As a talent evaluator, scouting “small-school” prospects can be a tricky process. Of course, by “small-school” we’re really talking about low tier FBS or non-FBS colleges. The difference in the evaluation comes with the level of competition, and judging traits outside of the context of opposing talent.
I have a few rules before I “plant my flag” in a school-school prospect. First, I have to be sure that they are an NFL-level athlete. While low tier FBS and FCS schools are still filled with players who grew up as the best players on their high schools teams, the NFL only has 1,500 or so active roster positions. You truly have to be a superb athlete to cut it in the league.
Another rule is that there needs to be refinement in their game. The idea of molding raw athletes into productive NFL players has had varying success, but it’s so much more of a projection when raw athletes come from the lower levels. Often, along with refinement comes production. Not all productive players from the FCS would have had similar production at a Power-5 school, but when you add in that athleticism and refinement, you can get a legitimate NFL prospect.
There is an FCS receiver that I have come across that qualifies under all of these rules, and his name is Juston Christian of Marist College.
Christian didn’t receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, but there is still quantifiable athleticism to judge. Christian was a track and field athlete while in high school. He was the Maryland Indoor State Champion in the 55 meter with a time of 6.51 seconds. Months later at the Maryland Outdoor State Championships, Christian finished second in the 200 meter run.
Christian participated at the University of Buffalo’s Pro Day, posting numbers that would have stood out at the NFL Scouting Combine. He was timed on a stopwatch at 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash, meaning he is likely a low-to-mid 4.4s prospect. His explosiveness was equally as impressive, as he posted a broad jump of 10 feet and 6 inches, as well as a vertical jump of 36 inches. Those marks would be good for the 83rd and 57th percentiles among NFL wide receivers, respectively.
Christian has been a four-year contributor for the Marist Red Foxes, posting over 4,000 career receiving yards. In his senior season, Christian set a school record with 15 touchdowns. For his career, he’s averaged over 21 yards per reception.
Christian has the preferred athleticism and production, so let’s talk about that refinement. After grinding some of his tape, you can clearly see the traits of a future NFL wide receiver.
Christian’s game starts at the line of scrimmage, with varied and versatile press releases. With crisp feet and lateral mobility, he does an excellent job of avoiding contact while still maintaining his vertical line. On top of that, he’s turned around defensive backs on a consistent basis against FCS competition.
While his yards per receptions suggests an obvious vertical threat, Christian’s footwork translates to the entire route tree. Watch how smooth he transitions from his vertical re-stem and into his curl break on this rep against Bryant University:
While enticing, Christian’s game isn’t limited to sound footwork and fluid route running. When he gets the ball with some space to work, he can be difficult to bring down because of how flexible and balanced he is:
Let’s be honest, though, gentle reader. Your interest peaked when I mentioned Christian’s career yards per reception. You want to know if he projects as a legitimate deep threat in the NFL, a spot where he could carve out a future role.
While Christian is fluid and has the track and field background, this isn’t necessarily a player with Tyreek Hill's speed. But that doesn’t disqualify him as a deep threat, as his route nuance consistently creates vertical separation. Against Davidson, he was getting funneled inside and covered over the top by a safety. Christian processes the coverage, opens his hips to threaten towards the outside, and wins back across the safety’s face. He may not have truly elite speed, but he’s sure making the safety look slow here:
The crazy part is that Christian had even more impressive reps from that Davidson game. On a similar route, he again gets the safety to turn his hips towards the sideline. On this rep, notice Christian’s acceleration out of his vertical cut, and how he adjusts his path to the deep ball. Those are the necessary traits of a vertical threat in the NFL:
But wait, there’s more from the Davidson game. Working from the slot right, Christian has to avoid contact and get vertical over the linebacker. Check out this mean rocker step move he uses against the safety, Again, he wins across face and has enough juice to finish the run after catch:
The thing that I truly like about Christian’s game is that his game isn't limited while he is crowded. What I mean by that is, in tight quarters, he can be equally as effective as when he’s created separation for himself. He has the awareness and possession traits needed to consistently catch the ball through contested spots.
On this rep, he uses a discrete forearm shiver to allow for separation right before the throw arrives. On top of that, he shows off the body control necessary to toe-tap the sideline. That is a lethal combination of athletic traits and natural feel for creating an uncontested catch point.
With his positive showing at Buffalo’s Pro Day and multiple seasons worth of impressive tape, Christian has positioned himself to be an option for teams late in the NFL Draft. For a player who wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, that’s an impressive feat. Even if he is looked over in the NFL Draft, expect him to be a priority undrafted free agent with upside. His projection as a deep threat gives him an inside track to making an NFL roster.
*Cover photo credit: Marist College Athletics*