Four small-school NFL draft prospects you should know for 2023
With the explosion of websites, podcasts and analysis of the NFL draft, it can be hard to go unnoticed if you’re a Power 5 player with some potential.
But what if you’re a heptathlete in the Ivy League? Or a kid who played nine-man football in a town of about 500 in South Dakota? Or a quarterback in Division II?
These are the stories of players who toiled away from the bright lights, but through hard work and dedication still attracted the attention of NFL scouts and are hoping to hear their names called during the 2023 NFL draft on April 27-29 (coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN App).
College football reporters Ryan McGee, Harry Lyles Jr. and Bill Connelly take you inside the unconventional path taken by four of these prospects.
Tucker Kraft, tight end, South Dakota State
“No one is going to outgrind Tucker Kraft.”
That was South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier’s near-reflexive response last fall when asked about the Jackrabbits’ tight end as the team was hitting its stride toward the FCS postseason.
Don’t mistake FCS for little brother football, at least not in the Dakotas, where Kraft and the Jacks do battle with the neighboring North Dakota State Bison. Both schools have players scattered throughout pro football, but even still, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end stands tall and stands out. He always has. Thank the grind for that.
“My motor is always running because I don’t know how else to do it but work,” Kraft said shortly before he returned to the South Dakota State lineup this past midseason. He had been sidelined six weeks by leg injuries suffered during the very first drive of the campaign, a 7-3 loss at Iowa. “No one has ever given me anything or honestly expected much from me because of where I’ve come from. But I embrace that. I embrace that grind because it’s all I know.”
That’s a mindset formed from being the youngest of three boys, where every ball in the yard and biscuit on the table represented a battle of brothers. A life philosophy forged from playing nine-man high school football in Timberlake, South Dakota, population 509, and spending every Friday night playing quarterback, running back, linebacker and punter. It’s a drive that rose from the pain of losing his father at age 12 and watching his mother fight through multiple medical ailments in the years that followed her husband’s death.
All of that is what made Kraft, then a freshman, call home from SDSU, where he’d been redshirted by one of the two schools above Division II to even bother giving him a look, and declare to his mom that one day he was going to play in the NFL.
When Kraft finally hit the field in Brookings, he scorched it. In 2021, he caught 65 passes for 773 yards and six touchdowns, and was named to a pile of FCS All-American teams, but only in part because of those receiving stats.
Tucker Kraft’s NFL draft profile
Check out the highlights from South Dakota State’s tight end Tucker Kraft.
“Where he explodes on film is through his blocking,” further explained the man they call “Coach Stig.” “He can be overpowering because of his size, but also because of his speed. He’s a wide receiver in a tight end’s body.”
NFL scouts have taken notice of both, but also see work to be done in his mechanics, with a tendency to run loose routes and fall into bad habits of too-high blocking technique. But those who know Kraft, and especially Kraft himself, will tell you that he does his best work where there is work that must be done. See: his ahead-of-schedule recovery from surgery and late October return that served as a second wind for the Jacks, who completed a historic run to an FCS national title by romping over North Dakota State.
Another example is an admittedly disappointing showing at the draft combine, only to be followed up with a gap-closing performance at SDSU’s pro day in front of 23 NFL talent evaluators. Kraft sliced more than a 10th of a second off his 40-yard dash (from 4.69 to 4.5), and added 2 inches to his vertical jump (36.5) and five pounds to his body. Now the kid no FBS schools bothered to call is projected as a Day 2 pick at worst, following in the cleat steps of another Jackrabbits tight end, Philadelphia Eagles standout Dallas Goedert, a Day 2 selection in 2018.
“I think I made myself a little bit of money today,” he said to the media following his workout, laughing.
Thank the grind for that. — Ryan McGee
As somebody who also competed as a heptathlete, Princeton wide receiver Andrei Iosivas might be one of the best overall athletes in the NFL draft.
“I think the heptathlon kind of lets me show more on a numbers basis on how athletic I am,” he said. “I think the combine showed that as well, I’m just a really well-rounded athlete and all aspects of how I play and how I am.”
Iosivas indeed put on a show at the combine. He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash, had a 39-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump. He also put up 19 reps on the bench press, an impressive number for a wideout.
In his final season at Princeton, Iosivas had 66 catches for 943 yards and seven touchdowns.
Iosivas has always had the dream of being an NFL player, but his father also had a strong influence on his path.
“My dad was always really hard on me academically,” Iosivas said. “He came from Romania, so he came from a communist country and made it out of the mud and worked really hard to be where he was when he got to the U.S. So he always preached to me as an athlete, but he wanted to make sure that my academics were good as well.
Because of that, attending Stanford was his goal because of its standing as a Division I program in the Pac-12 that also has high academic standards. But because he wasn’t a huge recruit out of high school, he and his father had to do the legwork themselves.
“We did like an Ivy League tour. We did Princeton, Brown, Yale and Dartmouth and then Princeton and Dartmouth pretty much offered me on the spot after the camps,” Iosivas said. “I couldn’t really turn down Princeton, and I loved the coaching staff as well.
Iosivas said he felt like the path he took was much more difficult than most, and it has formed who he is.
“I think the experience [of] being a student athlete at Princeton is something that you can’t really get anywhere else, or even other Ivy League schools,” he said. “And I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
Despite not playing at a Power 5 school, Iosivas said he never worried about being discovered by pro scouts, trusting that as long as he took care of business on his end, “talent will always be found.” He did acknowledge that he likely would be drafted higher had he played somewhere other than Princeton. He is currently projected as high as a fourth-round pick.
Iosivas still feels like he has something to prove, despite getting to where he felt he always could.
“I just want to show everyone — I mean, even when I was at the combine, the Senior Bowl, I’m like, ‘These dudes aren’t better than me, and they’re still getting talked about over me,’ and all this kind of stuff. … But, you know, I always feel like I always have something to prove, even if I am a lot better than a lot of these dudes in front of me.” — Harry Lyles Jr.
Aubrey Miller Jr. saw every side of college football there was to see. As a three-star recruit, the linebacker had 25 offers, and started his career at Missouri in 2017.
“I just chose to go to Mizzou just because I thought that’s what the best competition was,” Miller said, referring to playing in the SEC. But after the Tigers moved on from head coach Barry Odom in favor of Eliah Drinkwitz, meaning Miller would have his third different position coach, he felt his time in Columbia was up.
While he initially committed to Arkansas State after deciding to leave Missouri, Deion Sanders convinced him to go to Jackson State, where he was one of the leaders of a defense that allowed just 13.5 points per game in 2022.
This past season, Miller had 40 solo tackles, two sacks and four forced fumbles en route to being named SWAC Defensive Player of the Year. Jackson State had an undefeated regular season before losing to North Carolina Central in the Celebration Bowl.
In total, Miller had 226 tackles, 23.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in 26 games at Jackson State. And while that was an impressive run, he understands he might not be looked at the same as other players.
“Not being from a Power 5, you’re going to be an underdog no matter what, no matter the things that you’ve done,” Miller said. “But that doesn’t stop me as well. Being in the Reese’s [Senior] Bowl kind of exposed a lot of things as far as me going against those type of guys.”
Miller said the biggest thing he got out of Jackson State and Sanders was “playing for a coach who’s a pro.”
“Of course, he knows the ins and outs of pro football if you talk about the NFL, you talk about college football, he was a high guy at all levels,” Miller said. “As far as effort-wise, as far as character-wise, teaching you things to say, how to carry myself, as far as how to be a pro on and off the field. Those are the things that he kind of taught me.”
As far as what kind of a player an NFL team would get if it drafted him, Miller describes himself as “old school” with his leadership, aggression and leading by example.
“I’m one of the hardest workers you’re ever going to find on the field,” he said. “As far as dedication-wise, sacrifice-wise, anything you can name that you see in a football player that actually wants to get where he wants to be, that’s me.
“It’s not much talking,” he said. “It’s kind of more of an action thing. … I just can’t wait to show it.” — Lyles Jr.
He’s 6-foot-3, 213 pounds — he’s not an undersized quarterback.
He’s got a huge arm and, per the combine measurements, rock solid athleticism and he’s not physically limited.
He started at a high-level Division II school for four years and brought his team to two playoff semifinals — he’s not a yards-over-success guy.
He completed 69% of his career passes — he’s not an all-or-nothing passer.
He lowered his interception rate every season while maintaining ridiculous production — he’s not a finished product.
He’s got the physical tools an NFL passer is supposed to have, and he wasn’t some wild “5-foot-8 in high school and enjoyed a late growth spurt” story. He thrived late in close games, leading his team on a number of two-minute drives, late comebacks and, in 2021, a pair of last-second playoff wins.
UNREAL! Tyson Bagent’s 24-yard TD pass to Josh Gontarek with 1.9 seconds left in the game lifts Shepherd to a 38-34 win over Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA D2 playoffs. pic.twitter.com/mu1GfDyjGF
— Andy Mason (@Andrew_M_Mason) November 27, 2021
Bruh give Tyson Bagent the Harlon Hill. He did it again!!! @SURamsFootball pic.twitter.com/OIG1PdkygE
— PJ Green (@PJGreenTV) December 4, 2021
So what the heck is the catch here? How did Tyson Bagent end up at Division II Shepherd? And how did he stay there for four seasons, 17,034 yards, 159 touchdowns and 44 wins?
“You know, I think there was a bias against the outside schools recruiting West Virginia players,” Shepherd coach Ernie McCook said. Bagent hails from Martinsburg, a town of less than 20,000 in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, 10 miles from the Shepherd campus. Even in the era of Hudl film, a pro-style prototype quarterback evidently can get overlooked.
“I was really surprised that [West Virginia] didn’t offer him,” McCook continued. “I think they were close, but they did not pull the trigger on that.” Bagent had offers from a couple of FCS schools, but Shepherd was an obvious draw. “We had played for a Division II national championship in 2015, and I really believe that it came down to him having a chance to play in front of his family and friends.” Bagent’s parents are both Shepherd grads.
McCook swears he knew what he had from the start. “When we were recruiting Tyson,” McCook said, “we felt he could be a four-year starter for us. After that first season, I thought that he had a chance to be a really special player.”
The main reason for his belief? A loss. “We had a tough loss against UVA Wise, and as things imploded around us as a team — and when you lose a game you don’t feel you should lose, you see everybody else losing their minds — Tyson just remained calm, cool, collected. He owned every mistake that happened, from an interception to a sack to a mishandled snap, and I can tell you, he didn’t create any of those mistakes. But he took it for everybody.”
The loss ended a 7-3 campaign for McCook’s Rams, who missed the Division II playoffs for the first time in four years. They would make up for it with seven playoff wins in Bagent’s final three seasons. He ended his career as one of the most celebrated players ever for a celebrated small-school program. The big schools’ loss was Shepherd’s — and now, perhaps, the NFL’s — gain. Bagent was invited to the NFL combine and projects as a late-round pick, somewhere between the No. 10 and No. 14 quarterback prospect on the board.
“When I first got into coaching 30-plus years ago, I remember recruiting a high school player, and the high school coach telling me he’s a ‘one in 10’ — a kid that you only get to coach one of these every 10 years,” McCook said. “I’ll never forget that because those are the great ones.
“Tyson, to me, is a once-in-a-lifetime guy.” — Bill Connelly