By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
The last time Delaware appeared on the biggest stage in the Football Championship Subdivision was 2007, when the Blue Hens were overwhelmed by the Mountaineers of Appalachian State, 49-27.
To the rabid fans bases in Boone and Newark, it was the quintessential clash of the titans, FCS style.
The Mountaineers, who had upset Michigan in the first game of the season, faced off against the Blue Hens, who had upset bowl-bound Navy.
Both had survived tough conference play in the Southern Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association, respectively, and had proven through the gauntlet of the playoffs that they were the two elite teams.
But rabid fans weren't the only ones paying attention.
The year of 2007 was the season where the casual football fan tuned into the national championship game to take a peek at some potential NFL stars.
Two quarterbacks — Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards and Delaware's Joe Flacco — used the game as their audition for the next level.
Which players suiting up this Friday will make the most of their audition at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas?
We will take a look back before looking forward to Friday.
Going into the 2007 season, Joe Flacco was seen as a late-round pickup by many NFL draft scouts — maybe.
FCS watchers knew that the Blue Hen offense, with seniors Flacco and running back Omar Cuff in the backfield, would put up a lot of points. But few put Flacco, who had 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2006, as a potential starting NFL quarterback.
Some thought Cuff, whose running took a lot of pressure off of Flacco, would have a better shot at the pros.
But in that fateful year when Flacco and the Blue Hens knocked off Navy 59-52 in a classic shootout, a lot of heads were turned by his 434-yard, four-touchdown, zero-interception performance.
Flacco had always had the tools. But his accuracy and his ability to dissect the Midshipmen defense, going 30-of-41 passing, showed that he was growing into a special player.
After a late-season slide — including a 16-10 loss to Villanova, arguably his worst game as a Blue Hen starter — Flacco re-established himself in the playoffs, with six touchdowns, zero interceptions, and over 700 yards of total offense in wins over Delaware State, top-ranked Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois.
As the playoffs went along, he seemed to improve in leaps and bounds. Things that NFL scouts look at - footwork, arm strength, composure - seemed to improve week to week.
"You love his arm?" his coach, K.C. Keeler, told the USA Today at the time. "You're going to love his demeanor and his ability to handle pressure even better than his arm."
"I wanted this to happen, and I thought it could happen," Flacco said. "I didn't know if it would happen. I don't know if I believe it. (I) won't believe until it happens."
COOL AS A CUCUMBER
The Mountaineers, on the other hand, had turned to a sophomore quarterback in their season-opening shocker against Michigan.
Of course this was a quarterback who had already become the first freshman to lead his team to an FCS national title.
While it was mostly FCS fans that had heard of Armanti Edwards before the win against the Wolverines, the entire college football world knew who Edwards was and how potent Jerry Moore's spread offense could be after Week One.
Ironically, Edwards went into that game with a bone chip in his shoulder. He reinjured it in the third quarter of the Michigan game and was hurt for several weeks — an injury which very nearly derailed ASU's season, since he wasn't 100% in Mountaineer losses to Wofford and Georgia Southern.
But his hero performance against bitter rival Furman, in a 34-27 win with 337 yards of total offense and two touchdowns, propelled his team to a regular season-ending three game winning streak, a co-championship of the SoCon, and a surge into the playoffs as a very dangerous team.
On a team which would feature future NFL players Corey Lynch (Bengals/Buccaneers) and Dexter Jackson (Buccaneers), the Mountaineers took an improbable 28-27 win over James Madison and a 38-35 shootout at home versus Eastern Washington, where Edwards would get 347 all-purpose yards and a score.
In the championship game, Appalachian State's spread offense would win the day after Edwards connected on two touchdown passes to Jackson and running back Kevin Richardson to scoot to a 28-7 lead.
But NFL scouts were still gazing at two potential pro players the entire game, marveling at Flacco's arm strength and resolve after trailing by three touchdowns, and Armanti's pure speed and reactions as quarterback.
Flacco's numbers to close the year and his 334 yard, one touchdown, zero interception performance - led to an incredible off-season for the New Jersey native, culminating in a wonderful Shrine Bowl game and the 18th pick of the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
As for Edwards, the question on the 6-foot-tall quarterback was always going to be: where will he play?
In the 2010 draft, the Carolina Panthers took him in the third round, undoubtedly looking at his highlight reel from the 2007 championship game as a part of their scouting.
Activated late in the season, he saw his first touches as a wideout and quarterback this season, with hopes of being a bigger part of the Panther offense next year.
I think the 2007 will be seen as a watershed year for the FCS on a multitude of levels, but one of its legacies is that it has made the FCS national championship game from a mecca for diehard FCS fans only to a national showcase for college football fans and paid and unpaid NFL scouts to look for the best talent.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
In the last five years, there are 17 participants in the FCS championship that currently have pro careers in the CFL and NFL.
We've already gone over Flacco and Edwards: let's see some of the others, including an amazing six members of the 2008 UMass team that have gone on to play professionally.
S Corey Lynch (Buccaneers): The hero who blocked the extra-point against Michigan has worked hard and started at safety for the Bucs in their final five games, nabbing an interception against Atlanta.
LB Jason Hunter (Broncos): The lineman who returned Northern Iowa quarterback Eric Sanders' fumble for the game-clinching touchdown in the 2005 national championship game has had a solid NFL career thus far, getting 60 tackles and three sacks as a starting linebacker.
OL Chad Reinhart (Bills): It's been a long road for the member of the Panthers' line in that fateful 2005 game, but he finally started his first three games for Buffalo to close out their season.
OL Vladimir Ducasse (Jets): The highly-touted rookie appeared in his first two games as a Jet to close out the year, which seems to portend a bright future.
S James Ihedigbo (Jets): Ducasse's teammate on the Jets, who had an interception in the 2006 championship game, has been a solid player in New York's backfield, with 22 tackles and 3 sacks.
RB Matt Lawrence (Ravens): A multi-faceted back on the Minutemen who logged a touchdown in their 28-17 defeat, he is still on the Ravens' roster but hasn't logged a carry of reception in 2010.
WR Brandon London (Montreal, CFL): UMass' leading receiver is currently on the practice squad of the Grey Cup-winning Alouettes.
DB Courtney Robinson (Sasketchewan, CFL): The defensive back, who was a backup for the Minutemen in their national championship appearance, appeared on the Rough Riders' practice squad after being cut by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
DB Sean Smalls (Toronto, CFL): The defensive back, who had 59 tackles as a sophomore, is on the Argonauts roster, where he registered 3 tackles in 2010.
DE Lawrence Sidbury (Falcons): The player who was the unquestioned MVP in the 2008 national championship game with his dominating 4 sack performance, he has appeared in six games for the NFC South-topping Falcons this year but has been inactive for much of the season.
S Colt Anderson (Eagles). The hard-hitting safety of the Griz became a hard-hitting free agent who has seen a lot of time on special teams for the NFC East-winning Eagles. He started at safety in the last two games of the year.
WR Marc Mariani (Titans): The big-time FCS player, who almost singlehandedly willed the Griz to victory in their wild 61-48 playoff victory against South Dakota State, is on the roster of the Titans this year. He's been a bright spot in their return game, returning both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in 2010.
S Shann Schillinger (Falcons): The steady tackler who accompanied Anderson in Montana's daunting secondary is also a special teams maven for the NFC South champion Falcons with eight tackles on the year. He was inactive in the season finale vs. the Panthers.
QB Cole Bergquist (Sasketchewan, CFL): The guy who was running for his life against Sidbury, the Grizzly quarterback was third string on the Rough Rider squad that made it to the Grey Cup.
(This list also doesn't include potential draftees from 2009's national champion, Villanova, in the 2011 draft. Notable names who will be on draft boards this April are OL Ben Ijalana and - if he elects to play football instead of baseball - WR Matt Szczur.)
FRIDAY NIGHT'S POTENTIAL HEROES
So who are the five guys to watch this weekend at Frisco who might have a shot at being drafted?
1. Pat Devlin, QB, Delaware. It's hard to escape a certain "Flacco-ness" that appears to have emerged in the last weeks of the season and playoffs with this supremely accurate quarterback. 22 touchdowns and only two — that's correct — interceptions in fifteen games has many folks buzzing, and his composure and accuracy down the stretch of the playoffs — with eight touchdowns, zero interceptions and over 700 yards of total offense in three playoff games - is so reminiscent of Flacco's run in 2007 it's downright scary. It's possible that the championship game could be the same sort of springboard to Devlin as it was to Flacco.
2. J.C. Sherritt, LB, Eastern Washington. He could be the most dominating defensive player in all of FCS, pound for pound, at 5-10, 220 pounds, he definitely is. With an eye-popping 157 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and three sacks, he's got football instincts to spare. The question is: does he have the tools to make it in the NFL, perhaps as an inside complement in a 3-4 defensive alignment?
3. Matt Marcorelle, LB, Delaware. Marcorelle, a senior who seems to have been a Blue Hen for a decade, has been a great outside linebacker for Delaware in 2010 as well, notching up 81 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and seven passes defended. In the pros, he could be a daunting pass-rushing specialist on the defensive line.
4. Tyler Jolley, DT, Eastern Washington. Next to Renard Williams, the 6-3, 285-pound Jolley is an excellent run stuffer to the tune of 61 tackles and 5 sacks. With a statement game against Delaware's offense — preferably with a sack or two — he could turn scouts' heads in order to make it to an NFL training camp.
5. Jesse Hoffman, DB, Eastern Washington. With three interceptions and 11 passes defended, an impressive performance by the cornerback could beef up his credentials as a special teams maven at the next level — or maybe even a spot on NFL draft boards.