Road to NFL can stop at Illinois State

SHARE Road to NFL can stop at Illinois State
ISU_CST_010915_51142519_595x999.jpg

Illinois State’s Jermaine Barton, left, and James O’Shaughnessy celebrate a touchdown during the second half against Northern Iowa during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Illinois State won 33-21.

Oregon and Ohio State are from different parts of the country, play different styles of football and wear different colors. Still the programs scream the same three letters: NFL.

Any team playing for an FBS national championship likely is flush with talent capable of playing on Sundays.

What goes largely unnoticed is that, to a lesser degree, teams vying for an FCS national title can say the same thing. The talent level just might not be as high. But when Illinois State takes the field in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday to play North Dakota State for the FCS championship, the Redbirds will field a handful of players getting looks from NFL scouts.

Tight end James O’Shaughnessy, offensive tackle Jermaine Barton and wide receiver Cameron Meredith — all seniors — are among the Redbirds with a legitimate shot at playing in the NFL.

To make it this far, Illinois State needs to go after high-level high-school athletes.

“We have to recruit a MAC-level player, in my opinion, to win the league, win the national championship,” Redbirds coach Brock Spack said.

“We have a couple guys in this program and almost every class who will have a chance, if not get drafted, will have a chance to make [an NFL] team.”

In the case of the three aforementioned players, Spack called Barton — a transfer from Miami — a “draftable guy.” But some other Redbirds will have a shot at the next level as undrafted free agents.

Players at Illinois State — at least those who sign with the program out of high school — largely are under-recruited. That makes it essential for Spack and his staff to identify developmental players with high-ceiling talent. Spack has persuaded several players that the road to the NFL can go through Bloomington-Normal.

“I wanted to go somewhere that wanted me — and from the start Coach Spack expressed that he wanted me in recruiting,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“I didn’t want to be some second-tier player or some guy they just needed to fill a roster spot. I wanted a [coach who] would have a plan for me, that would have an idea of what my future would be like.”

Make no mistake: Saturday is all about raising a trophy for the Redbirds.

But none of the players with NFL aspirations will shy away from the opportunity of showcasing their talent on national television. Saturday’s game will lure NFL scouts and be watched on ESPN2 by even more.

“This could be just another beginning to another chapter in your life,” Meredith said.

“When that’s over, reality sinks in and I’m going to start to think about what’s possible for me.”

Three former Redbirds are on NFL rosters: defensive end Shelby Harris (Raiders), linebacker Nate Palmer (Packers) and guard Cody White (Texans).

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen

The Latest
The Skywest Airlines flight from Joplin, Missouri, to Chicago made an emergency landing at Peoria International Airport Thursday morning.
Brumby and Willum, a pair of 2-year-old male koalas, will be viewable to the public at 2 p.m. Tuesday — the first time koalas will inhabit Brookfield Zoo Chicago.
Thomas Pavey of Ormond Beach, Florida, and Raheim Hamilton of Suffolk, Virginia, are accused of owning and operating Empire Market, an online site where thousands of vendors sold illegal goods and services, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, counterfeit currency and stolen credit card information, according to the indictment.
Plans for the new Morgridge Family Lakeside Learning Studios were unveiled Friday, along with an expansion of the Shedd’s youth education programs in South and West side neighborhoods. The learning center, she added, will serve about 300,000 young people very year.