The journey of a small school draft prospect
In an interview with Dakota State linebacker and NFL hopeful Eric Liles, AJ looks at the difficult road that small school draft prospects face as they look to achieve their dream
By AJ Young - April 8 2013
Jump to interview
[Editor’s note: Before I start, it’s probably best to provide a brief explanation of the structure of college football in case you aren’t familiar with your FBS and FCS’s. The top level of college football is the FBS – the Football Bowl Subdivision. Comprised of approximately 120 schools, from your Alabama’s right down to your Western Kentucky’s, it’s the highest standard of football in the land (and the one that generates your billion dollar TV contracts). Below that is the FCS – the Football Championship Subdivision. Divided into three tiers (Division I, II and III), these are your small schools, your lesser-known’s. Unlike the FBS, players don’t play in packed 100,000 seater stadium’s and take flights to games; here athletes ride the bus and play in front of far smaller crowds.]
A 6-1, 246 lbs linebacker out of Dakota State, Eric Liles is one of the many small school prospects hoping to make an NFL roster this spring. After four years at the university based in Madison, South Dakota, where he racked up 395 tackles, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 11 pass defences and 5 interceptions during his career, Liles is hoping to be one of the few small school prospects given an opportunity to play at the next level.
Liles’ small school status doesn’t preclude him from being drafted, nor does it is prevent a team from signing him as an undrafted free agent. Like other small school prospects, it just means his chances are narrower than a prospect from an FBS school. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of small school players drafted that have turned out to be successful pros. Marques Colston attended Hofstra, a school that doesn’t even have a football program anymore; in the same draft, the Saints found four time All Pro guard Jahri Evans who attended Bloomsburg – a Division II school based in Pennsylvania. The likes of London Fletcher, Robert Mathis, Jared Allen, Victor Cruz, Pierre Garçon, and DeMarcus Ware all come from non-FBS schools. Some were picked in the draft whilst others went undrafted but one way or another they made NFL rosters and have shown that there’s plenty of talent out there that didn’t play football on a Saturday in front of thousands of fans for an FBS school.
That’s all well and good but the aforementioned players were all FCS prospects – players who played at Division I, II and III schools. Eric Liles played football for Dakota State of the NAIA (the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). FCS players might not have played in front of tens of thousands like their FBS brethrens but they still played in stadiums with four figure attendances. NAIA players are lucky to get a couple of hundred spectators watching them. If the chances of getting an NFL opportunity are narrow for FCS prospects, they’re extremely slim for NAIA players. As Liles says, you have small schools and then you’ve got “micro small schools”.
You might think that because Liles played football for an NAIA school that he has no chance of earning a spot on a training camp roster, let alone being drafted. You’d be wrong. One notable recent example of an NAIA player enjoying NFL success is Derrick Ward, the Giants running back who was part of New York’s three headed rushing attack alongside Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Ward earned a Super Bowl ring with the Giants after spending part of his college career at Ottawa – that’s Ottawa Kansas, not Ottawa Canada. Former Cowboys and Chargers wide receiver, Patrick Crayton spent 8 years in the NFL earning second team All Pro honors in 2009 following his career at NWOSU – Northwestern Oklahoma State University based in Alva, Oklahoma. Finally, Tremaine Brock was a part of San Francisco’s Super Bowl run last season with contributions on special teams and as a part of the 49ers cornerback rotation; he played his college football at Belhaven in Jackson, Mississippi. These are a handful of recent NAIA players that actually made NFL rosters, a few of the lucky ones. It shows that NAIA players aren’t exempt from getting an opportunity.
It’s also worth mentioning that if Liles is drafted, he won’t be the first player drafted from Dakota State. In the 1974 NFL Draft, Darwin Williams was selected in the 8th round by the Washington Redskins. Nearly 40 years later however, the league landscape has changed greatly – there isn’t even an 8th round anymore. As a ball carrier at running back, Williams would have had greater potential to attract the eyes of scouts than a linebacker like Liles. If Liles were to be drafted it would be all the more impressive but it goes to show that a player from Dakota State has been drafted before.
Making an NFL roster is a numbers game. At the start of summer training camp, teams are allowed a maximum of 90 players on their roster. With 32 teams in the league, a maximum of 2,880 players will be on an NFL payroll in late July. A significant proportion of that 90 will be comprised of undrafted free agents; camp bodies. At the tail end of the NFL draft (where 256 picks are made), teams will already be calling prospects that they figure won’t be drafted – players who they’d like to sign as undrafted free agents. This is where a lot of small school guys are given an opportunity. That’s their foot in the door, their chance to show that they have what it takes to be a pro. That’s their chance to fight and give their all as they try to make the final roster. Not only do undrafted free agents get that lucrative opportunity but they also get paid. Signing bonuses are normally in the region of $3,000 to $6,000 but could be as high as $20,000. In addition, all their travel and living expenses are taken care of by teams. At the end of camp, teams have to cut their roster down to 53 players plus 8 members of the practice squad. The initial 2,880 becomes a maximum of 1,952 in the space of little over a month. Naturally, the bulk of the nine hundred or so players cut are undrafted free agents - small school guys. Even so, there are hundreds of players that aren’t even afforded the opportunity of a training camp roster spot and at the end of the day, that’s all small school guys want. An opportunity.
To give you further insight into the troubles that small school guys face, I was fortunate enough to interview Eric who’s about as hungry and humble as they come. The journey of a small school draft prospect is a difficult one:
AJ: For draft hopefuls that played football at the FBS level, their path to the draft appears quite straightforward. It roughly goes along the lines of finishing the season, attending the NFL Scouting Combine, working out for scouts at their school’s Pro Day and soon enough it’s the draft. Tell us a bit about how different things are for a small school guy.
Eric Liles: The draft process is entirely different in many ways for a small school guy like me looking to make their dream come true. First off the hardest part is getting opportunities and exposure to showcase your talent in front of scouts. Attending the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days, all-star games, and workouts seem effortless and expected for guys at the FBS level. It’s a rarity for small school hopefuls to get invited to the major all-star games, regardless of what they did in college. Despite being one of the most productive players in all of college football I’m still overlooked because of the level of play. I knew finding an agent who is willing to represent me would be quite the challenge. I didn’t have agents knocking at my door throwing money at me. Thus, after the season I had to make a football résumé and send it off to potential agents. Small school guys have to reach out and keep reaching out until they get results. After reaching out to quite a few agents, I started to get feedback, most of which was harsh and disappointing. Tons of agents will shoot you down and make you feel worthless and the agents who are willing to sign you are desperate for clients. I was fortunate enough to have a productive career and good tape so I had a few agents who were willing to represent me.
After signing with my agent Harold Bicknell we knew we needed to get into an all-star game to showcase what I can do. Demonstrating that you can play with the big boys is a must for small school guys. Thus, I just wanted to get an invite to the Texas vs. Nation game or Casino del Sol game where heaps of scouts could evaluate me. I then could have made a name for myself and got the interest of scouts. After weeks of reaching out it never happened sadly. They invited some small school guys just not “micro small school” guys like me. After not getting into a major all-star game I knew this was going to be a longer process. It’s very discouraging especially when you have the talent to excel and get your name on team’s radars. The majority of the smaller all-star games are often not worth going to and just want to take advantage of athletes pro dreams so they can make money from them. They claim to have scouts at these games and claim the game will be on national television but it’s all lies and a way to make money! The games I was invited to cost anywhere from $300 to $700 and no guarantee that NFL scouts will be in attendance. By the time the all-star games are over its February/March and hardly anybody knew who I was. Now it’s time for combines and pro days and that’s an everyday struggle as well. Some FBS level hopefuls have the opportunity to showcase their talents at the National Scouting Combine and almost everyone has a pro day at their university. My college or any surrounding colleges did not have a pro day so I had to reach out once again and try to get into a pro day. After sending a ton of emails trying to get into a pro day, I was unsuccessful. So what seems to be something that is handed to the mainstream guys is very difficult to get as a small school guy. My plan was to attend Arizona State’s pro day but they did not allow unattached athletes. The opportunities that big school athletes are fortunate enough to have I am fighting exceptionally hard just to have one of those opportunities. That’s why I’m appreciative of the opportunities given.
AJ: For guys at the top of the draft, their agents usually foot the bill for all of the pre-draft expenses incurred like training facilities, flights etc. How are things different for you?
Eric Liles: I pay for absolutely everything out of my own pocket, which adds up rapidly and forces a lot of guys to just workout at their college. My training cost $5,500 for 12 weeks and that’s doesn’t include housing, meals, or transportation costs. I attend the Freedom Bowl in South Carolina, that cost $600 plus I had to pay for my flight. Attending that game cost me roughly $1,500 and no NFL scouts were in attendance even though they claimed there were. I also went to the BSN Showcase which cost $375 to attend and again I had to purchase flight tickets myself. That trip cost me around $800. Next I attended the Atlanta NFL regional combine which cost $225 to register, plus the flight, hotel, and rental car. That trip cost me about $1,900. These expenses add up and people simply cannot afford to attend these events and are forced to miss out on opportunities. We don’t have people throwing cleats and Under Armor gear at us for free. Since my sophomore year I knew I was going to have to pay for my training expenses and whatnot so I started saving up. Being a struggling college student, it’s hard to save up money but I knew it’s what I had to do. I scheduled all morning classes so I would finish class by the afternoon. Then I went to work at an appliance store and installed fridges, washers and dryers until I had to go to football meetings and practice. I then had a night job delivering pizzas from 7:00 pm to 1:00 am four nights a week. That’s how I’m paying for the majority of my expenses and my parents try to do whatever they can as well. I would say I’m roughly $10,000 dollars in so far and that’s tough because there’s no guarantee that I will get drafted and make a ball club but I have faith in my abilities. It’s rough to spend a bunch of time and money when there’s a chance you won’t even get your shot.
AJ: What is your typical daily schedule like as you prepare for the draft?
Eric Liles: I train 5 hours per day, 5 days a week and do yoga on the weekends with my trainer Aaron Robinson. I don’t have all the bells and whistles like the bigger prospects. I don’t have someone cooking me food or specific trainers to help with recovery or interview prep or someone paying for my living expenses. I simply have a weight room, field, and a trainer who believes in me and that’s all I need. I typically spend 3 hours in the weight room and another 2 on the field. We super-set everything I do in the weight room. For instance on upper body days, I will bench first and in between bench I’d have 4 rapid exercises to do right away leaving little time for rest. We spend a lot of time targeting the smaller muscles and focus on endurance. Keep in mind it’s just me and my trainer so the workouts get intense quickly. For example when we work with the speed ladder, as soon as I get to one end I have to turn around and keep going. I enjoy getting the individual attention but you have to be self-motivated in order to be successful. On the field we focus on speed, technique, and conditioning. We don’t spend a lot of time on combine type training but rather positional work. We work on opening my hips and improving my overall linebacker skills to ensure I’m at my best once camp time comes around. Saturdays are my treatment day where I get a deep tissue massage for one hour and do a ton of stretching. I spend a lot of time watching film and seeing what I can improve on. I study defensive schemes and watch film on some of the great linebackers too.
AJ: Draft hopefuls from FBS schools who have agents subsidizing their path to the draft will often have the added benefit of a personal nutritionist or something similar. How is that different for a small school guy like you?
Eric Liles: I obviously don't really have all that so I looked online for a nutrition plan that I can afford, that's best for my training and I'm following that. I don't eat any fatty foods; I eat a lot of baked food and a lot of fish and just try and get a lot of protein in. I never drink soda, no juices none of that stuff, just water and Gatorade; I probably drink about a gallon to a gallon and a half of water a day. I don't eat junk food and basically just try to eat healthily with lots of fruit and vegetables and I can really see the difference as I get leaner. I've always took good care of by body though, I'm 100% healthy; I have never had any surgeries or medical problems and though I've played hurt - that's football - I've never been injured.
AJ: Tell me a bit about where you played high school football and the recruiting process you went through
Eric Liles: I played High School ball in Coolidge, Arizona. We were two time state champions and almost had a threepeat [Editor: from 2001-07, Coolidge played for the state title 6 out of 7 years]. I started every year, I was first team All-State, first team All-Conference, Defensive Player of the Year, second in the state in tackles and had a good career there.
As the recruiting process started, I started getting letters and getting excited. I got invited by FBS schools to go on visits and participate in things like summer camps but I couldn't ever afford to go. I figured that wouldn't matter, I was a state championship calibre guy and thought the offers would roll in anyway but it never happened. I didn't realise that the likes of USC wanted to evaluate you and take you to their camp and make you earn your scholarship offer that way. I had a bunch of FBS schools who wanted to see more of me in person and wanted me to go to their camps but I just couldn't attend and that hurt me.
AJ: Tell me a bit about some of the off-field adversity you’ve experienced and how that spurs you on.
Eric Liles: My father was murdered when I was a little boy and that’s what motivates me each and every day. He encourages me through prayer and I want to make him proud. Also being a small school guy, we’re always overlooked and told that we can’t do this or that so I play with a chip on my shoulder. Being underrated and having people tell you that you can’t do something when you know you can really gets me going. I hate it when people say if I went to a big college I would be one of the top linebackers taken. God chose the route for me and I wouldn’t change anything because when I do make it finally, it will feel so much better. Not a lot of scout knows my name but I have tons of supporters who are rooting for me and I just want to make them proud. I have a mutual respect for small school guys and that’s why we all want to see each other make it because we know exactly how hard it is.
AJ: You can’t teach speed and to NFL scouts, speed is everything. What would you say to any potential detractors that might say you’re not fast enough for the NFL level?
Eric Liles: I’m a true believer in game speed; my 40-yard dash times don’t reflect how fast I am on the field. My 10-yard split is 1.54 which equals out to a 4.5 forty I think [Editor: Ezekiel Ansah, the 7th best prospect on our draft board and someone who’s getting attention as the potential first overall pick had a 10-yard split of 1.56 at the NFL Combine; partly the reason why scouts have fallen in love with him]. My acceleration and deceleration helps make up for any lack of speed I may have. Some guys run a 4.4 but play like a 4.9. I’m not a track guy; I’m an aggressive football player who makes plays. I don’t have the perfect technique that will make me run an impressive 40-yard dash. Nor will I spend weeks learning the technique just to run a forty. For small school guys, yeah, it’s good to run a good forty but that’s not going to make or break me. A team is still unlikely to show too much interest if you run a 4.4; you’re still going to have to prove yourself in camp. That’s why I decided to focus on excelling as a football player. I am quicker than I am fast and that helps me at my position. I think I move faster laterally than most people and I use that to my advantage. I’m always told that I’m a very instinctive linebacker who reacts fast and get to the ball quickly. I use my angles to my advantage and knowing the proper angles to close a gap helps me. At 6-1 246 lbs I think I am fast for my size. Although I’m coming from essentially the lowest level of college football to the highest level of professional football I believe I can hold my own and excel. I will adapt to the game speed.
AJ: With only 53 spots on an NFL roster, teams are looking for versatile players that can play special teams. Have you played much on special teams and is it something you're comfortable doing?
Eric Liles: I’m a versatile linebacker who can play inside and outside as well as be a contributor in the special teams game as well. I have always played specials teams and linebacker throughout my entire career. I was always asked to play special teams mostly because small schools have small teams and I was eager and just wanted to stay on the field as much as possible. I am comfortable performing on special teams because it’s not new to me; it’s something I have been doing ever since I started playing football. My solid tackling abilities and football fundamentals helps me excel at specials teams. Any time I get the opportunity to run down the field and hit somebody is okay with me.
AJ: I was watching some of your tape and highlights and you show good quickness and acceleration. Do you see yourself as someone who can get after the quarterback and rush the passer?
Eric Liles: I played inside in college but I think I can move outside because of my pass rushing skills and it's something that I work on. I'm really good at using my hands; I spend a lot of extra time watching tape, looking at guys and looking at their technique, the moves they do and trying to emulate those moves. I'm a Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis type of guy in that I play inside but when they move me outside or ask me to get after the quarterback, I have the quickness and technique to beat guys to the quarterback. I use my feet and lower body well; I'll try and move the blocker outside and beat him inside with a swim move using speed, strength and technique and I think that definitely helps me.
AJ: Similar to how FBS programs can schedule non-conference games against FCS schools, FCS schools can schedule games against lower division schools or even NAIA schools. What's the highest level of opposition you played whilst at Dakota State?
Eric Liles: We played a couple of Division II schools but one of the best teams we played was Wisconsin Whitewater, a Division III school [Editor: Wisconsin Whitewater won the Division III National Championship 4 out of 5 years between 2007-11 and had a win streak of 45 games in the process]. They had some former Wisconsin players who had been dismissed on their team including a running back so it was good to face some FBS level talent. We didn’t hold up too well as a team but I thought I more than held my own and stepped up to the level of the competition well.
AJ: What is the importance of having a good agent for the draft process?
Eric Liles: I think that agents can either make or break you. A lot of small school guys that I talk to or that I've met throughout the process don't have agents and if they do they don't really give you as much attention as you need. I feel like with my production and my stats and everything I should be a little further ahead than I am right now but it's hard because those top agents don't really want to represent you so it’s really a big struggle and it can be frustrating. One of my friends BJ Stewart, he's a small school guy like me but is lucky enough to have an agent with good connections so now he's doing pretty good and he's on a lot of teams' radar. I think having a good agent is huge in this process and I think it hurts a lot of people.
AJ: Many people might look at the football program of an NAIA school compared to an FBS school and think that small school players don't spend as much time doing football related activities. Tell us a bit about your football schedule and how much time you spent doing football activities.
Eric Liles: I think it's similar to FBS schools more than people might think. We still spend a lot of time in the weight room - over an hour per day - an hour in the film room per day and practise is about three hours. Since I was captain, I spent time after practise going over the game plan and the scheme and watching extra film of opponents. Spring ball was really intense too. We'd do summer work outs; all four years I stayed and worked out with the team every day, we'd really spend five hours per day, five days per week training. We'd do a lot of conditioning type stuff on the field and a lot of guys just like to go out and play and have fun and play football. So I'd say we spend just as much time on football, if not more in some respects. Obviously we don't have the facilities and some of the coaching; I think coaching is so valuable, a lot of the FBS guys take for granted having good coaches who teach things right. Not to take anything away from some of my coaches but I always think that if I'm this good right now, I can't imagine how good I could be if I was coached up by some of the best and I'm looking forward to hopefully getting that opportunity.
AJ: Any final thoughts?
Eric Liles: I'm only on a few draft boards right now and for other small school guys, that gets in their head and they want to give up because no one's really talking about you like mainstream guys are. It can be really discouraging, you're putting in just as much work but it's seemingly going unnoticed. It's difficult to work out five hours per day and having nothing to show for it, no one is talking about you. You've got to be self-motivated and have a lot of discipline. At the end of the day, all we ask for is an opportunity.
AJ: Small school guys have something that highly touted, highly drafted prospects don't have; hunger. Teams like New England and Indianapolis find these small school guys who might not be as athletically gifted but they work their way onto the team and have the hunger and desire to prove themselves. They have that chip on their shoulder, the bit between their teeth. It's no coincidence that you see the likes of Aaron Curry and Rolando McClain released by NFL teams only two years after being drafted in the top ten; they were handed their millions and as far as they were concerned, they'd made it and were content to sit back. Small school guys have to scrap and fight their way onto NFL rosters and when they finally make it, there's no sitting back because they appreciate and value their opportunities. Remember how a couple of seasons ago Dez Bryant made news in training camp after refusing to carry a veteran's pads? Small schoolers don’t have the sense of entitlement that highly picked players have, nothing's below them, they’re not afraid to work at getting better. First round picks might be Pro Bowlers but most fizzle into nothing or have bad attitudes; small school players and undrafteds, they're football players.
If you're interested in Eric's journey, follow him on Twitter @E_Liles
Down at the One wishes him the best of luck on his journey and will be paying close attention to Eric come late April's draft.AJ Young
is the editor of Down at the One.