Players from small schools find NFL homes - KMOV.com

Players from small schools find NFL homes

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Last fall, Keith Null and Mike Reilly were opposing quarterbacks combining for 91 points, 883 yards passing and eight touchdowns in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Never in their wildest dreams did the small-time gunslingers from West Texas A&M and Central Washington think they'd end up St. Louis Rams teammates.

"It's very weird that it happened that way," Null said. "Pretty cool, too, to have another guy in the league that was a Division II quarterback."

It's quite a jump to make at any position, even if the Rams are 1-14 and closing in on the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft. The vast majority of NFL rosters are populated by players accustomed to refining their game where television time-outs are commonplace.

Entering the last two weeks of the season, according to the NFL and the Rams, only 72 players were on the 53-man rosters or injured reserve from college's lower divisions, including 49 of them from Division II.

In addition, nine players came from Division III, four from NAIA schools, two who didn't make it past junior college, five from foreign colleges and two who had zero college experience.

That's just over two players per team.

"It's kind of few and far between us," Reilly said. "Let alone somebody you played against."

The Rams and Redskins each had five lower-division players, while the Cardinals, Eagles, Bears, Lions and Browns had four each and the Texans three, one of them on injured reserve.

Precious few are recognizable names. Perhaps the best known current player is Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (Division III John Carroll), who began his career with St. Louis and has 10 straight 100-tackle seasons. Maybe you've heard of these Division II alumni: Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver (Carson Newman), Cardinals guard Reggie Wells (Clarion) and Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox (Abilene Christian).

Needles in a haystack, all. And it's tough enough making your mark coming out of Southern California, Texas or Michigan.

"There's a learning curve no matter where you played or whether you're a first-round pick," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "Now add in the fact you're coming from a smaller school and that learning curve's going to be longer, especially at certain positions. This is almost like a redshirt year for those guys."

Null's NFL baptism has been rocky, with nine interceptions and a lost fumble to go with three touchdown passes in three games. One of the picks in Sunday's loss at Arizona was by rookie Greg Toler, the first player drafted out of Division II St. Paul's College (Va.).

At least he's playing. Another Division II product, guard Roger Allen III from Missouri Western, is set to make his first career start this Sunday, against the 49ers.

"Everybody in the league, they evaluated Null, they evaluated Allen, all the other guys," Devaney said. "We just see some talent and ability while understanding we kind of label them as projects and developmental guys. They've got skills, they just need refinement."

Null did enough at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas, putting up huge numbers and showing off a strong arm, to persuade the Rams to take him in the sixth round of last April's draft. The Rams didn't anticipate using Null during his rookie season before injuries to Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller forced their hand.

He threw five interceptions in his debut at Tennessee and has added five more turnovers since, but he's gotten high marks for composure during the on-the-job training.

Reilly, who spent the preseason with Pittsburgh and had a brief stint with the Packers, began his college career at Division I Washington State before transferring. He was a four-year starter at Central Washington and holds the NCAA all-divisions record with at least one touchdown pass in 46 career games.

"It was a great experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything," Reilly said. "I made it to my ultimate goal and have been given this opportunity a lot of people would kill for, so I'm happy."

Before landing with the Rams, Reilly and Null knew each other by reputation and from their experience on the field in their Division II playoff shootout. They've spent countless hours in meeting rooms the last several weeks with enough free time to compare notes on the unusual route they've taken to the NFL.

"When Keith got drafted we were all really excited for him," Reilly said. "It's kind of a fraternity, a small group of guys. To have us both in this locker room, it's pretty cool."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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