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Small-School Stars Hope To Get To NFL

Michael Coe wants what Danieal Manning has. Coe, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound cornerback from Alabama State, has looked at the career path of the Chicago Bears' rookie free safety, envisioning what it might be like to jump from a small school to starting defensive back in the NFL.

"That'd be great to have success like that," Coe said in a recent telephone interview. "He's helping out the Bears tremendously, coming in, starting as a rookie. So, he's having a big impact on that defense. And (they went) to the Super Bowl. So it's kind of a dream season for a guy from Abilene Christian."

Coe is not alone in his desire to make the leap from playing in relative obscurity to football's biggest stage.

Of the 329 players invited to the NFL combine in Indianapolis beginning Wednesday, 28 are from small schools _ Division I-AA and lower.

Delaware tight end Ben Patrick, a first-team I-AA All-American, is one of just two players from that level _ Coe being the other _ to play in the Senior Bowl. Both were injury replacements, but relished the opportunity to play before NFL coaches and scouts in Mobile, Ala.

"Even though I wasn't here for the entire week, it was an honor to get to come in and show the scouts what I could do," said the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Patrick, considered one of the better blocking tight ends in this year's NFL draft. "I'm sure they wanted to see how I stack up against some of the top players, and I believe I did OK. It was great working with the NFL coaches and they were very helpful, giving me little tips and areas where I might need to improve."

Coe and Patrick both transferred from Division I-A schools. Coe left Arkansas after three years to play for his father, Charles. Patrick played his first three years at Duke before jumping to the Fightin' Blue Hens.

Coe, projected to be a second- or third-round pick in April's draft, said being a coach's son gives him an advantage. And it doesn't hurt that he runs the 40 in 4.55 seconds.

"Knowing the game inside out I think helps," said Coe, fresh off a workout for the NFL combine at Parisi Speed School in Fair Lawn, N.J. "I think that's one of my biggest strong points, my versatility, awareness and football instincts. That always helps you to make plays, whether you're in zone, man and all that.

"(I'm) able to pick up schemes real easy, and not have to worry."

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said players from small schools often get little time to impress talent evaluators. Mayock, himself a former NFL player, said most teams will devote only one scout to a small-school team _ and if a player doesn't grade well, he won't get another look.

"It's more difficult," Mayock said. "But the (biggest obstacle) he faces is that he doesn't get enough reps in front of scouts. ... A small school kid has to do something immediately or he won't get a shot."

And players from major conferences are given more latitude on draft day.

"When (small-school players) get to the combine, they better do well," Mayock said. "Big-school kids are safer picks. It's not fair, but that's what it comes down to."

Coe did make an impression in last month's Senior Bowl when he intercepted Michigan State's Drew Stanton in the end zone in the North's 27-0 victory.

Manning was taken in the second round, 42nd overall, out of Division II Abilene Christian, and was one of 21 players taken from small schools out of 255 in last year's draft. Seven of those players went on to play significant roles, most notably two Saints: wide receiver Marques Colston (Hofstra) and guard Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg).

Other rookies from small schools who made an impact this past season were Colts strong safety Antoine Bethea (Howard); Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (Alabama State); Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon (Hofstra), and Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan (Samford).

Even though Manning had seven solo tacles in Chicago's 29-17 loss to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl, he may have been upstaged by Bethea, whose hard tackle on Bears running back Cedric Benson forced him out of the game with a knee injury.

Mayock is high on three players from Hampton: defensive back Travarous Bain, running back Alonzo Coleman and linebacker Justin Durant. The Sporting News said to keep an eye on Lane wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who stood out in the East-West Shrine Game as fast and tough. The magazine also gave high ratings to New Hampshire cornerback Corey Graham, Missouri Western tight end Gijon Robinson, Missouri Southern offensive tackle Allen Barbre and Washburn defensive tackle Trey Lewis.

Another player who will try to improve his stock at the combine is David Ball, a Wildcats teammate of Graham. The wide receiver broke Jerry Rice's Division I-AA record for touchdown catches in a career with 58.

And two former big-time quarterbacks _ Idaho State's Matt Gutierrez and Montana's Josh Swogger _ will try to gain notice after transferring from Michigan and Washington State.

Some of the NFL's biggest stars have come from small schools. That includes Mississippi Valley State's Rice, who owns just about every NFL receiving record, and Jackson State's Walter Payton, a Hall of Famer who's second to Emmitt Smith on the career rushing list. Phil Simms, Doug Williams, Darrell Green, Andre Reed, Jackie Slater and Dave Krieg also came from small schools.

Current players who have made an impact include Kurt Warner, Rod Smith, Larry Allen, Steve McNair, Terrell Owens, Michael Strahan, Adam Vinatieri, Joe Horn, Rodney Harrison, Donald Driver, Jeremiah Trotter, Brian Westbrook, Darren Sharper, Matt Birk and Rashean Mathis.

As for Coe, he knows his size is intriguing to NFL scouts.

"There's a lot of need for corners out there," he said. "I think my height kind of helps out with that, being one of the biggest corners probably in the draft this year. ... What you do at the combine helps you, and how bad the other guys do, too.

"The 40 is always a big test for the corners. I think that can always make a guy jump or slide (in the draft)."

Patrick knows preparing for the combine is not the same as practicing for a postseason All-Star game.

"Training for the combine is different than this game (Senior Bowl) because you are asked to do different things at each one of them," he said. "You have to prepare for the drill they are going to put you through. It will be a new set of challenges, so I'm just going to work on those."


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