Division II Football: Former student-athletes making an impact in the NFL
Despite making a game clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX, there were questions surrounding the ability of cornerback Malcolm Butler to be the New England Patriots top corner option on the team’s depth chart this season.
Butler played in just 16 percent of the defensive snaps for the Patriots on a 2014 team that featured Pro-Bowlers Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary.
Any additional reservations about whether or not Butler could step into that role were guided by the idea that 2014 was just his rookie season, coming from a college that most of the country won’t see play on television.
Butler played for two seasons at West Alabama, a Division II school less than 200 miles from his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Butler is one of more than 100 players from Division II schools on NFL rosters. West Texas A&M's 10 alumni in the NFL are the most for any school and the New Orleans Saints are the largest employers of former DII players with nine on the roster.
Butler is not the only name on the list of DII players in the big leagues that have displayed Super Bowl heroics in the past.
The NFL’s active leader in points scored, Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, attended South Dakota State before signing with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 1996.
Vinatieri has flair of the dramatic, hitting two Super Bowl winning field goals in his career. The first as time expired in a 20-17 Super Bowl XXXVI victory against the St. Louis Rams and the next also breaking a tie in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers.
Players like Vinatieri and Butler are proof that quality NFL players are built from more than the mold of a five-star recruit.
“I think coming out of a smaller school you can still get there. We have plenty of guys in the league from small schools,” Vinatieri said.
“You just have to, maybe when you get on to the roster, you have to make sure everybody understands that you deserve to be here, you’ve done a good job.”
Another NFL standout that played in the Division II is Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver and three-time Pro-Bowler Vincent Jackson.
Jackson, like Butler, stayed local and attended Northern Colorado before being drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round in 2005. Jackson was drafted higher than someone from a DII school would ordinarily get selected after making a name for himself in the Senior Bowl and earning an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. But Jackson echoed Vinatieri’s sentiment that simply getting exposure isn’t the end of the process.
“That was a big part for me. I really had to do well in those circumstances,” Jackson said. “Once I got in the league, I do think that making a splash or doing a little bit more as a smaller school guy -- maybe the expectations were a little bit lower for me to break that stigma.”
One of the draws of a Division II school, besides a student-athlete’s ability to stay somewhat local, is the opportunity for a greater amount of study time, which may seem more constrained at a school with a bigger football program.
“I always had dreams watching college football Saturdays and those big [Pac-12] or Big Ten schools. I would have loved to play for a school like that, but I was also very cognizant of what college was about,” Jackson said.
“For me, first and foremost, it was about my education. I went to a great school for business and I was very happy about that part. I was excited that even at the Division II level, we were playing competitive ball.”
The 6-feet-5 Jackson was difficult not to notice for a league that values players with his size and strength. But another skill player that didn’t have size to offer put the NFL on notice.
Chadron State running back Danny Woodhead became only the third player to win multiple Harlon Hill Trophies -- the Division II equivalent to the Heisman -- after winning his second in 2007.
The 5-feet-8 Woodhead did not receive an invite to the combine and went undrafted in 2008. He eventually signed with the New York Jets and won a spot on the roster in 2009 after a historic performance in a preseason game.
Woodhead is currently in his third season with the Chargers after spending three seasons with the Patriots. He and Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell are the only Harlon Hill Trophy recipients on an active NFL roster.
Woodhead’s ability to stick in the NFL has often been credited to his work ethic and Vinatieri -- a 19-year veteran -- noticed a similar pattern for players with longer professional careers.
“There are a lot of exceptionally talented athletes in here, but the ones that make it and the ones that stick around are the ones that work really hard,” Vinatieri said. “Hard work trumps physical talent all the time in my mind. … After a certain amount of time you realize that you deserve to be here and years go on and careers get made.”
While most agree that the hard work is what makes a career in the NFL, others struggle to simply get their foot in the door with professional teams.
Just ask LaVance Taylor.
@KCChiefs hey my name is LaVance Taylor and I am currently a free agent and I wanted you to check me out. http://t.co/T8sD9L8pTs— LaVance Taylor (@LaVance_TCT) July 29, 2015
The former Central Missouri running back took to Twitter to display his video resume to the league. He eventually signed with the hometown Kansas City Chiefs but was cut at the start of August and currently plays in the Canadian Football League.
As for the future of Division II alumni, the current leaders of the charge aren’t sure whether or not their legacy will blaze a trail for the next generation, but would like to see the numbers grow.
“I do think of guys like Jerry Rice coming from a small school. I do think that there’s talent out there,” Vinatieri said. “The scouts do a great job finding good talent out there. I don’t think the exposure is quite the same, but if you do a good job and you work hard enough and do your due diligence you can make it. Somebody will find you.”
|DIVISION II ALUMNI IN THE NFL (AS OF APR. 23)|
|Douglas McNeil||WR||Seattle||Bowie State||CIAA|
|William Hayes||DE||St. Louis||Winston-Salem||CIAA|
|Greg Toler||CB||Indianapolis||St. Paul's#||CIAA|
|Caleb Holley||WR||Buffalo||East Central||GAC|
|Armonty Bryant||DE||Cleveland||East Central||GAC|
|Phillip Supernaw||TE||Baltimore||Ouachita Baptist||GAC|
|Cedric Thornton||DE||Philadelphia||Southern Arkansas||GAC|
|Cameron Bradfield||T||Arizona||Grand Valley||GLIAC|
|Nick McDonald||OL||Cleveland||Grand Valley||GLIAC|
|Brandon Carr||CB||Dallas||Grand Valley||GLIAC|
|Dan Skuta||LB||Jacksonville||Grand Valley||GLIAC|
|Charles Johnson||WR||Minnesota||Grand Valley||GLIAC|
|Tim Lelito||G||New Orleans||Grand Valley||GLIAC|
|Joe Berger||T||Minnesota||Michigan Tech||GLIAC|
|Jeff Heath||S||Dallas||Saginaw Valley||GLIAC|
|Jeff Janis||WR||Green Bay||Saginaw Valley||GLIAC|
|Todd Herremans||T||Indianapolis||Saginaw Valley||GLIAC|
|Chris Ivory||RB||New York Jets||Tiffin||GLIAC|
|Joseph Morgan||WR||New Orleans||Walsh||GLIAC|
|Joique Bell||RB||Detroit||Wayne State (Mich)||GLIAC|
|Joe Don Duncan||TE||Denver||Dixie State||GNAC|
|Taylor Boggs||C||Detroit||Humboldt State||GNAC|
|Matt Overton||LS||Indianapolis||Western Washington##||GNAC|
|Michael Koenen||P||Tampa Bay||Western Washington##||GNAC|
|Preston Parker||WR||New York Giants||North Alabama||GSC|
|Janoris Jenkins||CB||St. Louis||North Alabama||GSC|
|Ryan Schraeder||T||Atlanta||Valdosta State||GSC|
|Larry Dean||LB||Buffalo||Valdosta State||GSC|
|Edmund Kugbila||G||Carolina||Valdosta State||GSC|
|Lawrence Virgil||DT||New Orleans||Valdosta State||GSC|
|Seantavius Jones||WR||New Orleans||Valdosta State||GSC|
|Malcolm Butler||CB||New England||West Alabama||GSC|
|Seth Roberts||WR||Oakland||West Alabama||GSC|
|Freddie Martino||WR||Atlanta||North Greenville||IND|
|Amini Silatolu||G||Carolina||Midwestern State||LSC|
|Andy Tanner||WR||New Orleans||Midwestern State||LSC|
|Dashaun Phillips||CB||New York Jets||Tarleton State||LSC|
|Danny Mason||LB||Denver||Texas A&M-Commerce||LSC|
|Roberto Garza||C||Chicago||Texas A&M-Kingsville||LSC|
|Brittan Golden||WR||Arizona||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Nathan Slaughter||WR||Arizona||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Bryan Johnson||DE||Buffalo||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Dustin Vaughan||QB||Dallas||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Khiry Robinson||RB||New Orleans||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Bryan Braman||LB||Philadelphia||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Craig Watts||G||San Diego||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Torrence Allen||WR||San Diego||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Ethan Westbrooks||DT||St. Louis||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Eugene Sims||DE||St. Louis||West Texas A&M||LSC|
|Danieal Manning||S||Houston||Abilene Christian*||LSC|
|Daryl Richardson||RB||New York Jets||Abilene Christian*||LSC|
|Clyde Gates||WR||Tennessee||Abilene Christian*||LSC|
|Delanie Walker||TE||Tennessee||Central Missouri||MIAA|
|Jermelle Cudjo||DT||Detroit||Central Oklahoma||MIAA|
|Adam Schlitz||TE||Kansas City||Emporia State||MIAA|
|Brandon Williams||DT||Baltimore||Missouri Southern||MIAA|
|Allen Barbre||T||Philadelphia||Missouri Southern||MIAA|
|David Bass||DE||Chicago||Missouri Western||MIAA|
|Greg Zuerlein||K||St. Louis||Missouri Western||MIAA|
|Michael Hill||RB||Washington||Missouri Western||MIAA|
|Mason Brodine||TE||St. Louis||Nebraska-Kearney||MIAA|
|Michael Bowie||OL||Cleveland||Northeastern State||MIAA|
|Brian Dixon||CB||New Orleans||Northwest Missouri||MIAA|
|Brandon Dixon||CB||Tampa Bay||Northwest Missouri||MIAA|
|John Brown||WR||Arizona||Pittsburg State||MIAA|
|Michael Wilhoite||LB||San Francisco||Washburn||MIAA|
|Vincent Jackson||WR||Tampa Bay||Northern Colorado*||NCC|
|Adam Vinatieri||K||Indianapolis||South Dakota State*||NCC|
|Ike Igbinosun||DE||Jacksonville||Southern Connecticut||NE-10|
|Jerome Cunningtham||TE||New York Giants||Southern Connecticut||NE-10|
|Brian Leonhardt||TE||Oakland||Bemidji State||NSIC|
|Zach Moore||DL||New England||Concordia-St. Paul||NSIC|
|Fred Williams||WR||Kansas City||St. Cloud||NSIC|
|Jahri Evans||G||New Orleans||Bloomsburg||PSAC|
|Eric Kush||C||Kansas City||California||PSAC|
|Rontez Miles||S||New York Jets||California||PSAC|
|John Kuhn||RB||Green Bay||Shippensburg||PSAC|
|Brandon Fusco||G||Minnesota||Slippery Rock||PSAC|
|Danny Woodhead||RB||San Diego||Chadron State||RMAC|
|Garrett Gilkey||T||Tampa Bay||Chadron State||RMAC|
|Mike Pennel||DT||Green Bay||CSU-Pueblo||RMAC|
|L.J. McCray||DB||San Francisco||Catawba||SAC|
|Ron Parker||DB||Kansas City||Newberry||SAC|
|Corey Washington||WR||New York Giants||Newberry||SAC|
|Marquette King||P||Oakland||Fort Valley||SIAC|
|Ricardo Lockette||WR||Seattle||Fort Valley||SIAC|
|Trey Wolfe||CB||Washington||Fort Valley||SIAC|
|Jacoby Jones||WR||San Diego||Lane||SIAC|
|Junior Galette||DE||New Orleans||Stillman||SIAC|
Complete list provided by HeroSports.com.
# -- St. Paul’s College closed in 2013.
## -- Western Washington discontinued football after the 2008 season.
* -- School transitioned to Division I.