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Pick 6: Small college rookies with a chance to crack an NFL roster this season

The Pro Football Hall of Fame includes plenty of members who learned the game at smaller schools, and there are scores of others who carved out solid NFL careers despite coming from places that don't get attention the way the powerhouse programs do.

Larry Allen, Darrell Green, Deacon Jones, Jerry Rice and Walter Payton are just a few of them. Don't forget Howie Long, John Randle, Andre Reed, Phil Simms or Kurt Warner, either.

Each summer, mixed in among the league's latest group of rookies, a handful of new prospects from the lower NCAA levels are scattered about training camp sites around the country. Some of them will make the team. Others will land on a practice squad. The rest will become free agents again, having to prove their skills anew. All of them are carrying the hope of becoming the next NFL star to hail from an unheralded college or university.

Here are six such prospects this year with a legitimate opportunity to stay on the roster when the regular season begins:

— Rufus Johnson, Tarleton State linebacker, New Orleans Saints.

Johnson is raw but big at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds with speed coaches like, and his chance to crack the roster will be enhanced by his status as a sixth-round draft pick, 183rd overall. He's been getting second- and third-team snaps in practice at outside linebacker in the Saints' new 3-4 scheme.

The Lone Star Conference's defensive lineman of the year, Johnson had 50 tackles and 10 sacks as a defensive end last season. The Saints have a decent track record of mining top talent from small schools, including All-Pro guard Jahri Evans (Division II Bloomsburg), running back Chris Ivory (Division II Tiffin, now with the New York Jets), wide receiver Marques Colston (Hofstra, which has since disbanded its FCS team) and left tackle Jermon Bushrod (FCS Towson), a three-year starter now with the Chicago Bears.

— Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech wide receiver, Buffalo Bills.

Rogers has shown flashes of his ability at training camp, including a 48-yard catch in the team's scrimmage on Monday night. The undrafted rookie, however, remains in a secondary group of wide receivers competing for only one or two final spots on the roster. Rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin and second-year receiver T.J. Graham are all ahead of Rogers on the depth chart, getting more playing time with the starters in practice.

Rogers went undrafted. He was dismissed from the team at Tennessee, but he was dominant at the FCS level with Tennessee Tech last season with 78 receptions for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns.

— Rontez Miles, California University of Pennsylvania safety, New York Jets.

Miles is a darkhorse candidate to make the team at safety, where he is currently listed as sixth or seventh on the depth chart. His spot is mostly due to the fact that he missed the first week of practice while on the physically unable to perform list with a hip injury before being removed last Thursday. Since, he's been in the rotation working with the third-team defense. He's a hard hitter, who reminds coach Rex Ryan of Laron Landry, who spent last season with the Jets. Miles will likely make his presence felt — literally — in the preseason games.

After leaving Kent State, Miles wound up at Division II California, where he became a two-time Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He plays in honor of his half-brother, who is in prison in Pittsburgh awaiting murder charges.

— David Bass, Missouri Western defensive end, Oakland Raiders.

Bass, like Johnson, has the benefit of being a draft pick, albeit in the seventh round out of Division II Missouri Western. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Bass has been in the mix for a role behind veterans Andre Carter, Jason Hunter and Lamarr Houston and incumbent starter Jack Crawford, but he has the potential to contribute on a team that has been lacking a pass rush. Bass has the quickness and ability, too, to drop into coverage and play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Bass, who had 39½ sacks in his college career, stood out in the East-West Shrine Game, one of the annual all-star events for prospects before the draft.

— Michael Cox, Massachusetts running back, New York Giants.

Cox played first at Michigan but redshirted his freshman year and totaled only 19 carries over three seasons before graduating and using his final year of eligibility at FCS school Massachusetts. Cox is in competition for the third running back spot behind David Wilson and Andre Brown and could also find a niche on special teams.

Cox managed 715 yards and five touchdowns rushing last season for the Minutemen, who finished 1-11. But a strong performance at the NFL scouting combine helped put him higher on the radar, and the Giants were intrigued enough to draft him in the seventh round.

— Adam Thielen, Minnesota State wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings.

Signed by the Vikings after a post-draft rookie tryout camp, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Thielen was given a chance to not only suit up for the team he rooted for as a kid but take part in training camp practices on the same fields he played on in college at Division II Minnesota State.

With Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright, four wide receiver spots are filled, but Thielen is in the mix for at least a place on the practice squad by impressing coaches with his route running and speed.

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AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in Metairie, La., Dennis Waszak in Cortland, N.Y., and John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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