Malati Powell for The Easterner
Drew Lawson is The Easterner’s sports editor/co-managing editor. His opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Easterner, its staff or Eastern Washington University. This article has not been edited except for AP style.
The Big Sky Conference is one of the premier FCS leagues. Four teams (Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Sac State) made the playoffs as a Top 10 team in 2019, while both Weber and MSU made the national semifinals. North Dakota made the playoffs in its last season in the BSC, and EWU barely missed the field during a 7-5 campaign. The BSC had 17 players named to one of three All-American teams.
Despite all the success, zero BSC players were taken in last weekend’s NFL Draft. It was the first time since 2000 that the conference didn’t have a single player get drafted.
The lack of representation wasn’t limited to the Big Sky. Only six FCS players were taken among the 255 draft picks. It was the first time since the NFL Draft moved to seven rounds in 1993 that the number of FCS draft picks was in the single digits.
An example of an FCS standout that went undrafted is UM linebacker Dante Olsen. It burns deep into my soul to admit this as an EWU student, but I was at the EWU game at UM in October, and Olsen stood out as easily the best player on the field. I knew that day that he was worthy of an NFL draft pick.
So what gives? Why were there so few FCS players drafted, and none from the highly successful Big Sky?
Well, the COVID-19 virus has been affecting practically every “normal” function, and the NFL Draft process was no different. Most teams, including EWU, had to have their Pro Days canceled. Pro Days are a chance for players to work out and showcase their skills to NFL scouts in-person. The loss of EWU’s Pro Day was felt by players such as safety Dehonta Hayes and tight end Jayce Gilder, as discussed in this April 20 article in The Easterner.
With the lack of small-school exposure, NFL teams weren’t willing to risk their picks on players who don’t have the game film that FBS players do, and therefore the draft picks were nearly exclusively high-end Division I players.
EWU NFL hopefuls have especially felt the impact of COVID-related cancelations. Six former Eagles (Hayes, Gilder, Jayson Williams, Spencer Blackburn, Antoine Custer Jr. and Jim Townsend) were hoping to at least sign undrafted free agent contracts or get invited to rookie minicamps. That hasn’t happened for any of them, yet.
Any other year, this would be different. Last year, no Eagles were drafted, but EWU had four players either sign UDFA contracts or get invited to rookie minicamps. Wide receiver Nsimba Webster even managed to make the Los Angeles Rams’ 53-man roster, while defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli has been on a couple roster bubbles.
Unfortunately for former EWU players, it’s unknown whether NFL teams will even hold rookie minicamps. In fact, it appears unlikely. This has made the process of trying to earn a chance at making a team even tougher. Gilder told me over text that the NFL isn’t taking many chances on “unknown” players, and Hayes said his lines have remained quiet, a “huge factor from COVID.”
Both players are holding out hope for a camp invite or even a UDFA opportunity, but in previous years, that probably would’ve already happened for them and players like Blackburn, who was one of the best centers in the FCS during his EWU career. Hayes is undersized for his position but has the speed and smarts to earn a chance, and Gilder showed in his virtual Pro Day tape that he could probably end my life with a punch without even breaking a sweat.
EWU players will have to play the long game and hope that their opportunity comes despite all the craziness in today’s world.