Valdosta Daily Times

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August 28, 2013

Blazers make impact in NFL

VALDOSTA — The Valdosta State football team has experienced a great deal of success on the college gridiron in recent years, but a few former Blazers also have a chance to make an impact on the professional level as well.

In the last two years, four former VSU football players have spent time on an NFL roster, and with the 2013 season quickly approaching, some of those players are pushing to make the final roster, or in some cases, earn serious play time.

Cornerback Matt Pierce, guard Edmund Kugbila, and tackle Ryan Schraeder are all rookies that made the expanded post-draft rosters.

Kugbila made Valdosta State history as the first Blazer to be taken in the NFL draft when the Carolina Panthers selected him in the fourth round.

Both Pierce and Schraeder went unselected, but both were signed to deals as undrafted free agents following the draft, Pierce with the Tennessee Titans, Schrader with the Atlanta Falcons.

During the offseason, the NFL expands rosters to 90 players before having to eventually shrink down to 53 by Aug. 31.

Low round selections and UDFA face an uphill battle when competing for a roster spot and play time; even after players are signed to a roster, they are still fighting for a roster spot throughout the preseason.

When looking for how quickly an undrafted player has to make an impression on a team, take a look at Pierce’s run with Tennessee.

Training camp opened for most teams in mid-July, after only a few practices, Pierce wasn’t able to show enough in the first few days of the Titans training camp. Pierce was cut Aug. 8 by the Titans and has yet to sign on with another team.

While some UDFA fail to make an impact, Schrader has managed to impress in practices, earning praise for his work in practice.

The Falcons have Schraeder listed as the back-up left tackle behind Sam Baker on the team’s official depth chart, but right tackle Mike Johnson suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle that will keep him out for the season, opening the door for competition for the start at right tackle.

“I’ve been learning a lot every day, keeping me on my toes,” Schraeder said. “I feel like I’m getting better every day. That’s my mindset every day, just work on my weaknesses and do what I can do to help the team.”

Atlanta selected Lamar Holmes from Southern Miss. in the third round of the 2012 draft to be a possible right tackle of the future, but a foot injury caused Holmes to miss almost all of his rookie season. Through three preseason games, Holmes has not impressed enough to win the job, in the last preseason game Schrader and Holmes both spent time at right tackle.

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter says it is difficult for coaches to judge the competition with the new limits on contact during practice.

Schrader is not the only former Blazer that impressed in camp.

Kugbila was making a strong push to start the season as the starting right guard of the Carolina Panthers until he was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. He will miss the rest of the season.

The Panthers selected Kugbila in the fourth round to battle incumbent starter Geoff Hangartner at right guard, but when Hangartner was cut, Kugbila had a chance to earn the starting gig over Garry Williams.

Kugbila dealt with injuries throughout most of training camp. He suffered an injury in the first week of camp before finally coming back, only to suffer hamstring issues that would keep him out for four weeks, ultimately the team placed Kugbila on IR.

The injury comes at the worst time for Kugbila; Williams struggled heavily during the preseason, and the job looked to be Kugbila’s for the taking.

One could argue it was another former Blazer that made brought the spotlight to VSU’s roster. VSU legend, Larry Dean, will be entering his third season in the NFL as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.

Dean, who is VSU’s all-time leader in tackles, waited out the 2011 NFL lockout to be the only UDFA signed by the Vikings that year.

In his short NFL career, Dean has played well. Dean has played in all 32 games in his two seasons as a special teams ace. Dean was second on the team in special teams tackles in 2012.

Dean is listed as the back-up strongside linebacker for the Vikings this season, unfortunately for Dean, his play time may be limited due to back-up a player in Chad Greenway that was named a second team All-Pro in 2012 and has led the Vikings in tackles from 2008-2012.

With the buzz in camp around guys like Schraeder and Kugbila, along with Dean’s solid career thus far, more NFL scouts have taken notice of what VSU’s football program can offer teams in the NFL.

Two scouts from NFL teams attended Blazer training camps earlier this summer.

“The individuals you’ve seen from our football program that have gone on to make NFL rosters are, first of all, tremendously hard workers,” VSU athletic director, Herb Reinhard said. “There might not be an athlete that worked as hard as Larry Dean to make himself a talented college player then just as hard to make the Viking’s roster. Edmund and Ryan, both much the same way, both of them talented, but both of them hard workers.”

Reinhard believes that by displaying the traits of a hard worker and a player that is willing to listen and learn, NFL scouts see someone that can be molded into a contributor at the next level.

“When you play at a non-Division I, big time school you have to have those traits to catch the eyes of scouts,” Reinhard added.

Rosters must again be trimmed by Saturday at 6 p.m., from 75 to 53.

Saturday marks the final step in the former Blazers’ road to the regular season roster.

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