Most of the attention leading up to the NFL draft centers on the top players, the ones who can change the fortunes of a franchise, help it climb up from the bottom.
They become household names. Peyton and Eli Manning. Josh Allen. Patrick Mahomes.
Far less attention is generally paid to the players in the Championship Subdivision and below, players who probably could have followed the trend of looking to transfer up when it became evident that they had the skills, but opted to stay where they started.
Two of them from last year’s draft, No. 34 overall pick Christian Watson, a wide receiver from North Dakota State selected by the Green Bay Packers, and cornerback Tariq Woolen, the No. 153 pick by the Seattle Seahawks from UTSA, have excelled and likely are in the running for rookie of the year accolades.
This year’s draft will be no different, and as teams set their draft boards, here are six FCS players who might warrant extra attention from each team’s talent evaluators:
CODY MAUCH, OL, 6-foot-6, 303 pounds, North Dakota State
Massive linemen have become a habit for the Bison, winners of nine of the last 11 FCS titles, and Mauch is this year’s best prospect from the FCS “by a considerable margin,” according to Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl.
Mauch “makes it look easy at that level. Really easy at that level. You want small-school players to be dominant players. They should rarely look stressed to get the job done at their respective positions, and that’s Cody,” Nagy said. “He’s extremely efficient. Like if you look at just his win rate on blocks. … He’s a nasty finisher. He’s a high-end athlete.”
While a left tackle for the Bison, Mauch projects more as a guard in the NFL because his arms aren’t long enough to meet the reach the threshold NFL teams have for tackles.
Mauch and the Bison face Incarnate Word in the semifinals on Friday night.
HUNTER LUEPKE, FB, 6-1, 236, North Dakota State
Luepke was invited to the Senior Bowl, but won’t play because of a left shoulder injury that will require surgery, but he’s the best fullback at any level in the draft, Nagy said.
“I don’t think he would have gotten out of the fourth round. I mean, he had a chance to maybe go in the late third,” Nagy said. “I think the standard bearer, the bar-setter at that position right now in the league is Kyle Juszczyk, who played in the senior bowl years ago out of Harvard, and Hunter is the closest thing to Juszczyk that I’ve seen.”
Juszczyk plays for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
When the Bison lost 31-28 to Arizona early this season, Luepke rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and caught three passes for 65 yards and another TD.
TUCKER KRAFT, TE, 6-5, 255, South Dakota State
He’s only a junior and still has at least one more game Saturday when the top-seeded Jackrabbits face Montana State in the national semifinals, but some project him as high as a top 50 pick. A solid blocker with good hands, he caught 65 passes for 780 yards and six touchdowns last season with at least two receptions in every game. He’s missed more than half of this season with an ankle injury, but has 21 catches for 249 yards and two TDs, including his longest career reception of 57 yards against Northern Iowa.
McCLENDON CURTIS, OL, 6-6, 328, Chattanooga
There must be something about the Mocs and the offensive line, A year ago, Cole Strange was drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots, and here comes Curtis.
“Big man. Big body. Looks the part,” Nagy said. “Every NFL scout that went through Chattanooga this year that I talked to says, `That’s a pro.’”
The Mocs allowed only 14 sacks in 11 games.
ANDREI IOSIVAS, WR, 6-3, 200, Princeton
Iosivas is a speedy wide receiver and two-sport star who finished fourth at the 2022 NCAA Indoor Championships in the heptathlon and set an event record with a 6.71-second clocking in the 60.
On the football field, he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and seven TDs for the Tigers this year and finished his career with 125 catches for 1,909 yards and 17 TDs in just three seasons. The Ivy League did not play in the 2020 season because of the pandemic.
“Really good body control, fluid athlete, strong hands,” Nagy said. “Just at that level, I mean, he’s just plays at a different speed than everyone else in the Ivy. It’s pretty obvious when you put on the tape that one guy is an NFL player.”
AUBREY MILLER Jr., LB, 6-2, 225, Jackson State
Miller led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in tackles last season with 109, including 11.5 for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He’ll finish near the top again for the Tigers (12-0), taking 106 stops into Saturday’s Celebration Bowl against North Carolina Central.
“Teams love his play style. He’s a run-and-hit linebacker, instinctive. He just flies around and hits whatever’s in his path.,” Nagy said, calling Miller a likely late-round selection. “You feel good about him making your club because of special teams. Hard to find guys that are that reckless and that can run like that and are that reckless.”
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Hank Kurz Jr., The Associated Press