts to the WR, does he have quick feet, does he have loose hips, does he have to grab the receiver to maintain coverage, does he have enough agility, speed and strength to play the position?
These first two clips are against Marquez Stevenson of Houston who has sub 4.40/40 speed. The first clip Mils does a good job of staying in a mirror to the receiver without grabbing him. He is able to open his hips and run with the fast receiver step for step. The second clip Mills is beat by a diamond release. He opened up to the right too early, which made him flat footed with too wide a base. Still, without press type coverage, playing this close to the receiver is a very very tough cover.
This second set of clips are again against Marquez Stevenson, with Mills in straight man and off coverages. In the first clip Mills flips his hips open quickly which allows him to stay in the hip pocket of Stevenson all the way down the field. He even stays close after the initial push off by Stevenson. Remember, Stevenson is a speedster, so Mills shows adequate speed to stay in rhythm with the receiver on this 50 yard play.
The second play in off coverage shows little other than Stevenson’s stone hands. This is a 3 step dig route with Mills in a backpedal but he slips on the click + close. This happened because his feet are too far apart when he initially starts his close. This is a very coachable flaw in his technique which can be ironed out in drills. Mills is using a T-step method of breaking here but he could use a quick-step method which many pro corners use. It is a little quicker on the break plus you don’t turn your body like you do in the T-step method. Deion Sanders is a huge proponent of the quick step method which was taught to him by his DC Mickey Andrews at FSU.
This next clip, against a very quick Shi Smith, has Mills in straight man coverage, which really highlights his skill set as a defender. Notice the the way he effortlessly opens his hips along with the very quick feet. This is a sensational job of mirroring a receiver without laying a finger on him until the receiver stops which forces a minor collision with Mills. You can also see Mills is not some little corner, he is above 6’ tall with great length (32”). With the agility plus the athleticism Mills shows he would be able to learn any technique a DB coach would want to teach him.
Here against an older, more powerful receiver in Cornell Powell, Mills again shows great mirroring ability. He is just a tick slow on the breaks but that can be worked on. Powell outweighs Mills by 25 lbs and the size makes coverage harder, it is just more of a big body to get around for the possible breakup. Powell does not have elite speed but he is sudden with good burst off the line. Like I said earlier, without any help this type of one on one matchup against a receiver is very difficult to effectively cover a man all over the field.
Here in actual game film Mills is in off coverage on a receiver who runs a 12 yard out route. It is hard to see because they kind of run off the screen but this is what you get many times when watching small school football. This is just a horrible route run by the receiver against the best coverage against this route. Watch as the receiver slows, then lifts his shoulders, which just telegraphs his intentions to make an out cut to the defender. To his credit, Mills reads the body language, then cuts in front of the receiver for the gift interception. This was just good defense against some horrible offense.
This is another play of great coverage as Mills runs in lockstep with the receiver. This grainy footage shows a throw + hope by the QB as his receiver is blanketed by Mills the entire way down the field. Mills played a lot of off coverage at North Carolina Central so he might need some schooling in proper press techniques. He doesn’t get handsy with the receivers at all which is a good thing but he will need to know when and how to chuck a receiver when he is allowed. This will come with proper NFL coaching.
This last clip is Mills in off coverage again, trying to protect the lead on the last play of the game. He does a good job with his backpedal as he keeps the receiver and the QB in his sight throughout the play. The interception clinches the win, but also shows an overall calmness about Mills even with the game on the line. He used proper techniques, held his ground and didn’t get antsy or try to jump the play prematurely. He waited for the throw to be released so he wouldn’t get fooled by a double move.
Bryan Mills is a traits based prospect who played at a lower division of football but has shown he can hang with the big boys. His showing at the Senior Bowl really elevated his draft stock so I can see him being selected in the 4th round. He will probably not be a plug and play type selection as he might need some extra coaching to get him used to the physicality of the NFL. He has great length, excellent feet and a competitiveness about him which leads me to believe he could be a quality player in the future.
There are bound to be growing pains but he could be a diamond in the rough for a team who can develop his traits to a higher skill level.
That is what I think.
What do you think?