Road to NFL can stop at Illinois State

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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).


Twitter: @SethGruen

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