MINNEAPOLIS — The Fighting Irish are represented less than one pace to the left. An Oklahoma Sooner towers the same distance to the right. Smack dab between them is a guy from, you guessed it, Slippery Rock University, home of a team that calls itself “The Rock.”
“I hear it’s right up there with those other two in football,” said Vikings center and the Notre Dame guy John Sullivan, tongue firmly buried in cheek.
As the college football season kicks off this week, the verbal jabs between NFL teammates begin in earnest. Brandon Fusco, the Vikings’ starting right guard from NCAA Division II Slippery Rock, isn’t the only easy target.
“Last year, when I was in Cincinnati, I decided to talk some,” said Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson, who went to Coastal Carolina, from NCAA Division I’s second level, the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
“I was going around telling everybody that Coastal Carolina was going to kick Georgia’s butt. Truly, I didn’t think we had much of a chance. But I said it like I meant it.”
Georgia 59, Coastal Carolina 0.
The beauty of the NFL, however, is it’s an equal-opportunity employer. If an individual has what it takes physically, mentally and emotionally, his color, creed and alma mater’s stadium capacity are irrelevant.
The Vikings have four players from Division II and 10 from FCS schools on their 75-man roster. That explains some of the wide eyes the night of Aug. 4 when the Vikings scrimmaged in front of 10,500 fans at Minnesota State Mankato’s Blakeslee Stadium.
“(Rookie cornerback) Bobby Felder came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I’ve never had this many people at one of my games in college (Nicholls State),’ ” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, that puts it in perspective.’ For those guys, it’s a motivator to show guys from the Big Ten or the SEC that, ‘You know what, I could have played in your league, I’m going to make it in the NFL.’ ”
Felder’s last home game at Guidry Stadium in Thibodaux, La., was witnessed by 5,466 fans. The Colonels’ only victory during a 1-10 season drew just 2,489 fans to Guidry Stadium.
At least two of the Vikings’ four Division II guys will contribute this season. Fusco will start, and Joe Berger (Michigan Tech) is the top backup at center and guard. Receiver Stephen Burton (West Texas A&M) could help at receiver, while linebacker Larry Dean (Valdosta State), a special teams standout as a rookie last year, is in the mix again this preseason.
Meanwhile, the FCS players represent a wide range of talent. Some won’t make the team. Some are practice-squad candidates such as quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson (Sacramento State). Some are projected starters such fullback Jerome Felton. And one is a league superstar and reigning sack king named Jared Allen (Idaho State).
“Maybe there’s a higher work ethic for all of us just because you know you have to work a little harder coming from a small school,” said Allen, who had a franchise-record 22 sacks a year ago. “But I’m a firm believer that in football you get out of it what you put into it. If you’re willing to learn techniques and learn assignments and realize you did something good enough to get you here, you’ll be fine. Football is kind of simple. Once you know what you’re doing, you’ll make plays.”
The reasons NFL-caliber players choose small schools can vary from player to player. Academics can play a key role. Sometimes, a kid just isn’t done growing.
When it was time for Fusco to leave Cranberry Township, Pa., his only choices were Slippery Rock and Youngstown State, an FCS school just over the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
“The University of Buffalo had some interest, but not a whole lot,” Fusco said. “Then again, I was probably about 6-3, 220 pounds in high school. I was pretty thin. I didn’t take the weight room as seriously as I do now.”
Small-school players with NFL aspirations know the climb will be a steep one. Fusco was the first player from Slippery Rock ever invited to the NFL scouting combine. He also became the highest-drafted player in school history when the Vikings took him in the sixth round with the 172nd overall pick of last year’s draft.
“Those small-school guys that make it have that ‘want-to,’ ” Vikings special teams coach Mike Prieffer said. “They want to practice. They want to be coached.
“Look at a guy like Marc Mariani, the returner with the Tennessee Titans. He was a seventh-round pick (No. 222 in 2010). He came from Montana. You look at what he did in college and if he had come from Oklahoma or Texas, he’d have been a third-rounder.”
In his fourth NFL game in 2010, Mariani returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. In his 11th game, he took a punt 87 yards for a touchdown. He made the Pro Bowl, where he set the record for most return yards in a game (326).
Some NFL hopefuls try on their own to map the best route to the NFL. Burton, the Vikings receiver, got some great advice from a person who knew little about the NFL: Jan Burton, his mom.
“After my junior college year, I had Oregon, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kansas looking at me,” Burton said. “But I would have had to sit out 2009 for classes. I asked my mom, ‘What do you think? Do I sit out a year or do I go Division II and play right away?’ She looked at me and said, ‘If you play well, the NFL will see you anywhere.’ So I went D-II.”
Sullivan remembers draft day last year when the Vikings selected Fusco, a college center who had never played guard before.
“My initial reaction was I hope he can play,” Sullivan said. “But, honestly, anymore, you really can’t judge a guy based just on the size of his alma mater. Although I will say we’re constantly imitating Fusco because he has this weird Pennsylvania Dutch accent.”
Fusco remembers his sometimes overwhelming transition to the NFL. He played in three games with no starts as a rookie but quickly turned heads with his Shrek-ian strength.
“There’s always going to be a little jab here and there for the guys from smaller schools,” Fusco said. “It’s all in good fun. But I had confidence in my game. I compete with these guys, and I shut them up a little bit sometimes.”