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Carolina Panthers

Small school players face mountainous climb


At the conclusion of linebacker D.J. Smith's freshman season in 2007, Appalachian State became the first team from the Football Championship Subdivision to receive votes in the final Associated Press top 25 poll.

Prior to Smith's senior season, he was the only FCS linebacker among the 51 named to the Butkus Award watch list.

Being a star on the preeminent FCS program in the country has its perks, but it doesn't make the path to the next level – the NFL – any less of an uphill climb.

"I think I do have a leg up with the App State name, whether it's from beating Michigan or the three national titles," Smith said. "But there are always the questions: 'Is he able to keep up with the Division I guys?' 'Is he able to keep up with the speed?'

"Guys sometimes overlook the I-AA guys."

Smith has numbers that are hard to ignore. His 525 tackles over the last four years are more than anybody in all of Division I amassed, and he helped the Mountaineers win 45 games during his career – more than every Division I program except Boise State.

Still, Smith doesn't know for certain that he'll be drafted. He's considered to be undersized for an NFL linebacker at 5-11, 239 pounds, and the weight he's added over the last couple of years appears to have taken away a touch of his speed.

"If you need a player that's injury-free, hardworking, tenacious and smart, and that's willing to do everything it takes to be in the league, I'm your guy," Smith said.

Since the 2000 draft, roughly one out of 14 draft picks have come from FCS teams. Though the competitive gap between the divisions has narrowed – as evidenced by Appalachian State's victory at Michigan in 2007 – the draft numbers have remained fairly steady.

Of course, getting drafted doesn't guarantee a spot on an NFL roster, and not getting drafted doesn't preclude a player from making a roster via the free agent route.

For both scenarios, Smith can point to Appalachian State success stories for inspiration.

Fellow linebacker Dexter Coakley is the only other Mountaineer with more than 500 tackles in his career, easily surpassing the benchmark with a staggering 616 stops. Coakley was drafted in the third round in 1997 by the Dallas Cowboys and went on to make three Pro Bowls.

"I don't know him personally," Smith said. "But you see the banners and the statues and the sculpture, it becomes motivation."

Smith has spent some time with Daniel Wilcox, a former Appalachian State tight end who went undrafted in 2001 yet played in the NFL for eight seasons. Last fall, Wilcox returned to campus to finish his degree.

"He was always putting a bug in your ear about working hard," Smith said. "It always helps to have a guy that went to your school who has been through it, who has been through the tough times and still came out on top. It's always great to have a positive role model."

Smith is trying to become the fourth Appalachian State player selected over the last four drafts after the Mountaineers had no players picked in the previous six drafts. The school's latest draft pick, Armanti Edwards, went in the third round to the Panthers last season.

Smith is familiar with Edwards – having played with him for three years – and he's familiar with the Panthers. He won four state championships at nearby Charlotte Independence High School.

"My mom is a Panthers fan. I was more of a Steelers defensive guy growing up - I just liked the way they played ball - but I followed the Panthers," Smith said. "I've never been to an NFL game, but, hopefully, soon I will be."


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