In the FCS Huddle: Teammates pass each other on draft board

One is among the more highly decorated defensive players in Southern Conference history, the other played three seasons on offense before switching to the other side of the ball as a senior.

Who is a likely mid-round selection in the NFL Draft and who may have to sign as an undrafted free agent would seem to be obvious.

It's not the case with former Georgia Southern standouts Brent Russell and J.J. Wilcox, who were like two ships passing in the night of their senior season in the opinions of NFL teams.

Both hope to be selected in the seven-round draft which runs from April 25-27 in New York, although Wilcox is considered the higher prospect despite playing strong safety only as a senior after spending his first three seasons as a slot back and a wide receiver in Georgia Southern's famed triple option.

"It doesn't matter where you go," Wilcox said, "it's just what you do when you get there."

Size matters in the NFL. The difference for the two players who helped Georgia Southern return to FCS prominence after a short down period - the Eagles reached the national semifinals in each of the past three seasons - is that Wilcox is considered an athletic beast with a 6-foot, 213-pound frame and Russell, despite being a three-time All-America, is slightly undersized for an NFL defensive tackle at 6-1 3/4 and 308 pounds.

When scouts descended on Statesboro in recent years, Russell sang the praises of Wilcox, who wasn't going to be an NFL prospect on the offensive side of the ball. Now Wilcox, who can relax with the feeling he will be drafted in perhaps the third or fourth round, believes Russell is a player whom teams shouldn't overlook.

"Brent is a very strong person," Wilcox said, "Brent knows his abilities and Brent understands this process. Brent helped me through this process a lot and I helped him through this process. His mind-set is still the same. He's still looking to get picked up in day three or through free agent. The same thing with me. Whenever your opportunity comes, you have to make the most of it. We have a great opportunity, a great window for us to showcase what we can do, and a lot of people wish they could be in our shoes right now."

For much of his career, Russell appeared to be the higher prospect than Wilcox. He was a three-time finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the outstanding defensive player in the FCS and, was named the 2011 SoCon defensive player of the year as a junior.

Constantly double-teamed, Russell's production wasn't quite the same during his senior season, when he was suspended by coach Jeff Monken for one game after being arrested for disorderly conduct outside a campus bar.

Russell has an excellent initial burst off the line and hustles to make plays, but he isn't overly fast (his best 40-yard dash was five-flat at Georgia Southern's pro day). He collected 54.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks, even blocked five kicks, in his 52-game career.

He most likely would be a three-technique defensive tackle in a four-man front, but he could possibly slide out to defensive end in a three-man front. He's even taken snaps as a center in recent months to make himself more attractive to NFL teams.

His strength, he said, is "My toughness and meanness. People hate to say this, but my nastiness that I play with. It definitely gives me a competitive advantage. I'm not going to back away from anyone, I'm not going to back down and I'm going to play to the last second.

"A lot of people say the competitive level that I played against my four years in college, even though I had a lot of stats and a lot of tackles and a lot of sacks, it might not be considered the same level as if a guy from Georgia had less numbers but his competition that he played against week in and week out (was higher). I'm just right now trying to show them what I can do. The thing is I have tape, I had tape against Alabama, I had tape against Georgia, and even Navy, so they have tape on me at a higher level."

"People know about me," added Russell, who has visited with the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs. "It's just going to come down to who wants to pull the trigger and take a chance on an FCS defensive tackle that might be a bit short" (he laughs).

Wilcox has the measurables coveted by NFL teams. He also had some postseason opportunities that Russell didn't have, showcasing his ability at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. He then returned to campus to join Russell for the Georgia Southern pro day.

He has a strong lower body and his time on offense provides him with good hand-eye coordination, although he must improve his range at safety. He totaled 88 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups in his senior season.

"Any time you come from offense to defense, it's a different type of learning, it's a different type of abilities that you use," said Wilcox, who has visited with the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans. "Coming in, the hardest part I think I had to do was backpedaling, getting used to people coming at me. But on the flip side, I was always aggressive, I always had a nose for the football and I was always a good tackler, even in high school when I played (the position). I think it's actually helped me out, being on offense.

"You never know about the NFL Draft. That's the buzz going around, second or third round, (but) there's so much you don't know. When the opportunity comes, I just want to make the best of it. I'll be ready for second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth, whenever I get a call, I'm going to be ready. I want the team to know that. When they pick me, they're going to have a hard-working player."

Russell and Wilcox are both represented by the same agent, Tony Agnone of Eastern Athletic Services outside Baltimore. Russell trained for nearly three months at Competitive Edge Sports in Duluth, Ga., while Wilcox prepared for the draft at Athletes' Performance in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

Both players plan to watch the draft at their Georgia home. Wilcox is from Cairo; Russell, who has a 6-year-old son, Nolan, is from Comer.

"Brent is one of the hardest workers and one of the best players I've ever been around," Wilcox said. "He has one of the best motors that I've ever seen."

"I knew J.J. was going to be an athlete," Russell said. "When he played receiver, teams were asking me about who else should they look at, I was like, 'Look at J.J.' ... he can do anything."

They still sound like teammates.