Pop in the grainy videotape from Beloit College's football games last fall, and a conundrum quickly arises as to what is being seen on the screen. A combination of wonder and guarded apprehension takes hold, particularly for those in the business of judging professional talent.
The very same plays that cause NFL scouts' jaws to drop also leave them questioning whether it's all some kind of mirage. Derek Carrier, Beloit's sensational 6-foot-3 wide receiver, effortlessly glides around the field, leaping defenders draped over his jersey like some kind of Division III Superman.
"It was a physical mismatch," Beloit football coach Chris Brann said. "You could tell. I felt like looking at some of the defensive backs that he was going against, they were intimidated. Not only is he a great receiver, but he's 238 pounds. If you're a 5-10, 185-pound corner and he's blocking you, you have a problem."
Yet for all the problems Carrier's size caused opponents in college, the size of his opponents also complicated Carrier's attempts to prove his worthiness as an NFL-caliber player.
"That's probably the reason he didn't get drafted," said Carrier's agent, Ron Slavin, of Wisconsin-based BTI Sports Advisors. "The guys he was playing against were not even close to his talent level. It's kind of hard to judge off the tape what a guy can do because the talent level just isn't there in his division."
Therein lies the biggest obstacle for someone in Carrier's shoes.
A certain stigma comes attached to Division III college players, no matter how well they perform on Saturdays in the fall and Carrier was one of the best. A two-time All-Midwest Conference selection, Carrier rewrote the record books at Beloit, a small liberal arts college near the WisconsinIllinois border. He set all-time marks for catches (189), yards (3,111) and touchdowns (29) and broke several more single-season school records.
Still, Carrier spent months after the season attempting to convince NFL teams to take a chance on him, that he was capable of breaking the mold from Division III to the pros.
"With the competition level being so greatly different, they're always going to question how good the guy really is," Carrier said. "No matter what, it's going to always be there."
Despite all the accolades and college all-star games, Carrier's entire pro career came down to a few timed drills in front of NFL personnel at the University of Wisconsin's pro day. He dazzled scouts and though he wasn't drafted eventually signed a three-year, non-guaranteed free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders immediately following the NFL draft last Saturday.
Now, Carrier will have to earn his contract by making the 53-man roster in the fall. Currently, only 10 former Division III players are on an NFL roster. And of the thousands of Division III college football players this past season, only 20 reportedly received a rookie camp tryout.
Like most Division III players in his position, Carrier will attempt to beat the odds.
It's possible that, had Carrier displayed more patience, he could have become a standout Division I wide receiver at the University of Wisconsin. He was offered a preferred walk-on spot with the Badgers in high school but also was told he likely wouldn't play until his junior or senior season.
Rather than sit out, Carrier opted to attend Beloit, a school less than 30 minutes away from his hometown of Edgerton, Wis. In addition to the opportunity to play football immediately, Carrier also received the go-ahead from Beloit coaches to play basketball as well.
But after two seasons on the basketball team, calls from NFL scouts began trickling into the football offices, and Carrier decided to focus solely on football.
During his time in the program, he turned himself into a physical specimen, working tirelessly in the weight room. Edgerton High School football coach Mike Gregory said Carrier weighed 170 pounds in high school. He gained nearly 70 pounds in college.
"He could run like a deer and jump through the roof," Gregory said. "He was a kid who went off and put in the work and the time to make himself better, to put himself in this position to have this opportunity, which is pretty cool and a real credit to him."
As a senior at Beloit, Carrier caught 75 passes for 1,250 yards with 12 touchdowns, but his team finished just 2-8. Carrier accounted for 52.7 percent of Beloit's receiving yards.
The statistics were exceptional, but game footage couldn't hide the questions from scouts about the competition level. Carrier was more curiosity than anything else. Even after playing in the Division III Senior Football Classic in Salem, Va., in December and the Players All-Star Classic in Little Rock, Ark., in February, scouts were uncertain.
They wanted to know Carrier's numbers on specific speed, athletic and strength tests a black and white data set determining his fate more than any touchdown catch ever could.
Carrier wasn't among the 300 or so college players invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February. So his lone opportunity to display his value in front of NFL personnel came on March 7 at the University of Wisconsin pro timing day.
He certainly helped his cause.
Carrier ran a 4.50 40-yard dash, had a 40-inch vertical leap and finished the three-cone drill in 6.65 seconds an especially fast time. And suddenly, Carrier became a viable NFL prospect overnight. When the workout ended, Slavin received requests for Carrier's game tape from all 32 NFL teams.
"It definitely was a turning point," Carrier said. "For a lot of these scouts, I think that's really the first step where they really consider someone like myself from a smaller school. You need to be able to put up numbers that are comparable to Division I players. After I did that on the pro day, I think it really grabbed scouts' attention."
For a Division III athlete, the difference between an opportunity at NFL riches and finding a new career path is mere milliseconds.
Had Carrier's times been even slightly slower, he may not have received a free agent deal at all. Instead, the Oakland Raiders took a chance on him. And Carrier holds a realistic opportunity to make the roster as either a wide receiver or tight end and a special teams player.
"Especially receiver and defensive back these days," Slavin said, "scouts just want to know what guys run."
That Carrier went undrafted is not unusual for a Division III player. According to d3football.com, only 16 Division III players have been selected in the NFL draft since 1991. And, unlike Beloit, most of those players came from programs that were perennial national championship contenders.
Current Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon is perhaps the most famous D-III player in recent memory. He helped Mount Union (Ohio) win two national championships and was a sixth-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts in 2008.
During the 2012 NFL draft last week, only one Division III player was taken. The Detroit Lions selected cornerback Chris Greenwood of Albion College (Mich.) in the fifth round, at No. 148 overall.
Greenwood, a two-time All-American, was drafted after a spectacular showing at the University of Michigan's pro day. There, he reportedly ran a 4.41 40-yard dash and had a 43-inch vertical leap.
Though Carrier's measurements were a notch below Greenwood's numbers, they still were more than enough to raise eyebrows across the league about a player few had noticed.
"The notoriety that he's gotten and the attention he's drawn so far is almost unprecedented for a kid with that background," Gregory said. "Usually you'll get some people who are a little bit curious. But he's gone beyond curious. You had people that are scratching their heads and doing their homework and scrambling big time to take a look at him."
Derek Carrier doesn't need to be told how slim the chances are of him making it in the NFL.
The last Beloit College football player to see time in the NFL was Bernard Darling with the Green Bay Packers in the 1930s. Jack Erickson was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1953, and Rod Hermes went to the Packers in 1956, but neither made the league.
Unlike some players who hired agents early and began working out with professional trainers, Carrier has remained on Beloit's campus to finish his degree in health and society. Before graduating, he has finals in Physics II and Biomedical ethics and two papers for his senior seminar health and society class.
Most Division III athletes, after all, don't come to campus as a freshman relying on a career in professional sports.
"I want to get a doctorate in physical therapy or possibly go to med school," said Carrier, who holds a 3.87 grade-point average. "Maybe get a Ph.D. I want to work with athletes whether that's in physical therapy or applied exercise psychical science."
Given Carrier's intellect and athletic gifts, he just might have what it takes to break the Division III mold at the NFL level. In addition to wowing scouts with his pro day times, he scored exceptionally high on the NFL's Wonderlic intelligence test.
Brann and Carrier both suggest the success of Garcon and others make it easier for teams to be willing to take a chance on a Division III player now. But only slightly.
Past success stories won't do Carrier much good when he reports next week to Oakland's rookie mini camp, which runs from May 11-13. Organized team activities run throughout the summer. Then, he'll have an opportunity in the fall to prove himself against players his own size and make the 53-man roster.
"There's still a lot of work that goes into it," Carrier said. "By no means is this a chance for me to rest on my laurels. I've still got to keep working."
That mindset is the only way a Division III football player has a chance to beat the odds in the NFL.
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