The NFL draft is less than a month away — 27 days to be exact — and Aaron Winchester is doing the best job he can to prepare for it.
Right now, that means doing plenty of film work, lifting and ... throwing to a chair outside of all things back home in Georgia. Staying sharp is important.
As Winchester describes what his training regiment has been like the past few weeks, he can’t help but let out a laugh when he talks about the chair. There isn’t much else the reigning Northeast Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Walter Payton Award finalist and former Central Connecticut State quarterback can do at the moment with much of the country currently shut down due to coronavirus concerns. It’s about making the best of the situation, even as he prepares for what he hopes will be the biggest moment of his life and football career.
“I’m doing what I can with what I got and the circumstances I got, and I’m making the most of it,” Winchester said.
So, it’s back to work whenever the opportunity allows it. In a way, for a quarterback who has already had a winding journey that led him from a small town 32 miles outside of Atlanta in Lawrenceville, Georgia, to Georgia State, an FBS school, to his transfer to CCSU, which plays at the FCS level, it’s another challenge, one he is eager to meet and show he not only belongs in professional football, but can thrive.
The game is important to Winchester and all he’s looking for is a chance to show that being a small-school prospect is only a label. He’s already gone through the pro days and the college football all-star games. Now, all he needs is one team to provide that opportunity.
“My love for this game and my love for pursuing my goals and my dreams aren’t conditional,” Winchester said. “It isn’t, ‘well, if I’m a starter, I’m going to do it.’ It isn’t, if I get everything I want, I’m going to do it.’ It’s, ‘I want this.’ I want this regardless of how it looks, regardless of how [this process] plays out. I really, really want this.”
‘IT’S A STIGMA’
But a love for the game and a dream are just that. Those are often reserved for fans and like most FCS prospects, Winchester is fighting an uphill battle, fair or not.
Players who compete collegiately at the lower levels – the FCS, Division II and Division III – are often put through more scrutiny than their FBS counterparts to see if they were able to dominate the competition at their respective levels and how they hold up when their teams play up. Not playing on TV every week where scouts, coaches and fans are able to look at players often hurts too.
There’s also the fact Winchester’s draft class includes a number of big names from some of the premier Power-5 schools such as Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow out of LSU, Oregon’s Justin Hebert, former Alabama and Oklahoma standout Jalen Hurts, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm.
“It’s a stigma,” said Jacob Dolegala, Winchester’s predecessor at CCSU who went through the draft process last year and ultimately signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent. “I did everything I was supposed to do. It was never a question about my talent; I didn’t play the level of competition some of the other quarterbacks [in my draft class] played against.”
The Blue Devils played one FBS opponent last season, against Eastern Michigan out of the Mid-American Conference, and they would have won had it not been for a blocked punt returned for a touchdown as time expired. It was CCSU’s only loss of the regular season before losing to Albany in the first round of the FCS playoffs. Winchester played well against Eastern Michigan, completing 17 of his 22 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown without an interception, showing he was able to compete with more than the Blue Devils’ typical opponents.
Overall, Winchester completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,549 yards, 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions in his lone season in New Britain. He also ran for 843 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and accounted for nine more scores on the ground as CCSU set a program record for wins in a season with 11 and was ranked in both final FCS top 25 polls. This came after making just three starts and appearing in 15 games over four years at Georgia State.
“There are a lot of guys in the league who played at the FCS level who are doing very well right now,” CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy said. “I think if you’re good enough they’re going to find you. There are a lot of guys at the FCS level who could be playing at the FBS level and a lot of guys at the FBS level who should be playing in the FCS.”
But according to the NCAA, a total of 157 players from 76 different FCS schools were listed on NFL opening week 53-man rosters for 2019, including names like quarterbacks Jimmy Garraoplo, who played at Eastern Illinois and guided the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl this season; the Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz, a former MVP candidate and starter at North Dakota State; Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp out of Eastern Washington; Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, who played at North Carolina A&T and was a Pro Bowl selection in 2018; and 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard, the Indianapolis Colts linebacker out of South Carolina State.
But with 1,696 NFL players, those from the FCS made up less than one percent — approximately .09 — of those rosters.
For comparison, the XFL, before it suspended its second inaugural season due to the coronavirus outbreak, had 50 former FCS players on the rosters of its eight teams. The Canadian Football League has 47 former FCS players listed on its teams’ rosters. One of that league’s best players and perhaps its best quarterback, Bo Levi Mitchell, played at the FCS level at Eastern Washington.
“I think a lot of FCS guys are underrated,” Dolegala said. “They might be late bloomers and not have developed until they go to that school. At FBS schools, a lot of guys are already developed in high school or they get the right kind of exposure. I was a scrawny little senior [in high school] who happened to get hurt in terms of being able to get scholarships.”
TRYING TO GET NOTICED
As it is in high school recruiting, exposure at the collegiate level is crucial to landing with a professional franchise.
There are a number of college football all-star games, most notably the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama and the East-West Shrine Game, as well as a number of smaller ones such as the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the Hula Bowl to get as many players in front of NFL scouts and coaches as possible. The NFL Combine, for those who are invited, and pro days where prospects can show off their skills and athletic ability are perhaps more important.
“Pro days and all-star games are big for small-school guys,” said Andrew Johnson, an area scout with the Bengals, who recommended Dolegala to the NFL franchise. “Huge. If you go to Penn State, if you go to Michigan, if you go to Alabama, everybody is going to see you. If you’re a senior starter there, you’re going to get noticed. If you’re a senior starter at Central Connecticut State, you know, everyone might not see you except for the area scouts.”
That’s what helped Dolegala land with the Bengals. After initially impressing at the College Gridiron Showcase in Texas, Dolegala was able to participate in the University of Buffalo’s pro day due to being from the area. It was there, in front of all 32 NFL teams, the former CCSU standout was able to wow them with his size, arm strength and deceptive athletic ability.
“The pro day was the turning point for him,” Johnson said. “And when he made our team in September, I had probably two or three [area scouts from other teams] call me and they were like, ‘oh man, we were hoping you guys would cut him. We were this close to signing him after the draft.’ His tape at Central Connecticut State was good, but the all-star game and his pro day are what really put him on the map.”
Luckily for Winchester, he was able to participate in both before the NCAA and the NFL canceled a number of its spring events.
He took part in the HBCU Spirit of America Bowl in Salem, Virginia in January and went back to Georgia State to participate in the program’s pro day on March 10. At both events, Winchester was able to impress scouts with not just his ability to throw the ball, but with his intangibles, his leadership ability, his ability to retain information having played in different offensive systems and how he handled himself during the event.
“There were 16 NFL teams and two CFL teams there and threw it pretty well,” Winchester said of his pro day. It rained earlier in the day, so in terms of running and change of direction stuff, I could’ve done better. But it is what it is, I’m a quarterback at the end of the day, so it shouldn’t be too big of a deal. I got some positive feedback from the scouts so I left that pro day very encouraged.”
BIGGEST TEST OF PATIENCE
Of course, one of the big questions for Winchester is if he can play quarterback at the NFL level and sustain the amount of hits quarterbacks often take from much bigger defenders than Winchester saw playing in the Northeast Conference. He’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds.
But Winchester knows his path to the country’s top football league might not be a straight one. He cites P.J. Walker as a perfect example. After going undrafted out of Temple, Walker signed with the Colts, was on and off their practice squad 12 times and was out of football last fall before signing with the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks. After an impressive showing this winter where he threw for 1,338 yards and 15 touchdowns, Walker signed with the Carolina Panthers on Wednesday.
“Honestly, I’ve always been a small-school prospect,” Winchester said. “I like being a big fish in a small pond. But my goal for me right now is the NFL. I’m not naive and it’s not NFL or nothing. I have the itch to play and I always told myself that as long as I have this itch, I’m going to play as long as I possibly can. If the way to get to the NFL is through the CFL or XFL, I’m looking forward to that ride. I’m looking forward to knowing what that path is, whatever that path is.”
It might also be at a different position, if Winchester is willing. Although he is a quarterback, Winchester and the people around him always make a point to say he is a team-first player. Whatever is required to do, he’ll do it.
But wherever he ends up, McCarthy knows that team is going to be getting not only a special player, but a person as well.
“We did not get a ton of interest in him at quarterback from our end,” McCarthy said. “But I think people are intrigued by him because of his playmaking ability. The plays he makes are impressive. I don’t know if he’ll get a shot to play quarterback in the NFL. I think he can get a shot in the CFL or at another level. He can certainly play beyond college, he just needs an opportunity to play. He makes plays and makes things happen. He’s bright, a student of the game and he was a notebook. He was like having another coach on the field.”
But these last few months since CCSU’s season ended and the next 27 days have been and are going to be longer — the culmination of all the hours and hard work Winchester has put into his game. The NFL Draft process can be an excruciating one and all he wants to know is if it’s paid off and where his next stop will be to realizing a childhood dream.
“It’s been a big test of patience and faith,” Winchester said. “I’m pretty spiritual when it comes to stuff in general and it’s easy to say that you have faith and that you have patience when you really don’t need it. But this is a time for me when this is really getting put to the test. Do I have the faith to continue to put in the work without really knowing if it will work out or having the patience to understand some things happen fast and some things happen slow? That’s the thing I’ve taken away most is to have the mental strength to push through anything negative or isn’t the goal. The goal is to be the best I can be and hopefully a team sees that I fit their goals.”
And whatever ever happens from now until the draft and after, Winchester is thankful for the journey that has gotten him to this point, from a small town outside Atlanta to New Britain and everywhere in between
“I broke down the other day thinking about it,” Winchester said. “Grateful that I didn’t quit, grateful that I had faith, grateful that I had people around me who didn’t lose faith in me either.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org