The Steelers' Arthur Moats is part of the increasing number of players from the FCS level of college football making an impact in the NFL
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There is a saying prospects from the lower levels of college football cling to every winter in the run-up to the NFL draft. “If you’re good enough to play in the NFL, the NFL will find you.”
The Steelers were at the forefront of the movement to bring small-college players into the league in the early 1970s when legendary scout Bill Nunn searched the small black universities for talented players and helped build the Steelers’ dynasty.
Nunn found Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Mel Blount at Alabama A&M and Southern. He found L.C. Greenwood at Arkansas AM&N and Donnie Shell at South Carolina State. All four were four-time Super Bowl champions on the Super ‘70s Steelers.
More followed over the years through different coaches and different generations of scouts in the front office. Eric Green went to Liberty College, Earl Holmes Florida A&M and Aaron Smith Division II Northern Colorado.
With head coach Mike Tomlin, a graduate of William & Mary College, and a front office stocked with scouts with FCS or Division II and Division III backgrounds, the Steelers still adhere to the idea that they can build quality football teams with select players that didn’t play major-college football. Their roster has five players from the FCS level of NCAA football, formerly known as Division I-AA.
Three of them were in the starting lineup last Sunday when the Steelers beat the Chiefs, 43-14, at Heinz Field. Javon Hargrave of South Carolina State was the starting nose tackle, Arthur Moats of James Madison started at right outside linebacker and Jordan Dangerfield of Towson started at strong safety.
“We love our 1-AA crew,” Moats said. “Most guys doubt us. But we say look at us. We’re out here balling. We take pride in that. We have some players at that level as well.”
Quite a few, actually.
NFL rosters will always be dominated by players from FBS schools, but FCS schools are producing more players, including top draft picks, every year.
Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who threw for 300 yards against the Steelers two weeks ago, played at North Dakota State. The opposing quarterback for the Jets at Heinz Field today is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played at Harvard.
Wentz and Fitzpatrick are not exceptions to the rule. Wentz is one of six North Dakota State players in the NFL this season; Fitzpatrick one of five players from Harvard.
And while the Steelers used to have a leg up on scouting the smaller schools four decades ago, every other team in the NFL has caught on by now. The Jets lead the NFL with 11 players on their roster from FCS schools. Buffalo, Arizona, Indianapolis, Detroit and the New York Giants have seven apiece.
“One of the big things is they all have better offseason programs now and they’re recruiting smarter,” said Gil Brandt, the former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. “They’re going farther to get players. The Big Sky Conference is going to California and Texas to get players. And I think the high schools are developing better players. They’re playing that 7-on-7 all year long. We’re getting better skill players. Every college program is getting better players now because they’re being developed better in high school.”
Choosing FCS over FBS
Dangerfield played high school football in the talent-rich state of Florida at Royal Palm Beach, but his dream of playing for one of the major state universities never came to fruition. The University of Miami, Florida and Florida State did not recruit him. His first FBS scholarship offer came from Florida International, and their head coach rescinded it when Dangerfield did not commit on his timetable.
A few other FBS offers trickled in, from as far away as the University of Massachusetts, but they all wanted Dangerfield to delay his college career and sit out his freshman season.
“I just wanted to go somewhere where I could play right away and get into it,” Dangerfield said.
So Dangerfield committed to Hofstra and spent his freshman season in the FCS Colonial Athletic Association. When Hofstra disbanded its football program after his freshman season he transferred to Towson, which also competes in the CAA, and started three years for the Tigers.
Many talented players get lost on overstocked rosters at FBS schools, but Dangerfield is among a group of players in the NFL that opted for early playing time at an FCS school over the glamour of playing at a higher level.
“It helped a lot,” Dangerfield said of seeing the field early as a college player. “Everyone wants to go Division 1-A, but at the same time there is great talent at the D 1-AA level, as you can see. We’re all around the league. You have to trust the process and make the most of the opportunity when it comes.”
Moats has a similar story to tell. When he was a senior at Churchland High School in Portsmouth, Va., he received scholarship offers from a few smaller FBS schools in Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference. But at the urging of his parents he decided on James Madison, another CAA school that coupled a strong football program with a strong academic rating.
“I had offers to 1-A schools,” Moats said. “I just didn’t want to go to a smaller MAC school or a Conference USA school. If I wasn’t going to play in the ACC or the Big Ten, I didn’t want to do it. I’d rather go 1-AA where I can excel and play right away rather than go to a school where they lose a lot. That was my biggest thing. I wanted to win.
“At JMU, when I signed, they had just won the national championship. They played in big playoff games. They were on ESPN. I was going to get some TV games. And then I went to their practices and saw NFL scouts there. I said if I do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll get drafted. The NFL will find me.”
The NFL did find Moats. The Bills selected him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, and he played four seasons for them before signing with the Steelers as a free agent in 2014.
One other notable Steelers employee made the same decision as Moats and Dangerfield a generation ago. Tomlin had scholarship offers from smaller FBS schools, but he chose William & Mary instead. Tomlin never made it to the NFL as a player, but he’s in his 10th season as Steelers’ head coach.
“When I was I high school and got that first offer from Kent State and then Akron, I thought that was cool,” Moats said. “But my parents said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go to these schools. Go to a school that you will really enjoy, where you’ll get a great education, where you’ll enjoy your playing experience. And then from there, the NFL will find you.’
“Some people go 1-A just to say they went 1-A. But if you to a 1-A and only win one game a year, what’s the point of doing that? At JMU, I was winning 10 or 11 games a year and playing in big games and I still had a chance to go to the league.”
Many players that end up playing at FCS schools are talented enough to play at FBS schools, but they don’t have the test scores or grades and get turned away by admissions offices.
That’s how reserve linebacker L.J. Fort ended up at Northern Iowa. Fort, who grew up in Missouri and was the state’s player of the year at the 5-A level as a senior, was recruited by Big 12 schools, but those schools backed away due to academic issues.
Hargrave had a similar experience at his high school in North Carolina. He was among the top players in the state as well, but FBS coaches did not offer him the chance to prove he could make the grade academically in college.
“It was a bunch to do with eligibility,” Hargrave said. “I guess a lot of people didn’t want to take a chance on me. I’m happy with my situation because I still reached the goals that I wanted to reach. I’m real proud of that and I have no regrets about that.”
Like Dangerfield and Moats, Hargrave played early. He was so good in his first season at South Carolina State that he was named a freshman All-American. After registering 29 ½ sacks as a junior and senior he was on the NFL radar and received invitations to the NFL scouting combine, the East-West Shrine game and the Senior Bowl. The Steelers selected him in the third round of the draft in the spring.
Hargrave is one of the fortunate FCS players to receive invitations to the combine and postseason all-star games. Many like Dangerfield and Fort face uphill climbs to make it in the NFL.
Dangerfield was an undrafted free agent who signed with Buffalo in 2013. After the Bills cut him he spent the rest of that fall and winter out of football. He worked out in Palm Beach twice a day, four times a week waiting for his next opportunity.
That opportunity came when the Steelers signed him to a futures contract in January of 2014. He was cut at the end of training camp that summer and again last summer, but he was added to the practice squad both years. This summer he finally earned a coveted roster spot.
Fort was an undrafted free agent and made the Browns’ 53-man roster as a rookie, but he could not make a roster or a practice squad in 2013 and spent time on the practice squads of the Bengals and Seahawks in 2014 and the Steelers last season before making the 53-man roster this season.
Both players had some advice for aspiring players that play at FCS schools now.
“If you have a dream, chase it,” Dangerfield said. “It might not happen the way you want it to happen. But stay positive throughout the process and trust the process.”
Added Fort: “If you can ball, it’s not where you come from. They’ll find you.”
Words to cling to for the next generation of FCS players.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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