Small School Prospects Prove Their Worth at the Senior Bowl

Photo: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama, Georgia, USC, Michigan and Notre Dame are all programs known for their prestige and tradition. 

With a rich football history, it's easy to recognize all of them simply by their school colors and unique helmets. From the Crimson Tide's traditional numbers-only helmets to the golden dome colorway of the Fighting Irish, these are prospects that are easily noticeable and ones that everyone looks forward to seeing every season. 

Just like many other Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama, everyone glosses over the names that aren’t associated with those programs. Throughout their careers, it's hard for smaller school prospects to stand out because unlike bigger institutions, there are rare occurrences of where they're able to play on a national platform. A lot of those players are receiving their first taste of the spotlight, and it's always interesting to see who can sink or swim under the elements. 

Kyle Dugger, Adam Trautman, Ben Bartch and Jeremy Chinn have all aced their first test against the bigger competition with flying colors.

Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne

Hickory, North Carolina is a small town that many people have never heard of, but there's a big-time talent that many are now familiar with. Outside of top-ranked prospects like Javon Kinlaw and Justin Herbert, there hasn't been a player more impressive in Mobile than Dugger.

Dugger’s athleticism can be traced back to his mom, Kimberly, who was a standout basketball player at Fort Valley State. She was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009. His younger sister, Iyuna, followed in her footsteps at the same institution (2012-16). Dugger’s older brother, Patrick, played basketball at LaGrange. Dugger’s athletic career also began on the court where he fell in love with the game.

It wasn’t until high school that he began to develop a likeness for football. He served in a backup role at Whitewater High School and finally grew into his goofy frame his senior year. Dugger finished his final year with 80 tackles, five pass breakups and three interceptions. However, he still had just one productive season as a starter and only one scholarship offer from Lenoir-Rhyne. 

During his official visit, he was put through a workout, which was permitted at the Division II level and wowed then-graduate assistant Jake Copeland. Eventually signing with the Bears and redshirting his first year on campus (2014). The next season, he opened the year as the team’s starting cornerback. He finished the year with 43 tackles and four interceptions on his way to becoming named the South Atlantic Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year after 10 starts.

As a redshirt sophomore, he only saw action in one game following a meniscus injury. He bounced back and started 10 games in 2017 where he finished with 87 tackles and an interception. It continued into his junior campaign with 76 tackles and three interceptions, a new career-high, in 14 games. His value as a return specialist shined as he set a new program record with 534 punt return yards and two touchdowns.

The program hasn’t had a player drafted since John Milem was selected in the fifth round of the 2000 draft by the San Francisco 49ers. A Division II safety hasn’t been drafted since the Chicago Bears selected Danieal Manning with the No. 42-overall pick in the 2006 draft.

Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois

There are few prospects that wow me when seeing them up close and in person. Chinn had that type of effect. Seeing him measure at 6-foot-3, 219 pounds on a stage is one thing, but it's another to stand beside it an witness it. Chinn has been employed all over the field similar to his days in Southern Illinois, and he's had the same type of effect during the Senior Bowl.

Chinn began playing the game when he was seven years old after his mother, Nichelle Thurston, signed him for a youth football league. He played running back and developed his love for carrying the rock. At Fisher High School, that dwindled, as he was buried on the depth chart, but his head coach Ricky Wimmer came to him with a suggestion: switch to cornerback.

The move proved to be a blessing in disguise. He experienced a breakout senior year where he set records for career interceptions (seven), interceptions in a single season (four) and interception return yards. Despite his success, Southern Illinois, North Dakota and Colgate were the only three schools to offer him. Signing with the Salukis, his position was once again switched. This time to safety, and he was an instant hit.

As a true freshman (2016), he suffered an injury that kept him out of the first three games of the season. Following that point, he went on to appear in eight games (six starts) recording 51 tackles and three interceptions. His success carried over into a standout sophomore season collecting 66 tackles and three interceptions in 11 started. Chinn also recorded six pass breakups and four forced fumbles. It carried through the rest of his time at Southern Illinois and culminated into a Senior Bowl invite. 

Ben Bartch, St. John's (MN)

For many, the offensive line is one of the hardest positions to project. There's been plenty of hits and misses on early-, mid- and late-round selections, but it's rare to see a prospect come from the Division III ranks to stardom as we've seen from Ben Bartch. He began his career as a backup tight end. After playing in only four games through his first two seasons, he opted to make a transition to offensive tackle.

Arguably the best output of any offensive lineman in Mobile, he ironically began his career as a backup tight end. After playing in only four games through his first two seasons, he opted to make a transition to offensive tackle.

His journey involved drinking a milkshake that consisted of seven scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, oatmeal, peanut butter, Gatorade and bananas among many other ingredients. He gained 75 pounds as his weight ballooned to 310. In between sessions as a local strength coach he would find a way to drink more of his secret smoothie while also eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to bulk up.

Bartch has many parts to his story. It's easy to see why he continues to live in the moment despite what may be ensuing. He’s received lots of comparisons to former Division III prospect and Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet. Many think Bartch could have a similar type of career. The team that drafts him must remain patient, but the end result could be a budding success.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Jordan Reid is a Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Gaining experience from various lenses of the game, he has previously served as a college quarterback, position coach, and recruiting coordinator at North Carolina Central University. He now serves as a Color Commentator for FloSports, covering both high school and college football games around the country while also being the host of The Reid Option Podcast.