Junior college stars no longer looked down upon by NFL

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

Nick Fairley spent two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College before starring at Auburn. (Getty Images)  
Nick Fairley spent two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College before starring at Auburn. (Getty Images)  

NFL Draft prospects who had played at a junior college instead of spending their entire careers at a four-year NCAA or NAIA institution once carried a scarlet letter of sorts in their scouting reports.

That's hardly the case in today's NFL.

Two former juco stars took Auburn from middle of the SEC pack to a BCS championship last season. Both landed in the top 13 overall selections of the 2011 draft.

Quarterback Cam Newton led Blinn (Texas) College to a national junior college championship in 2009 after his brief-yet-troubled career at the University of Florida. The Tigers' Lombardi Award-winning defensive tackle, Nick Fairley, spent two years at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College -- one as a redshirt -- before moving on to The Plains.

Not everyone saw Newton coming. His preseason bio was shorter in length than that of the Tigers' long-snapper. But he had a season for the record books, won the Heisman Trophy and was selected No. 1 overall by Carolina. Fairley landed in Detroit's lap at No. 13. But they weren't the only first-round picks with junior college backgrounds.

Philadelphia selected Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins, who played his first two years of organized football at Butte-Glenn (Calif.) Community College after growing up in Canada, with the 23rd selection. Seattle picked Alabama tackle James Carpenter two picks later. Carpenter started for two years at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College before holding down the left tackle spot for the Crimson Tide in 2009 and 2010.

Two second-round picks, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea (via Oregon State/Snow College) and Miami Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas (Kansas State/Northwest Mississippi CC), also went the junior college route.

And in later rounds, running back Alex Green (Hawaii/Butte-Glenn), tight end Jordan Cameron (Southern Cal/Ventura College) and Mississippi State stars defensive end Pernell McPhee (33 sacks in two years at Itawamba CC in Mississippi) and linebacker Chris White (Mississippi Gulf Coast CC) were drafted.

The junior college stigma was overcome long before Newton, Fairley and the others became high picks in 2011 despite their circuitous route to the NFL. About 100 players who once played at junior colleges have been drafted by NFL teams since 2006, and 16 of them landed in the first two rounds.

The reason is simple: Talent rules.

Scouts find talent. Whether the top prospect played at Alabama, Oregon, Appalachian State or junior college, NFL scouts and coaches find the best available players. According to a longtime NFL scout, teams may ask "questions of the football staff about how (the prospect) learns" but if the former juco player can "talk ball with our coaches" their academic past is not considered a red flag.

The scout did mention that former junior college "quarterbacks would be [the position with] the biggest concern."

That warning label isn't to be used with broad strokes.

Newton was the pick this year and the reigning Super Bowl MVP, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, led Butte-Glenn to a No. 2 national ranking in his only season there before starring at California and ending up the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft.

Therefore, it's quite likely that next April, teams will not be afraid to select any of talented prospects listed below.

Five former junior college players with potential as first- or second-round selections in 2012

Cornellius "Tank" Carradine*, DE, Florida State, 6-foot-5, 251: If you're looking for an impact defender coming straight out of junior college, Carradine is likely the best bet. The transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College used his length and great burst off the edge to manage a national juco-best 16 sacks in 2010. Comparisons with former South Florida pass-rushing end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was drafted No. 15 overall by the Giants in 2010 after just one year at USF and two in junior college (College of the Canyons, Fort Scott), are inevitable if he produces this season. For now, the Seminoles just hope he can be the playmaker they need to replace one of the Washington Redskins' four seventh-round picks in April, Markus White -- who also transferred from Butler to Tallahassee after his freshman season.

A junior college All-American at Mount San Antonio College, Bruce Irvin racked up 14 sacks last year at West Virginia. (US Presswire)  
A junior college All-American at Mount San Antonio College, Bruce Irvin racked up 14 sacks last year at West Virginia. (US Presswire)  
Bruce Irvin, DE/OLB, West Virginia, 6-2, 235: A strange fit at defensive end in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 defense, Irvin racked up 14 sacks as a pass rush specialist in his first year in Morgantown. The former safety was moved to end by coaches at Mount San Antonio College because he arrived on campus too late to learn the defense. His success there (21 tackles for loss, 16 sacks) made him a juco All-American and very coveted prospect by FBS programs. Another exceptional season using his quickness and underrated strength to harass quarterbacks in 2011 may make him equally coveted by NFL teams as a 3-4 rush linebacker.

Coryell Judie, CB, Texas A&M, 5-11, 188: Aggies head coach Mike Sherman expected Judie to make an impact on defense and special teams in 2009 after he intercepted seven passes and returned kicks and punts for Fort Scott Community College over the previous two seasons. But academic issues and a preseason shoulder injury put off the Texas native's coming-out party until 2010 -- but he proved worth the wait. He finally had his chance to display his excellent ball skills (four picks, eight additional pass breakups) and special teams explosiveness (two kickoff returns for touchdowns), helping A&M streak to the Cotton Bowl last fall. NFL scouts should expect more of same this year.

Levy Adcock, OT, Oklahoma State, 6-5, 322: The athletic Adcock earned the starting right tackle job, as well as first-team All-Big 12 accolades from league coaches and media, after being used as a reserve tackle, fourth tight end and on special teams in his first year in Stillwater. He ended up at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, where he redshirted his first year before starting in his second, because he was a late bloomer -- he's still growing -- and had only a marginal high school record. Now starting to reach his potential, NFL scouts will consider him among the top five tackles in the class by the time the 2011 season concludes.

Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska, 6-1, 224: David could be on the outside of the top 64 looking in due to this small frame, as most scouts will be surprised if he clears the six-foot mark on the combine measuring tape -- or 230 pounds on the scale. But there's no doubt the former Miami, Fla., high school star's production at Fort Scott (10 tackles per game, 19½ for loss) or in his first year with the Cornhuskers (school-record 152 stops, 15 for loss). Another All-American year could make him a legit top-50 pick for NFL defensive coordinators appreciating hard-striking defenders no matter their size.

12 other former juco players to watch in 2012:

 Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State/Mississippi Gulf Coast, 5-11, 216
 Philip Blake, C, Baylor/Tyler, 6-2, 318
 James Brown, OT, Troy/Southwest Mississippi, 6-4, 318
 Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State/Bakersfield, 6-4, 276
 Dominique Davis, QB, East Carolina/Fort Scott/Boston College, 6-3, 216
 Damien Jackson, FS, Ole Miss/Mississippi Gulf Coast, 6-2, 212
 Lance Lewis, WR, East Carolina/East Mississippi, 6-1, 206
 DeQuan Menzie, CB, Alabama/Copiah-Lincoln, 5-11, 200
 Brandon Mosley, OT, Auburn/Coffeyville, 6-5, 305
 Brice Schwab, OT, Arizona State/Palomar, 6-7, 320
 Amini Silatolu, OG, Midwestern State/San Joaquin Delta, 6-3, 324
 Rokevious Watkins, OG, South Carolina/Georgia Military, 6-4, 320

Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ChadReuter.


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