When the typical High School superstar imagines his future and dreams of playing professionally, they picture themselves playing for Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, or anyone of the perennial powerhouses of college football. Georgia Southern and Alabama State aren’t exactly along those lines as is the case this season. Two small-school studs may not garner the attention of NFL teams like 1st Round prospects, but don’t be surprised to see them make an impact at the next level. Jerick McKinnon and Isaiah Crowell may not have had storybook paths to the NFL, but both will seize their opportunities.
Jerick McKinnon was a prep-star in Georgia, being selected All-State his Senior season at QB, running and passing for a combined 3,100 plus yards. However, with his less than impressive 5’9″ stature, he wasn’t the size that the sought-after schools desire at that position. So he chose Georgia Southern, taking advantage of his elite athleticism, optimizing his talents in their vaunted Triple Option offense. As Quarterback, he used his speed and passing prowess to keep defenses on their toes and started for 2 full years at GSU, while also seeing time at QB his freshman season. As a freshman, he also saw time at wing-back while Jaybo Shaw, older brother of South Carolina QB Connor Shaw, was at the helm of the offense. After three years in the program, McKinnon made the switch to wing-back full time, and was an instrumental part of the Eagles going to the Swamp in Gainsville, and defeating the Gators without completing a pass. McKinnon ran for over 1,800 yards as a junior, garnering All-American honors in 2012 and this season ran for 1,050 yards and 12 TDs. Many are comparing him to former GSU QB Jayson Foster, who had a cup-of-coffee in the NFL, but is now out of the league.
Just like his senior season at Georgia Southern, McKinnon’s best chance at success is at running-back, whether it be as a featured-back, out of the slot, or in the return game. The term “Offensive Weapon” is now being used more often to describe players with a lot of physical abilities, but not a set position. McKinnon would definitely fit into that type of role, such as a Denard Robinson. McKinnon is a gritty performer who also features a great skill set, coupled with elite athleticism as well as a willingness to succeed. That combination will serve him well at the next level.
Remember when I was listing off some of the premier locations of college football? Well the University of Georgia, in Athens, is another one of those places and at least for one season, Isaiah Crowell wowed the Bulldog faithful during his initial year with the “Dawgs.” His production led to him earning the SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2011. However, his last two seasons have been in a much less visible location, Montgomery, AL. Playing for the Alabama State Hornets, Isaiah Crowell has once again been running well, just with a lot less attention. After failing a drug test at Georgia (as well as some other issues) Crowell transferred to ASU, quickly becoming a featured part of their offense. Crowell has been well-behaved since leaving Georgia and has chosen to forgo his senior season in Montgomery to enter the NFL Draft. His physical ability is there, there’s no disputing that. It’s the interview process, where Crowell will have to impress the NFL teams. This past season, Crowell ran for 874 yards and 13 Touchdowns on only 138 carries, or about 13 carries a game. Crowell could argue that he’s fresher than most backs entering the draft, with the less-than demanding workload the past two seasons.
Crowell possesses the physical ability to be a featured back or at the least, a valued contributor to an NFL offense. There are many organizations who prefer a running-back by committee approach. He was once a very highly thought of prospect in Athens, but now will have to win over some NFL teams to get a legitimate Day 2 thought.
McKinnon projects to be a late 3rd to 6th round prospect, varying on how he tests at his Pro-Day and Combine, and will be utilized in many facets of the game by NFL teams. He fits the mold of an Antwan Randle El, someone who can throw, run, and catch. Teams love this type of versatility in their players and while it limits him from ever being a premier star at any position, it will serve him well to remain on an NFL roster. Crowell is almost strictly a running-back, who has displayed both power and burst from the backfield. He has also shown the ability to catch the ball, something becoming more and more important for backs to do. Especially if they wish to stay on the field in the pass-happy NFL. Crowell will be viewed as a late 5th round selection to a Priority UFA, or Undrafted Free Agent. If not drafted, he will certainly be one of the first prospects contacted by several teams.
Both of these future NFL athletes have taken a less than ideal road to get to this point, but their credentials are certainly up to par. Prospects like these two are where NFL scouts make their money, finding the small school studs, buying them low and selling them high in the future. Although both of these men will probably be drafted on the 3rd day of the NFL Draft, don’t be surprised to see them excelling on Sundays for many years to come.