The Pro Football Hall of Fame includes plenty of members who learned the game at smaller schools, and there are scores of others who carved out solid NFL careers despite coming from places that don't get attention the way the powerhouse programs do.
Larry Allen, Darrell Green, Deacon Jones, Jerry Rice and Walter Payton are just a few of them. Don't forget Howie Long, John Randle, Andre Reed, Phil Simms or Kurt Warner, either.
Each summer, mixed in among the league's latest group of rookies, a handful of new prospects from the lower NCAA levels are scattered about training camp sites around the country. Some of them will make the team. Others will land on a practice squad. The rest will become free agents again, having to prove their skills anew. All of them are carrying the hope of becoming the next NFL star to hail from an unheralded college or university.
Here are six such prospects this year with a legitimate opportunity to stay on the roster when the regular season begins:
— Rufus Johnson, Tarleton State linebacker, New Orleans Saints.
Johnson is raw but big at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds with speed coaches like, and his chance to crack the roster will be enhanced by his status as a sixth-round draft pick, 183rd overall. He's been getting second- and third-team snaps in practice at outside linebacker in the Saints' new 3-4 scheme.
The Lone Star Conference's defensive lineman of the year, Johnson had 50 tackles and 10 sacks as a defensive end last season. The Saints have a decent track record of mining top talent from small schools, including All-Pro guard Jahri Evans (Division II Bloomsburg), running back Chris Ivory (Division II Tiffin, now with the New York Jets), wide receiver Marques Colston (Hofstra, which has since disbanded its FCS team) and left tackle Jermon Bushrod (FCS Towson), a three-year starter now with the Chicago Bears.