There is a saying prospects from the lower levels of college football cling to every winter in the run-up to the NFL draft. “If you’re good enough to play in the NFL, the NFL will find you.”

The Steelers were at the forefront of the movement to bring small-college players into the league in the early 1970s when legendary scout Bill Nunn searched the small black universities for talented players and helped build the Steelers’ dynasty.

Nunn found Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Mel Blount at Alabama A&M and Southern. He found L.C. Greenwood at Arkansas AM&N and Donnie Shell at South Carolina State. All four were four-time Super Bowl champions on the Super ‘70s Steelers.

More followed over the years through different coaches and different generations of scouts in the front office. Eric Green went to Liberty College, Earl Holmes Florida A&M and Aaron Smith Division II Northern Colorado.

With head coach Mike Tomlin, a graduate of William & Mary College, and a front office stocked with scouts with FCS or Division II and Division III backgrounds, the Steelers still adhere to the idea that they can build quality football teams with select players that didn’t play major-college football. Their roster has five players from the FCS level of NCAA football, formerly known as Division I-AA.

Three of them were in the starting lineup last Sunday when the Steelers beat the Chiefs, 43-14, at Heinz Field. Javon Hargrave of South Carolina State was the starting nose tackle, Arthur Moats of James Madison started at right outside linebacker and Jordan Dangerfield of Towson started at strong safety.

“We love our 1-AA crew,” Moats said. “Most guys doubt us. But we say look at us. We’re out here balling. We take pride in that. We have some players at that level as well.”

Quite a few, actually.

NFL rosters will always be dominated by players from FBS schools, but FCS schools are producing more players, including top draft picks, every year.

Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who threw for 300 yards against the Steelers two weeks ago, played at North Dakota State. The opposing quarterback for the Jets at Heinz Field today is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played at Harvard.

Wentz and Fitzpatrick are not exceptions to the rule. Wentz is one of six North Dakota State players in the NFL this season; Fitzpatrick one of five players from Harvard.

And while the Steelers used to have a leg up on scouting the smaller schools four decades ago, every other team in the NFL has caught on by now. The Jets lead the NFL with 11 players on their roster from FCS schools. Buffalo, Arizona, Indianapolis, Detroit and the New York Giants have seven apiece.

“One of the big things is they all have better offseason programs now and they’re recruiting smarter,” said Gil Brandt, the former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. “They’re going farther to get players. The Big Sky Conference is going to California and Texas to get players. And I think the high schools are developing better players. They’re playing that 7-on-7 all year long. We’re getting better skill players. Every college program is getting better players now because they’re being developed better in high school.”

Choosing FCS over FBS


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