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The Journey from Division II to Green Bay

Rookies from NCAA Division II look to beat the odds and make the Packers’ final roster.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-OTA Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

When the Green Bay Packers take the field in July’s training camp, they will be doing so with seven former players from NCAA Division II attempting to make the 53-man roster.

It goes without saying that the road from Division II to the NFL is an uphill battle. At the conclusion of the 2016 NFL Draft, the NCAA calculated that approximately 1.5% of draft-eligible football student-athletes from all NCAA divisions were drafted into the pros that year. Of 253 draftees, 228 were from NCAA Division I FBS, 20 from Division I FCS, and three from Division II.

Those DII draftees doubled in 2017, however. Of 253 picks, six were from Division II, along with 233 from the FBS and 14 from the FCS. Chicago Bears second-round tight end Adam Shaheen (Ashland), one of two DII players selected by Chicago, was the first player off the board and the only one selected before the draft’s third day.

Still, Division II players are a minority on NFL rosters. As of December 31, 2016, there were 120 former DII athletes in the NFL, making up seven percent of the league. Every team with the exception of the Cincinnati Bengals had at least one DII member on its roster. West Texas A&M had produced the most pros at the time of publishing with 10, while Grand Valley State and California (Pa.) trailed behind with six. Valdosta State followed with five. A number of significant contributors have come from the DII ranks, including Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Butler, Danny Woodhead, Delanie Walker, Vincent Jackson, and three-time Pro Bowler Adam Vinatieri.

Green Bay is hoping to find a few DII jewels of their own this training camp.

In addition to 12-year pro Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg) and veteran wideout Jeff Janis (Saginaw Valley State), five Division II rookies will be competing for a Packers roster spot.

  • Defensive backs Donatello Brown (Valdosta State) and Daquan Holmes (American International)
  • Linebackers Cody Heiman (Washburn) and David Talley (Grand Valley State)
  • Running back William Stanback (Virginia Union)

Boasting perhaps the strongest chance of making the active roster is Stanback. A former tailback at Central Florida, the 233-pound bruiser rushed for 1,299 yards and 15 touchdowns at Virginia Union after being dismissed by the Golden Knights in 2015. He has a surprising blend of power and 4.5 speed that is reflected on film. If not for character concerns in the past, there’s a very good chance Stanback would have been drafted in April. With the running back position up for grabs in Green Bay, Stanback has an opportunity to make the final roster, but a holding spot on the practice squad appears more likely.

Stanback is just one of several Division II players that Green Bay has taken a chance on in recent memory. In addition to Janis, the Packers struck gold with the blue-collared fullback John Kuhn of Shippensburg and received strong short-term contributions from defensive lineman Mike Pennel (Colorado State-Pueblo). Green Bay also drafted wide receiver Charles Johnson (Grand Valley State) and guard Allen Barbre (Missouri Southern State) in the past decade, while providing Brandon Bostick (Newberry) and up-and-coming Arizona Cardinals cornerback Jumal Rolle (Catawba) with pro opportunities.

Will Stanback make the final roster? Will Donatello Brown add to the Valdosta State pipeline? Those questions will be answered in the coming months, but each DII hopeful can only hope to have the sustained NFL success of their teammate Evans – a rarity by many metrics.