Big Rapids, Mich. - The 83rd annual National Football League (NFL) Draft takes place this weekend in Dallas and a large group of former Ferris State University football standouts are hoping to hear their names called or be contacted by NFL or professional football franchises as potential free agent pickups following the annual event.
The Bulldogs have at least 10 individuals who concluded their eligibility last fall hoping to make the jump to professional football. The group includes a pair of consensus All-Americans in defensive end Zach Sieler (Pinckney) and cornerback Tavierre Thomas (Detroit/Allen) along with several others who have spent the past several months training for pro day events and workouts.
The group of hopefuls also includes defensive tackle Chris Okoye (Novi/Detroit Catholic Central), tailback Jahaan Brown (East Grand Rapids), linebacker Terrell Porter (Detroit/Berkley), quarterback/athlete Reggie Bell (Los Angeles, Calif.), defensive backs Jevonte Alexander (Flushing/Carman-Ainsworth) and Kenny James (Columbia, Mo.) along with wide receivers Jajuan Pollock (Bradenton, Fla./Manatee) and Brandon Walker (Flint/Carman-Ainsworth).
The Ferris State products have been active in off-season training for a potential opportunity and have had strong pro day events to showcase their talents with hopes of being late round or preferred free agent acquisitions. The trio of Brown, Pollock and James trained at Power Strength in Grand Rapids while the Bulldogs' Thomas, Walker and Alexander worked out at Total Performance in Wixom among others. Both Thomas and Sieler took part in the University of Michigan's pro day while Okoye, Bell, Brown and Porter all showcased their skills at Central Michigan.
"We're excited for these guys and believe there's a great possibility we'll have multiple guys in NFL camps this summer with a chance to compete for a spot," said FSU head coach Tony Annese. "We're looking forward to following their progress and wish them all the best in the process.
"Credit goes out to both Michigan and Central Michigan's staff for opening up their doors," he added. "There's some really gifted young men from the GLIAC and for that opportunity to exist for us is extraordinary. I can't overstate it."
The Bulldogs currently have four former standouts active in NFL organizations, including defensive tackle Justin Zimmer who was signed by the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent last week. Former two-time Harlon Hill Trophy winning quarterback Jason Vander Laan is a tight end with the Indianapolis Colts, linebacker Brady Sheldon is with the Oakland Raiders and wide receiver Jake Lampman is in the Tampa Bay Buccanneers' organization. Vander Laan, Sheldon and Lampman have all seen NFL regular-season action over the past two seasons. Last year, Sheldon earned a tryout invitation with the Raiders and eventually was moved to the active roster.
Overall, numerous lists have both Sieler and Thomas found among the top 100 players at their position leading into the draft with both tabbed as potential late round or preferred free agent pickups. They each have had strong pro days and workouts in front of scouts, including taking part in the University of Michigan Pro Day event in March. Presently, Sieler is listed by scouting expert Josh Buchanan as one of the top five small college draft prospects in the country with Thomas listed seventh on the same list. Each has also had private workouts as of late with NFL franchises.
The NFL Draft begins with round one on Thursday (April 26) night at 8 p.m. (ET). Rounds two and three will take place on Friday night with the final rounds four thru seven set for Saturday starting at noon. Both ESPN and the NFL Network will have endless coverage of the draft with Fox and ABC also simulcasting coverage at various points in the draft.
While no Ferris State football player has ever been drafted by an NFL team, according to the official NFL Draft Report, several former Bulldogs have inked NFL contracts as free agents and played in the league. Including last year, the Bulldogs have had at least one NFL free agent pickup following the draft each of the past four years.
Unofficially, at least 15 former Ferris State players have previously inked NFL free agent deals. Former defensive back Marvin Robinson inked with the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 with defensive tackle Marcus Cribbs signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015. Those two represented the first since free agent cornerback Angelo Williams with the Minnesota Vikings in 2010. Previously, in 2013, former defensive end Jordan Morgan received a rookie tryout with the New York Giants, but did not sign. In 2016, Vander Laan, Lampman and Zimmer all signed and reached NFL camps while Sheldon did likewise in 2017.
The select group also consists of running back Dave Gagnon (1974-Chicago Bears), outside linebacker Monty Brown (1997-New York Jets), defensive tackle Ed Philion (1994-Buffalo Bills), defensive end Dave Zuiderveen (2001-Atlanta Falcons), flanker Clarence Coleman (2002-Buffalo Bills), tackle Matt McCoy (2004-Detroit Lions), wide receiver Carlton Brewster (2006-Cleveland Browns) and defensive tackle Jake Visser (2009-Houston Texans).
Two other former Ferris State players, offensive guard Bill Bourdlais and safety Patrick Wells, received tryout invitations from the Cleveland Browns in 2008 and participated in the team's rookie minicamp, but did not ink a deal. Several others have also had NFL tryouts including wide receiver Andre Johnson (1989), quarterback Dave DenBraber (1987) and receiver/returner Fred Kirkland (1981). Defensive back James Skodak (2006) also had tryouts with several NFL organizations among other past Bulldog standouts.
The Bulldog standouts awaiting the draft all played key roles this past fall in leading Ferris State to the NCAA Division II National Quarterfinals for the second consecutive campaign. Along with reaching the NCAA Division II National Quarterfinals in 2017 for the second consecutive year, the Bulldogs also made their fourth-straight trip to the D2 Playoffs and posted an 11-2 record, marking the first time in school history in which FSU has won 11 games or more in four-straight seasons. Last summer, Hero Sports picked FSU as Michigan's Best College Football program regardless of division.
Over the last four seasons at Ferris State, the Bulldogs have compiled a 45-7 overall record and made four consecutive NCAA Playoff appearances, claimed two conference championships, posted two unbeaten regular-seasons, twice made the national quarterfinals, captured a regional title and reached the national semifinals. Ferris State has also accumulated two Harlon Hill National Player of the Year trophies, twice had a student-athlete tabbed as the nation's National Scholar-Athlete of the Year and won six postseason games.
In the six seasons under Annese, the Bulldogs have become a national power on the Division II level. FSU has posted a 60-14 overall mark in the last six years and the Bulldogs have also posted the best winning percentage of all 21 collegiate programs in the state of Michigan along with the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) since his arrival. Twice he's been tabbed as the Super Region Coach of the Year at Ferris State. Overall, Annese has won 83% of his games as a head coach on the collegiate and prep levels and owns 285 wins to date, which is the most of any current GLIAC member head coach at all levels.