Andrew Whitaker, a championship winner and cornerback from Washington University in St. Louis, has a master’s degree and plans to go to medical school. But for now his focus is on course to become one of the few Division III athletes signed to the NFL. Med school can wait.
Wash U hasn’t sent a player to the league in half a century. Whitaker reportedly played four football games in high school. As unrealistic as it may seem to the outside eye, he’s fully immersed in his NFL dream. He trained with the Bengals last week and is ready to prove himself in a pro squad.
As he keeps his fingers crossed this weekend hoping for the best of the draft and the free agency undrafted signing period that follows, we took a look at what the odds really are for a player in Whitaker’s situation.
DIII in draft
Division I football is a tough market to break into after high school – unless you have a heavy recruit, your best chance is often trying to get into a DI roster. While there are some standout success stories out there, you probably won’t see much, if any, playtime as a walk-on. Talented kids end up at lesser-known schools to see the action on the field.
It is a general rule that there are less than a dozen former DIII players active in the league at any given time. Currently there are five who have attended all Midwestern colleges in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Two were chosen in the draft, both in the last two years, which could be good news for Whitaker. Some of them were also active in track and field during their college days – another parallel for the NFL hope. The other three were signed after the draft.
And just two months ago, Super Bowl winner Ali Marpet announced his retirement from the NFL, seven years after the Buccaneers second-round pick from Hobart College, making him the top-drafted DIII player of all time. Only 22 DIII players have been drafted since 1990, although more have been given opportunities to try their hand at the team through undrafted free agency. Often relegated to the practice groups, these dreamers must face a reality: however talented they may be, the competition they faced and the resources they had access to during their college years just can’t keep up with the power 5 graduates keep up who they play with.
When a DIII player like Whitaker is fully committed to getting into the NFL, there are always the other leagues where he can prove himself against higher-level competition. The reborn XFL and USFL are perhaps the best known, along with Fan Controlled Football and the Canadian Football League.
The problem is that these programs die as fast as they show up, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the years or playtime it would take you to make it to the next level. It’s a tough draw, but you can put in the absolute maximum of dedication and effort and still never see an NFL contract. It’s not impossible – the transfers have already been made – but it requires a no-guarantee commitment at the end.
2022 DIII market
Culver-Stockton College’s Andrew Rupcich was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine this year and has made a lasting impression with his Pro Day numbers. Culver-Stockton isn’t even in DIII — it’s an NAIA school, meaning it’s not an NCAA member.
North Central WR Andrew Kamienski may also be on some teams’ radars — he led the 2019 NCAA DIII in receptions and reception yards, and after graduation has placed his name on multiple all-time leaderboards in DIII for both categories.