Josh Norman has long dreamed of playing in the NFL, but the Coastal Carolina cornerback's childhood dream also included a college career at a big-time football school.
"The thing with me," Norman said, "is that I slipped between the rocks and the crevices."
Fortunately for Norman and others in his shoes, NFL scouts look under every rock, and this year they've unearthed a lot that they like.
NFLDraftScout.com's rankings project that as many as eight defensive backs from non-Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools could be drafted by the fifth round. That's more than at all other positions combined.
Bona fide pro prospects end up at small schools for different reasons, but they share the same goal of making it in the big pond of the NFL.
When Norman failed to get any scholarship offers from FBS schools, he decided to walk on at Coastal Carolina, where his older brother, Marrio, was an All-American defensive back.
Norman very much followed in his brother's footsteps, earning a starting role early in his freshman year and earning All-America honors as a sophomore and senior.
Looking back now, Norman believes playing at a smaller school has helped his quest to reach the big-time.
"We get looked over a good bit because we are a small school, and 1-A (FBS) guys get the first nod in everything," Norman said. "Everything you do on my level is so much harder than up at that level. Every week, you have to almost have a perfect game.
"So I would say you have a little more of a chip on your shoulder, more than anything else."
Norman's final college game was against Furman, which featured a comparably rated cornerback in Ryan Steed. Like Norman, Steed is projected to be a middle-round pick. Whereas football powerhouses overlooked Norman, Steed overlooked football powerhouses in favor of basketball.
"I was mainly a basketball player, and that's one of the reasons I wasn't highly recruited for football out of high school," said Steed, who had a basketball scholarship offer from Virginia Tech. "I didn't even play football my junior year, which is one of the most important years for college recruiting.
"Then I fell in love with football my senior year and haven't looked back since. I always had the talent and playmaking ability. It was just going out there and realizing that I loved it."
Other small school players, like Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama, never truly understood their love of the game until adversity nearly took it away.
Jenkins starred at the University of Florida for three seasons, holding top-10 draft picks A.J. Green and Julio Jones to a total of 76 receiving yards in 2010. In 2011, however, he found himself playing at a Division II school after multiple off-the-field incidents led to his dismissal from the Florida football program.
"Playing in front of 3,500 people after being in the Swamp and playing in front of 95,000 is a big difference," Jenkins said. "It made me appreciate a lot.
"I'm pretty sure it will hurt me. But I'm looking past that, looking forward to moving on and being successful from here on out."
No matter the circumstances that led the likes of Jenkins, Steed and Norman to miss out on the bright lights of big-time college football, they're now focused on not missing out on football's ultimate stage.
"There are a lot of guys out there like that, but when you get your chance, make the most of the opportunity you have," Norman said. "I love to be the best every time I step on the field, no matter who is in front of me. I don't see faces. I just do what I have to do."