Harding University out of Searcy gave a reminder of what true smashmouth football is all about on Saturday in the Division II National Championship game. The Bisons dominated every phase of the game in a 38-7 win over Colorado School of Mines to claim the program’s first national title.
One of key moments of the afternoon was sophomore slotback Braden Jay taking a toss left 73 yards untouched for a score to put the Bisons up 28-7 early in the third quarter. His big day was one of many examples where the Cabot native has shown up on the big stage against top DII competition.
There is no question that in today’s landscape with the transfer portal, high-level Division I coaches will be looking to add some of Division II’s top players to their squad with hopes of them making a similar impact as Cody Schrader, who in the span of two years went from playing in the DII ranks to leading the SEC in rushing at Missouri and causing trauma to Arkansas football fans with his boffo performance in Fayetteville.
A recent familiar example of going from the Division II ranks to Power 5 is wide receiver Isaac TeSlaa, who came to Arkansas from Hillsdale (Mich.) College, where he was named the Great Midwest American Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2022. While the Razorbacks had their oft-discussed offensive struggles, TeSlaa did finish second on the team in both receptions (34) and yards (351). His three touchdowns tied for third on the team.
There are a variety of reasons why high school standouts can be overlooked by Division I coaches in recruiting. Maybe it’s lack of exposure, grades, character issues and, of course, this standby: “You’re too small.”
Now more than ever, athletes have a chance to seek better opportunities for themselves via the transfer portal if they have ever want to leave. Below are 10 standout Division II players who fit the criteria of someone like Cody Schrader who could be ready to take that next step up. It should be noted that the players below haven’t expressed a desire to transfer away from their current schools, and certainly none have actually entered the portal – this is purely our opinion of Division II standouts who have standout potential for the next level.
Top Division II Prospects
Braden Jay | RB | Harding | 5-9, 185 | SO
The fullback receives most of the love in a flexbone offense and Blake Delacruz fills that role admirably for the Bisons, but Braden Jay is a gamechanger from his slotback position. He got a chance to display it on ESPNU, where the national championship was broadcasted, rushing for 161 yards on 11 touches – an eye-popping average of 14.6 yards per carry – with three touchdowns, including the aforementioned 73-yard score.
Jay has averaged 13.3 and 12.5 yards per carry in his two seasons with the Bisons and had 1,075 yards this year, which ranks 18th nationally, with 12 touchdowns. He also led Harding, which attempted only 56 passes on the season, in receiving with 168 yards and two scores on eight receptions.
Jay racked up 3,000 receiving yards as a prep wideout at Cabot High, as you can see in the video below, so it’s not a stretch to imagine if he ever played for a Division I school he could be used in a more hybrid role. At Harding, Jay has been ultra dangerous in the return game, averaging 25.8 yards per kick return in 2023 with a score.
Jay’s size – or lack thereof – is, in most cases, what normally comes next following “Braden is electric, but….” We see that on a recent Razorback Nation reply post to an Arkansas football fan advocating that Hogs offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino offer Jay a scholarship because he showed “1000% more effort than Rocket Sanders ever showed.”
Weighing less than 200 pounds isn’t necessarily a death sentence at the Power 5 level. Wes Welker, who shared essentially the same height and weight as Jay throughout his career, would have heard the doubts plenty of times before he ended his NFL tenure with 50 receiving touchdowns and just shy of 10,000 yards.
Former Clemson star Hunter Renfrow also says “Hi.”
Malachi Langley | WR | Lincoln (Pa.) | 5-11, 185 | SO
Virtually unstoppable while averaging over 100 receiving yards per contest in 2023, the thing that is most impressive about Langley is what he does once he gets the ball in his hands. He averaged 22.3 yards per catch, which was the most nationally of anyone with over 34 receptions.
In total, Langley, who also runs 200 and 400-meter dashes for Lincoln’s track and field program, finished the year with 1,049 yards (10th nationally) and 11 touchdowns on 47 receptions.
Dwayne McGee | RB | Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.) | 5-8, 180 | JR
Many athletes would do just about anything to have the kind of resume McGee has compiled in his collegiate career and he is not even finished yet. The only player in the history of the South Atlantic Conference to earn honors for freshman of the year as well as player of the year in the same season, McGee has rushed for 4,574 yards and 46 touchdowns in his career on 771 carries for a solid average of 5.9 yards a pop.
In 2023, McGee finished third nationally with 1,533 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging a career-high 6.8 yards per carry.
Cam Rice | DL | West Liberty (W.V.) | 6-3, 260 | R-SO
Rice transferred to West Liberty two years ago after signing with West Virginia out of high school in 2021 and has dominated the Division II ranks since. As a freshman with the Hilltoppers in 2022, Rice logged 31 total tackles, including 13.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks. He was even better this season as 23.5 of his 58 tackles were for loss, which included nine sacks.
It also makes a more intriguing prospect that he has a history of playing quarterback and linebacker in high school, which not only provides an advantage when you understand how other positions are played, but also that he has great versatility to go with the impressive production that could be of major value at a higher Division I program.
Melvin Smith Jr. | DB | Southern Arkansas | 6-0, 185 | JR
A mainstay in the secondary since his arrival in 2021 from Bossier City, La., Smith Jr. has played in 34 games over the past three seasons for the Muleriders. In that time, he has collected 130 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, with 35 pass deflections and four interceptions, all of which were nabbed this season. Two of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, including a 100-yards score, and Smith Jr. also led the nation in passes defended with 24.
Tanner Volk | DB | Central Washington | 6-1, 175 | JR
The Portland, Ore., native took over as the starter at free safety for the Wildcats about a month into his freshman season in 2021 and has not looked back since. He has increased his production in each of the past three seasons, going from 50 total tackles in 2021, to 69 in 2022 and 124 this season, including 8.5 for loss, along with 17 pass deflections and 13 interceptions. He finished fourth in this season’s Harlon Hill Trophy voting for best DII college football player and earned multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards.
For his career, Volk has collected 243 tackles, 11 of those for loss, with 32 pass deflections, 18 interceptions. He also forced a fumble and recovered two.
Zach Zebrowski | QB | Central Missouri | 6-2, 210 | JR
The 2023 Harlon Hill Trophy Winner led the nation’s top offense as the Mules were one of two teams to surpass 7,500 total yards, averaging 594 yards per contest to lead the country. Though it was in a one-point losing effort, Zabronski showed the country what he can do with a stellar performance against eventual national champion Harding in the first round of the playoffs. Zebronski completed 34-of-44 passes for 425 yards and five touchdowns, along with 94 yards on the ground against a Bisons defense that allowed just 10.9 points per game on the year and under 175 passing yards per contest.
Zebrowski is the only quarterback in Division II history to throw 60 touchdowns in a season (and sixth ever at any division of college football). He passed for 61 touchdowns while completing 68.2% of his passes for 5,157 yards while adding 652 yards and two scores on the ground. Zebrowski’s breakout season comes after struggling with Division I FCS Southern Illinois, but he could again get some looks from Division I programs following a record-breaking year.
Others Names to Consider
Tre Stewart | RB | Limestone (S.C.) | 5-10, 190 | JR
Finished ninth in the country with 1,360 yards and nine touchdowns on 188 carries. Played in 31 games in three seasons at Limestone and has rushed 420 times for 2,994 yards (7.1 YPC) and 24 touchdowns, along with hauling in 68 catches for 633 yards and five scores.
Chavon Wright | RB | Charleston (W.V.) | 5-8, 200 | R-SO
Was tabbed Mountain East Conference Freshman of the Year in 2022 when he rushed for 1,201 yards and 17 touchdowns, plus Wright threw for and caught a touchdown during that season. In 2023, Wright rushed 272 times for 1,518 yards and 20 touchdowns
Devin Williams | DB | Bowie State (Md.) | 6-0, 170 | R-JR
This past season finished with 36 total tackles, including 25 solo and 1.5 for loss, with 11 pass deflections, 3 interceptions, plus forced two fumbles and recovered another. Williams has 80 tackles in his career, 59 solo, with 26 pass deflections and four interceptions.
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