CB Donnie Abraham, now a New York Jet, was one of the Bucs' more recent small-school hits in the draft
It's something the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been trying to do since the fifth round of their very first draft, in 1976.
Up to that round, the expansion Bucs had taken two players from Oklahoma (including eventual Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon) and one each from Florida, Colorado, Utah State, Georgia and Houston. Mostly big programs.
But to begin the fifth round, Tampa Bay called the name of a young man from West Texas State, a defensive back named Mishael Kelson who had started his collegiate career at Phoenix Junior College.
Kelson was the first 'small-school' pick ever by the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay didn't hit on its first try, as Kelson failed to make the team. However, a 12th-round pick spent on North Carolina A&T George Ragsdale later on draft weekend paid off to some extent. A receiver in the draft, Ragsdale switched to running back and played in 39 games from 1977-79, mostly as a kick-returner. From QB Randy Hedberg of Minot State in 1977 to S Than Merrill of Yale in 2001, the Bucs have tried their hand periodically at the small-school pick, with varying results.
It's not that Tampa Bay, or any other team for that matter, specifically wants to add a player from a small program. Rather, teams want to know every potential player that is out there, no matter how obscure the location. The risk of a small-school product, who has played against lesser competition and is thus a less certain commodity, can sometimes allow an impact player to slip to later rounds.
In 1996, the San Francisco 49ers picked up Terrell Owens with the 89th pick overall, near the end of the third round. A prolific receiver at Tennessee-Chattanooga, Owens was the 12th pass-catcher taken in an incredibly deep draft at that position. The receivers taken before him include Keyshawn Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Muhsin Muhammad, Amani Toomer, Eddie Kennison and Terry Glenn, and certainly that's an impressive bunch still.
But look at Owens. At 6-3, 226 and with very good speed and nice, open-field moves, Owens is absolutely the prototypical NFL receiver, and one of the league's most prolific performers at any position. With those measurables and skills, would Owens have lasted late into the fourth round if he had played at Florida State? If you drafted from a pool of NFL receivers now, where would Owens go? That question will be answered in hundreds of thousands of fantasy drafts this August.
The difficulty, of course, is knowing when to pull the trigger on a small-school prospect. Sometimes the player is so obviously dominant – say, Darrell Green at Texas A&M-Kingsville in 1983 or John Mobley at Kutztown in 1996 – that he is still snapped up in the first round. Sometimes, like Christian Okoye of Azusa Pacific in 1987 or Larry Allen of Sonoma State in 1994, they slip a bit, into the second round, but are still on everyone's radar. Sometimes they're late-round flyers, like Stephen F. Austin's Larry Centers in the fifth round in 1990, or undrafted altogether like Missouri Southern State's Rod Smith in 1994.
"It goes into their traits and how they played against their competition," said Buccaneers Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster, not referring specifically to any of the players above. "Did they dominate their competition? If a guy dominated against his competition, it makes it easier to take him. If a guy had some size, speed, and measurables, but didn't really dominate against his competition then it makes it harder to take a guy like that from a smaller school."
It is not, according to the Bucs' personnel staff, a matter of a player at a small school being 'discovered' by just one team, a draft-day surprise that has the rest of the league scratching their heads. Every team in the league is aware of all the prospects at all the schools, no matter how small, but some teams might have more thoroughly scouted a specific player.
"It's not going to be on draft day where anybody picks a player and everybody in the room says, 'Who is that?'" said Bucs General Manager Rich McKay. "That doesn't happen. But I think some teams do scout better than others and are better figuring out at that small school when his name comes out where he can go and how he can fit. They're very hard to evaluate. You'll get the name; we'll all have the name and we'll all have a grade on him. But they're very, very hard to evaluate because they're playing against a lot lower level of competition."
In other words, the team that selects a small-school player before the others should be commended for its courage and conviction regarding that player's talents, not for its surprise tactics.
Most recently, the Buccaneers were convinced about the abilities of a small-school cornerback from Akron, Dwight Smith. Tampa Bay tabbed Smith in the third round in 2001, after 11 other cornerbacks had been clipped from the board, and Smith has proven more than capable of playing on the NFL level. That pick comes just five years after the Bucs had dropped another third-rounder on a small-school cornerback, East Tennessee State's Donnie Abraham in 1996, and gotten fabulous returns.
McKay says the most difficult part of scouting a player from a lower-level program can often be watching game video tapes, a huge part of every team's evaluation process. That was certainly the case with Smith.
"The tape was hard, my Lord it was hard," said McKay with a laugh. "The (camera) guy's moving all the time. I'm not kidding. Tony (Dungy) and I watched this guy a lot, and there were two or three games where you wanted to say to the guy, 'Zoom it back!' They're in so tight. As soon as the play's snapped, Dwight's out (of the picture) and you say, 'That's it, that play's useless.'"
In Smith's case, the Bucs got past the jumpy tape fairly easily because they had seen enough of him in person to know his skills were a perfect fit for Tampa Bay's style of defense. A one-on-one interview with the player and some research around the Akron program convinced the Bucs that it wasn't a risky pick in the third round.
Of course, you can't judge a team's small-school draft prowess on one success. CB Johnny Ray Smith from Lamar was a nice pickup for Tampa Bay in the 11th round in 1981, but Bethune-Cookman DE Booker Reese in the second round the next year was an unfortunate selection.
Over the last 10 years, the Bucs have made eight picks that might arguably be termed small-school selections.