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Cooper Kupp among small college guys battling for draft spots at Senior Bowl

Wide receiver Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington  runs with the ball during practice for Saturday’s Senior Bowl college football game in Mobile, Alabama. (Butch Dill / Associated Press)
Wide receiver Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington runs with the ball during practice for Saturday’s Senior Bowl college football game in Mobile, Alabama. (Butch Dill / Associated Press)
By John Zenor Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. – Connor Harris made more tackles in his Lindenwood career than any other NCAA football player. Cooper Kupp led the nation in receiving for Eastern Washington, and Tiffin’s Antonio Pipkin racked up more than 13,000 yards in total offense.

Now, those small college stars are mingling on the field with players from big-name programs for Saturday’s Senior Bowl, all auditioning for NFL teams. After all, the resume doesn’t have to include “played for Power 5 conference team” to land a job in the league.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world right now,” Pipkin said. “Definitely the best experience of my life so far. A lot of these guys are cool guys and all these guys are the top players in the country, so to be here and be among these guys is very humbling.

“But at the same time we all put on our pants the same way. We all get dressed the same way. So we’ve got to go out there and perform.”

They’ve all got the same goal: To make an impression on NFL coaches and scouts, except these guys first have to prove they can hold their own against players from places like Alabama, Clemson and Michigan.

None of them have the profile of former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, who went from the FCS to the Senior Bowl to the No. 2 overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles last year.

But the 10 FCS prospects and three Division II players at this year’s game – not to mention a number of Group of Five products – had impressive careers in their own rights. Pipkin and Harris both starred for D-2 programs, and so did linebacker Jordan Herdman of Simon Fraser in Canada.

Harris’s 633 career tackles is an NCAA all-division record and he received the Cliff Harris Award as the top small college defensive player while getting it done at Lindenwood in Saint Charles, Missouri.

“When I walked out on the field and saw all the scouts, all the GMs and all the coaches – saw all the guys putting on their helmets from Michigan and Alabama, it was really cool to be able to go out here and play with those guys,” he said. “The guys you see on TV playing on Saturdays.”

Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, who is leading the South team, said once a player gets to this point, it doesn’t matter what school name is on his jersey. Jackson played quarterback for Pacific.

“I just think you’re a football player,” he said. “I really don’t get caught up in the schools. Can you play?”

Pipkin played both football and basketball his first two years at Tiffin, located in a small Ohio town of the same name. His only Division I scholarship offer, to Northern Illinois, fell through after a coaching change.

A well-known alum was Pipkin’s connection to the Senior Bowl.

ESPN analyst and quarterback coach George Whitfield, who attended Tiffin, sent Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage a video of Pipkin’s play in November.

“I thought I’d watch it for about a minute and send it back and say, ‘No thanks,’ ” Savage said. “Fifty minutes later, I’m still watching it. I’m like, this guy’s got some subtleties to his game that you don’t necessarily see from college quarterbacks.”

He asked an NFL scout who was at the Ohio State-Michigan game to check him out. Savage said the scout gave a favorable review.

Kupp racked up 117 catches for 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Eastern Washington. He also has an NFL pedigree since father Craig played in 1991 for the Cardinals and Cowboys. Grandfather Jake Kupp is a former offensive lineman who’s in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame.

Kupp, who has drawn buzz as a potential early-round pick, said he doesn’t approach the Senior Bowl week any differently because he’s not from a major college.

“I’m just going to be me,” he said. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m not here with a chip on my shoulder. I’m just playing the game that I know and love and I’ve always played.”

Likewise, Pipkin said where you played is in the past. NFL aspirations make a pretty good equalizer.

“We’re all chasing the same dream now,” Pipkin said. “Whether you played at Alabama, Clemson or Tiffin, you don’t play there anymore.”

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