February 18, 2010

Veldheer hopes to hear name on draft day

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- Jared Veldheer is preparing for the draft just like any other NFL hopeful. He just took a different route to get here.

At D1 Sports Training in suburban Nashville, Veldheer -- who played at Division II Hillsdale (Mich.) College -- is running through cones on the same artificial turf where another offensive tackle, Ole Miss' Michael Oher, trained before becoming a first-round pick a year ago. On the other side of a partition from Veldheer is Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who is lifting weights.

Veldheer didn't compete for a Heisman and didn't appear in a Super Bowl commercial, as Tebow did. He wasn't the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie, as Oher was. But on draft day, NFL teams won't care about the notoriety gap between prospects.

"I think at first [the small-school players] might be a little uneasy being around guys from all these big programs," said Kurt Hester, D1's director of training. "And then after a week, they see they're just as strong, just as fast, just as athletic -- or more athletic."

In the past four drafts, only 26 of the 1,018 players drafted didn't play in Division I. But three starters in the Super Bowl didn't play for D-I programs -- Saints guard Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg, Pa.) and Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon (Mount Union) and tight end Gijon Robinson (Missouri Western).

Though even hard-core college football fans aren't familiar with Veldheer's body of work at Hillsdale, Veldheer is just as likely to be drafted in April as Tebow. Though Veldheer isn't a first-round prospect, he still could end up in the same spot as Oher, too, as a starting tackle for an NFL team.

In Division II, Veldheer's college career took a different path than his counterparts in big-time college football. Hillsdale bused to nearly every game, including an 11-hour ride to Michigan's upper peninsula. He didn't have a staff of strength and conditioning coaches watching his every move in the weight room. His offensive line coach doubled as the strength coach at Hillsdale, a school with an enrollment of 1,300. (The school's major distinction is its refusal to take any federal or state taxpayer support, meaning Hillsdale is not subject to state and federal laws related to funding, such as Title IX.)

But at D1, Veldheer looks every bit the part of a draft prospect. He's a lean 315 pounds at 6 feet 8. He can bench press 225 pounds 33 times, high numbers for someone with 33-inch arms. He's a former basketball player, and his athleticism shows it. Off the field, he has a GPA of better than 3.1 and will graduate with a biology degree when he finishes his thesis after the draft.

"He'll blow the Combine up," Hester said. "He'll probably be the most impressive lineman there. He'll look like a DB compared to the tackles, he's so athletic. He'll just stand out because he moves like a skill player."

Second to none
Of the 1,018 NFL draft picks since 2006, only 26 did not play Division I football (FBS or FCS). Here is a list of the non-Division I picks from the past four drafts. Note: All picks are from Division II except where noted with an asterisk.
20094-113ChargersDT Vaughn Martin, Western Ontario*
-----4-115 LionsDT Sammie Lee Hill, Stillman (Ala.)
-----4-131 CardinalsCB Greg Toler, St. Paul's (Va.)
-----5-140BearsWR Johnny Knox, Abilene Christian (Texas)
-----6-180JaguarsTE Zach Miller, Nebraska-Omaha
-----6-196RamsQB Keith Null, West Texas A&M
-----6-209BengalsRB Bernard Scott, Abilene Christian (Texas)
20084-103TitansDE William Haynes, Winston-Salem (N.C.) St.
-----5-140 ChiefsCB Brandon Carr, Grand Valley State (Mich.)
-----6-179BillsRB Xavier Omon, Northwest Missouri State
-----6-203Chiefs LB Andy Studebaker, Wheaton (Ill.)*
-----6-205Colts WR Pierre Garcon, Mount Union (Ohio)*
-----7-231BrownsLB Andy Hall, St. Augustine's (N.C.)
-----7-250PanthersG Mackenzy Bernadeau, Bentley (Mass.)
20073-73TexansWR Jacoby Jones, Lane (Tenn.)
-----4-119PackersG Allen Barbre, Missouri Southern State
-----5-141RedskinsDT Greg Peterson, North Carolina Central
-----5-145SaintsCB David Jones, Wingate (N.C.)
-----5-153GiantsTE Kevin Boss, Western Oregon
-----6-185FalconsDT Tray Lewis, Washburn (Kan.)
-----7-231ChiefsTE Michael Allan, Whitworth (Wash.)*
-----7-249RamsWR Derek Stanley, Wis.-Whitewater*
20062-42BearsFS Danieal Manning, Abilene Christian (Texas)
-----4-108SaintsG Jahri Evans, Bloomsburg (Pa.)
-----6-17549ers TE Delanie Walker, Central Missouri
-----7-253Packers DE Dave Tollefson, Northwest Missouri State

An NFL director of player personnel who wished to remain anonymous said Veldheer isn't a finished product but that "you can't teach that size and athletic ability. The fact he runs so well makes him all the more interesting." He also said Veldheer should eventually be a starter at right tackle with some strength development.

National Football Post gave Veldheer a grade of 6.1 on a scale of 1-8. The Web site says the grade means "physically, this player has all the tools to be a starter in the NFL but has not yet developed the necessary skills due to level of competition." Veldheer has a better grade than, among others, Texas' Adam Ulatoski, Penn State's Dennis Landolt and Notre Dame's Sam Young.

Indeed, the problem with Division II prospects is that no one has seen them play against much draftable talent. For the non-Division I players, the Combine can determine whether a player is a draft prospect or a free-agency target.

Chris Thomsen, whose program at Division II Abilene Christian in Texas has had three players drafted since 2006, said wide receiver Johnny Knox was a possible seventh-rounder before he ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. That turned him into a fifth-round pick.

"They already knew he was a guy they wanted," Thomsen said. "When he displayed elite speed, it made them look at him in a different light."

NFL scouts don't ignore the lower levels of football. Though some fans might see Knox as a draft-day coup for the Chicago Bears, most NFL teams are at least aware of draft prospects in FCS, Division II or Division III.

Of the 32 NFL teams, all but seven are members of either National Football Scouting or the BLESTO scouting service. When a scout from either of these organizations evaluates a prospect from any school, from USC to Hillsdale, the initial report is distributed to every team that subscribes to one of those services.

History lesson
Jared Veldheer would be the seventh player in history drafted out of Hillsdale. Two have gone on to notable NFL careers.

Kicker Chester Marcol was a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1972, and he kicked for nine seasons with the Packers and Houston Oilers.

Guard Howard Mudd was a ninth-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 1964 and played for seven seasons with the 49ers and Chicago Bears. He retired from his job as offensive line coach of the Indianapolis Colts earlier this month.

The NFL draft isn't an exact science, but as far as Veldheer is concerned, it's more of a science than college football recruiting. As a junior at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Forest Hills Northern, he participated in camps at Division I programs in the Big Ten and the MAC, but recruiting soon cooled. He played center in high school in a Wing T offense and didn't have the necessary footwork of an offensive tackle.

"I had no idea how to do that at the camps, so I was relying on basketball footwork," Veldheer said. "I was still 6-7, 250. You'd think someone would have seen the intangibles, but no one did."

Even Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein remembered Veldheer's high school film as simply "OK." Otterbein didn't get excited about Veldheer until seeing him play in person.

Veldheer started as a redshirt freshman. As a junior, he drew the eyes of scouts who evaluated two of his teammates, neither of whom were drafted.

Veldheer does have one advantage over his peers from Division I. His season ended on Nov. 21, well before any conference championship games and bowl games. All that time has allowed Veldheer to prepare for his big tryout at the Combine.

"I'm not worried about the Combine," Veldheer said. "A 40 [-yard dash] is a 40 coming from D-I or D-II. Bench press is a bench press. It's all stuff that I've done a hundred times. I'm not stressed about that. I know all my numbers at all the Combine stuff will be pretty good."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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