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Jumping In From A Small School

Posted May 27, 2014

Cardinals like Veldheer, Bethel, Powell find transition needs work

New Cardinals left tackle Jared Veldheer (68), here going through a drill in OTAs, came from small Hillsdale College.

Just a few weeks into his career, wide receiver Walter Powell has quickly realized how far he is from his old life at Murray State.

The sixth-round pick’s workday with the Cardinals begins at 6 a.m. and can sometimes last 12 hours. The playbook is 10 times larger than the one he had with the Racers, and he runs drills next to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.

For some players, the transition to the professional ranks can be eased by playing at a big-name college, where the competition is high and tutelage can come from coaches with NFL experience. For small-school rookies like Powell, there’s often very little of either until they hit this stage.

“At a small school everything had been mainly simplified so everyone could get it,” Powell said. “Here, you’ve got to learn on the run.”

There’s no denying the uphill battle rookies must climb, as new surroundings, a new system and a new league can be overwhelming for even the most polished player. But one thing coach Bruce Arians has shown in his tenure with the Cardinals is his willingness to give playing time to youngsters if they’ve earned it.

Safety Tyrann Mathieu became a starter early last season, running back Andre Ellington saw significant time after he proved his worth and offensive guard Jonathan Cooper was expected to start from Day One until he broke his leg in the preseason.

While every player fights for snaps, Arians said he sometimes sees an extra level of determination from the small school players who didn’t have the ideal college experience.

“The small school guys that I’ve dealt with in the past have usually come in with a chip on their shoulder and you have to throw them out,” Arians said. “They’re going to do everything it takes to win the job. That’s what got them here.”

Left tackle Jared Veldheer has cemented himself as an NFL standout, but from 2006 through 2009 he played at Division II Hillsdale, a liberal arts college with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 1,350 students. The experience there helped shape him as a player.

“It’s not only a chip, but what you learn character-wise going to a small school,” Veldheer said. “You’re not playing on big Saturday night games on ESPN. You don’t have stadiums full of thousands of people. You’re just out there with your teammates playing football for the love of the game. You kind of take that with you to the next step. That’s why you see a handful of small school guys doing very well in the NFL, just because they’re really playing football with that fundamental love for it.”

It’s human nature to be a bit star-struck at first, as small school players transition from non-descript locker rooms in places such as Murray, Kentucky or Hillsdale, Michigan to one which includes NFL superstars. Arians said the key is “how fast they get over the ‘Wow’ factor of, ‘There’s Larry Fitzgerald or there’s so-and-so in the locker room.’”

Once a small-school rookie feels like he belongs, Arians said the biggest adjustment is the same his big-school brethren must face – mastering the mental part so the athleticism can shine.

“The hardest things for all the young guys is learning the language so their brains don’t kill their feet – they can’t run because they don’t know where they’re going because they’re trying to decipher information,” Arians said. “Once you learn the information, it’s just your football skills – your skill-set versus somebody else’s.”

The NFL has a large share of big-school players who have gone on to stardom, but there’s also no shortage of elite players from small-school backgrounds, from Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) to Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson (Northern Colorado).

Cardinals third-round pick John Brown came out of Pittsburg State and is already drawing rave reviews from Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer, while special teams ace Justin Bethel made the Pro Bowl last season, his second in the league out of Presbyterian. The Cardinals took cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out of Tennessee State in the first round in 2008, and drafted cornerback Greg Toler from Saint Paul’s College in 2009.

While the small-school route may not be as common, players have shown the ability to adjust.

“Even if you’re from a top-tier college program, when you come to the NFL it’s completely different,” Veldheer said. “You have to learn a bunch of things and adjust to the pace. I didn’t really look at myself as a guy coming from a small school taking that huge next step. I just looked at is as, ‘Hey, I’m a rookie and I need to get up to speed, learn how to play at the NFL level and get ready.’”

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