The fact that college football players can accept sponsorships and earn money was the first domino to fall in a rapidly changing NCAA landscape. Shortly after came the next domino, the consolidation of many Division I football programs into what a group of fans and commentators are calling "super conferences."
The nation's biggest football programs simply have more resources than their competitors to capitalize on this new economy, and they are seeking out the most powerful conferences to maximize their potential for a championship, as well as the monetary spoils that come with that pursuit. This consolidation of talent was sparked by the decisions of USC and UCLA to move from the PAC-12 to the Big Ten, along with Oklahoma and Texas planning to jump to the SEC from the Big 12.
Super Conferences Will Change Everything
What seems to be the inevitability of "super conferences" has been met with mixed reviews by fans. Just like the BCS system, the College Football Playoff and every other structural change to the sport over the last several decades, not all parties are completely satisfied. With this most recent change comes the painful realization that if you don't root for an elite program, your favorite school has an even steeper uphill battle to compete with the blue bloods like Alabama, Clemson and Georgia.
An interesting question to ask is will these "super conferences" change the NFL landscape? After all, in the first round of this past NFL draft, 12 draft picks came from the SEC and seven came from the Big Ten, and that's before conference realignment. But by the same token, players were also drafted from Northern Iowa, Tulsa, Tennessee-Chattanooga and North Dakota State within the first 34 picks.
The reality is that even though we could see an NCAA football future with only two or three dominant conferences, there are many critical players on almost every NFL roster that were overlooked and never received an opportunity to play at a big time Division I football program. They never would have gotten a sniff in a world with elite super conference rosters, but now their individual success is critical if their NFL franchise hopes to compete for a Super Bowl. However the FBS evolves, it's hard to imagine that there won't be a place in the NFL for overlooked talent, or for the late bloomer, or for the talented athlete who switches positions while at a small school.
In no particular order, let's take a look at 10 players from small programs who are having a massive impact at the NFL level.
Josh Allen - QB, Buffalo Bills - Wyoming
One of the early front runners for MVP, Josh Allen went to junior college at Reedley College in California. Allen didn't even start every game during his time in JUCO and after two solid seasons, he reportedly sent emails to every FBS football program, receiving only two offers from Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. Now, the Super Bowl hopes of every table-smashing fan in northern New York are riding squarely on the cannon attached to Allen's right shoulder.
Shaquille Leonard - ILB, Indianapolis Colts - South Carolina State
Shaquille Leonard has been a dominant force in the middle of the defense for the Indianapolis Colts since leading the league in tackles as a rookie. Things weren't any different at South Carolina State, where Leonard was a two-time conference defensive player of the year. The three-time NFL first-team All-Pro, who asked to be referred to by his middle name "Shaquille" during the off-season, began this year on the physically unable to perform list following off-season back surgery. The Colts desperately need him to make a full recovery to anchor the defense after he forced twelve turnovers on his own last season.
Adam Thielen - WR, Minnesota Vikings - Minnesota State
Adam Thielen's only college football offer was a $500 scholarship to Division II Minnesota State. Thielen wasn't invited to the NFL combine and went undrafted. After he was cut by the Vikings, he spent all of 2013 on the practice squad. While Thielen might not be the same caliber player that earned back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2017 and 2018, he still finished last season with double-digit touchdown receptions. Alongside budding superstar receiver Justin Jefferson, Thielen has a critical role in a Vikings passing attack that has big expectations on it under first-year coach Kevin O'Connell, who was previously the offensive coordinator for Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.
Terron Armstead - OT, Miami Dolphins - Arkansas-Pine Bluff
After three Pro Bowl appearances with the New Orleans Saints, offensive tackle Terron Armstead signed a $75 million dollar deal this offseason to play the important role of protecting Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. In college at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Armstead won three All-SWAC conference awards playing on the offensive line for a program that sports only one conference championship in over 50 years of participation in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Matthew Judon - OLB, New England Patriots - Grand Valley State
Matthew Judon was drafted in the fifth round after setting the Division II sack record for Grand Valley State in Michigan. Judon has reached the Pro Bowl in three consecutive seasons, including last year with the Patriots when he had a career high 12.5 sacks. His presence on the Patriots pass rush is vital if the team hopes to take a step forward following last season's lopsided playoff loss, in which they allowed the Bills to score a touchdown or take a knee on every possession of the game.
Patrick Ricard - FB, Baltimore Ravens - Maine
I know, a fullback on a list like this seems crazy. But Patrick Ricard is not just any fullback. Ricard played on the defensive line at the University of Maine, but despite a pretty successful career he went undrafted in 2017. After signing with the Ravens, Ricard found his true calling as a fullback (though he has also appeared on defense and special teams during his career) and has since been selected to the Pro Bowl three times. An injury forced Ricard to miss several games in 2021, which impacted an already severely depleted Ravens running game. After signing a new three-year-deal with the Ravens, a healthy Ricard remains incredibly important to what has been one of the league's most prolific ground attacks since his arrival in Baltimore.
Skyy Moore - WR, Kansas City Chiefs - Western Michigan
Chiefs second-round pick Skyy Moore has big shoes to fill following the departure of wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins. Moore played quarterback and defensive back in high school but switched to wide receiver during his time at Western Michigan. Kansas City is hoping the skills that allowed Moore to have 10 receiving touchdowns during a dominant final season in college translate quickly to the NFL, because the offense has to make up for nearly 200 catches and 2500 receiving yards that Hill collected over the last two years alone.
Austin Ekeler - RB, Los Angeles Chargers - Western Colorado University
Austin Ekeler played college football at Western Colorado and despite leading all of Division II with more than 200 all-purpose yards per game, he went undrafted. Last year, Ekeler tied Colts running back Jonathan Taylor for the NFL lead in rushing and receiving touchdowns with 20 combined scores. His ability as a dual-threat out of the backfield makes the Chargers a force in the competitive AFC West.
Trey Lance - QB, San Francisco 49ers - North Dakota State
Power 5 schools wanted Trey Lance to convert to wide receiver or defensive back following his high school career. Instead, Lance opted to stick with quarterback and play at North Dakota State, where he won an FCS National Championship. His mesmerizing ability as both a rusher and passer was enough to get him selected No. 3 overall in the 2021 draft. Now in what is likely his first full-year as a starter for the 49ers, Lance has to show that he can run an NFL offense with the same potency he did in college.
Cooper Kupp - WR, Los Angeles Rams - Eastern Washington
Cooper Kupp finished the 2022 NFL season leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns to go along with his Super Bowl MVP award. However, coming out of high school Kupp didn't even get a scholarship offer until weeks after he completed his final game. Kupp eventually torched the FCS record books during his time as a receiver at Eastern Washington. He enters this season demanding the attention of every NFL secondary, as the Rams attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions.