Flash back to 2012. Xavier Coleman thought he would never play football again. Tre’Von Johnson wondered if a Division I offer would ever come his way. Kyle Sloter hoped he would be the next gunslinger to star in Larry Fedora’s wide open offense. And the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah were about to embark on their first Big Sky Conference season, Cedar City seeming a world away from the National Football League.
Fast forward to 2017. Coleman, the former All-American cornerback from Portland State, just completed rookie mini-camp with the New York Jets.
Johnson, a hard-hitting and aggressive linebacker from Weber State, proved Jay Hill correct by moving from safety and earning a free agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
Sloter endured as much turmoil as any college football player one can find before somehow rising from the ashes and rocketing up NFL scouting lists despite starting for just one season at Northern Colorado.
And the SUU campus has become a hangout for NFL scouts, one of the Big Sky’s best producers of next level talent.
Coleman, Johnson, Sloter and a quartet from Southern Utah — cornerback Josh Thornton, wide receiver Mike Sharp, running back turned cornerback Raysean Pringle and tight end Steven Wroblewski — are among 24 former Big Sky standouts still harboring NFL dreams.
The first round of rookie mini-camps opened last weekend. A few NFL teams invited more than 50 tryout players to camp, eventually signing two or three to the 90-man roster that the league allows to report when mandatory mini-camp opens in mid-June.
Coleman made it through, ensuring he will at least get a shot to prove himself in training camp and make the Jets’ final 53-man roster. Johnson and Wroblewski will participate in Cardinals’ rookie mini-camp this weekend. Barring disastrous showings, both will likely be training camp invitees with chances to make the active roster. Thornton is in a similar situation with the Detroit Lions while Sharp will have to earn a contract as a rookie mini-camp tryout player with the New Orleans Saints. Pringle already proved that it could be done, earning a spot on the 90-man roster with the Green Bay Packers with a standout showing at rookie mini-camp last week.
Sloter will get his first chance to prove he belongs in training camp with his rookie mini-camp debut with the Denver Broncos this weekend.
“I never had an inkling in my mind that I would be in this position,” Sloter said days before the NFL Draft. “Everything has gone really well. In my mind, I’ve always known I had the ability. It was just about getting the opportunity and doing the most with it.”
Sloter, like Johnson and Coleman and anyone who chases NFL dreams from an outpost like Southern Utah are among the most unlikely of former Big Sky standouts to have such an opportunity arise. Making it out of an FCS league like the Big Sky to the NFL is unusual enough. But even in the second tier of Division I football, Sloter’s meteoric rise, Johnson’s position switch and rapid development, Coleman’s revitalized heart and a second batch of T-Birds gunning for NFL roster spots are notable.
NFL scouts first started noticing talent in Cedar City when standout receiver Tyson Poots broke on to the scene. Brad Sorensen, a 6-foot-5 former BYU transfer quarterback, earned significant attention during SUU’s first year in the Big Sky in 2012, eventually becoming a seventh-round draft pick.
During the 2015 season, former head coach Ed Lamb’s eighth and final at the helm, Big Sky Defensive MVP James Cowser, All-American safety Miles Killebrew and All-Big Sky cornerback LeShaun Sims caused NFL scouts to flock to Cedar City.
“I think they put us on the map,” SUU second-year head coach DeMario Warren said last month. “NFL scouts were able to see some of our juniors when they came out and did evaluations on our seniors. It was easier for them to come back because they already knew who we had on the team. We had some guys they were really interested in early in the process.”
Despite substantial draft hype, Cowser went undrafted but the defensive end signed with the Raiders shortly after the draft. After standout showings at the NFL Combine, Killebrew went in the fourth round to the Detroit Lions and Sims was selected in the fifth round by the Tennessee Titans.
“Coach Lamb did a great job of starting the recruiting process and getting guys with certain Sunday attributes as far as their height and their size,” said Warren, SUU’s defensive coordinator under Lamb during the T-Birds’ Big Sky title season in 2015. “We have been able to develop them. He wasn’t really worried about if they were the best high school player. He was more worried about getting guys who have the potential to be NFL players.”
Cedar City is one of the few Division towns with less than 30,000 people. The remotely located campus is home to less than 8,000 students. The nightlife is far from vibrant. Lamb, Warren and the leaders in charge of the program are aware of the challenges and embrace them fully. Now Thornton, Wroblewski, Pringle and perhaps Sharp give SUU another group with a shot to keep the pipeline going.
“We have one of the most unique environments in the country in Cedar City,” Warren said. “There’s not too much to do out here. We preach to our recruits that this will be a place where you can focus on academics and athletics and if you really want to put the work in, you are going to get an opportunity and not have any distractions. Our guys understand that an they embrace that.”
Watching Coleman, a strong and physical 5-foot-11, 190-pounder from Portland, shut down NFL Combine sensation Jon Ross when PSU took on Washington in 2016 would make it easy to forget Coleman’s health challenges during his time at Jesuit High. When he was a freshman, doctors told Coleman he could never play football again because a genetic disease in his heart. Coleman had two valves in his heart rather than three, causing doctors to ban him from high-contact sports like football.
Coleman starred in basketball and track but missed football. Then, during his junior year, doctors told him he would need open heart surgery immediately. Coleman survived a 10-hour surgery. Upon recovery, the bicuspid aortic valve disease that caused him so much trouble had been remedied. He was cleared to play football once again.
In a round about sort of way, the heart ailment proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because he couldn’t play football his sophomore and junior prep years, Coleman poured his heart and soul into track and field. He was on the Jesuit team, an AAU traveling team and ran club track in United States Track & Field Association events around the Northwest.
While players like Johnson and MSU’s Walker lamented the non-football part of the NFL process — from speed and jump training to having a pro day that has little to do with hitting running backs or covering receivers — Coleman thrived on the regimen.
“Because of the heart condition, I was super serious about track and field,” Coleman said the last week of April. “I ran AAU track, club track, USTFA in the summer. So I felt like I was back on a track team, doing all the same things I was doing back in high school. I enjoyed the process a lot.”
The affinity for sprinting showed. After training for 12 weeks at revered speed coach Tom Shaw’s facility in Orlando, Coleman ran 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash as PSU’s pro day and a 4.45 40 at the regional combine in New Orleans. His 40-inch vertical proved to be icing on the cake and almost was enough for New York to draft him in the seventh round.
Coleman, who leaned heavily on former Portland State safety Patrick Onwuasor (now of the Baltimore Ravens), said he also completely revamped his diet. The physical transformation for an already athletic player with some of the best cornerback film on the West Coast pushed his stock high enough for the Jets to covet his skills.
“That was the coolest thing I’ve done for myself in my athletic career was being able to completely focus on my nutrition,” Coleman said. “College is tough. You have practice, you have class. I just have to get a quick meal at Chipotle or something. But when you have months to map out a whole diet and stick with that diet every day, to see results — I saw results the first week, the second week — it’s kind of like I’m addicted now. You see results and you become obsessed with them.”
As recently as the fall of 2015, Sloter did not have a draft stock to speak of. The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder went from an up and coming gunslinger from Atlanta headed to Southern Miss to play for Fedora to the next in a long line of college football players lost in the shuffle of coaching changes and missed opportunities.
Sloter committed to play for Larry Fedora after Southern Miss’s 12-2 season in 2011. But Fedora left to take the head job at North Carolina. The Golden Eagles went 0-12 in Ellis Johnson’s first season, Sloter’s redshirt year. Johnson was fired, Todd Monken took over and moved Sloter to wide receiver, where he toiled for two years.
After transferring to Northern Colorado, Sloter lost UNC’s quarterback battle by a narrow margin to redshirt freshman Jacob Knipp before the 2015 season. Sloter dabbled at wide receiver again while serving as Knipp’s backup.
“It was tough,” Sloter said. “The best way for someone to survive those things is to never give up. I never gave up on the dream. As long as I was a part of a football team, I wanted to put my full heart and effort into it.
“I never got out of the mindset that something could happen. I had a belief that it was going to work out for the best. When my time was called, I wanted to be ready and make the most of it.”
Sloter’s time did come. Knipp suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in second game against Abilene Christian. Sloter came off the bench to earn FCS National Player of the Week honors thanks to 407 passing yards, six passing touchdowns and a 22-yard rushing touchdown. He went on to lead Northern Colorado to its first winning record (6-5) in its Division I history by throwing for 2,665 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Through the tutoring of well known quarterback guru Steve Fairchild, Sloter saw his draft chances rise as rapidly as any Big Sky player save Eastern Washington defensive end Samson Ebukam, an eventual third round pick by the Los Angeles Rams.
At showings during pro days at UNC and Colorado in Boulder, Sloter displayed his rocket arm and elite athleticism, running a 4.51 40. He also showed arm strength that registered at 59 miles per hour during one work out, a velocity exceeding top prospects like North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Cal’s Davis Webb and Clemson’s DeShaun Watson.
Some projected Sloter would be a third-day draft pick. During the seventh round, he was in constant contact with the Broncos and the Packers. The Broncos almost took him with the last pick of the draft, more commonly referred to as Mr. Irrelevant. Instead, the Broncos selected Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and signed Sloter shortly after.
“This is something I’ve dreamed of forever,” Sloter said. “At some point, every little kid dreams of being a professional athlete, being one of those guys you look up to. It’s emotional because I’ve never been the top dog. I’ve always had to work really hard for everything I have. I’ve had to work harder than all the people coming out of high school who were ranked harder than me. It’s kind of cool to be in this position and look around and some of those guys aren’t there any more. Some of them are still there but it’s amazing to have all the hard work come to fruition.”
As a senior at Hunter High outside Salt Lake City, Johnson had physical skills but nor real translatable position at the collegiate level. The 6-foot-1, then-190-pounder could run downhill and was a physical safety but self-admittedly struggled in coverage over the top. He fielded just two Division I offers — from Weber State and Southern Utah.
In 2013, he carved out a role as a true freshman at Weber, playing in 12 games. In 2014, Hill took over as Weber’s head coach. After observing Johnson’s aggressiveness toward ball carriers and his broad frame, Hill convinced Johnson to move to outside linebacker. His production skyrocketed.
Johnson made 62 tackles as a sophomore, earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a junior and earned first-team All-Big Sky accolades last season after leading WSU to its first playoff berth since 2009. He finished his career with 258 career tackles, 27 tackles for loss and nine career sacks. He was also selected to play in the 2017 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Then came the relentless training to try to prove scouts he wasn’t just a small-school standout. Many questioned his speed and explosiveness, doubts that were put to rest when the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder ran a 4.50 in the 40 and soared nine feet, 10 inches in the standing broad jump.
“It was weird because I’m a football player,” Johnson said. “I can play football for you. Transitioning to the broad jump and working on the vertical test was weird. I felt out of my element at times. I’m glad it’s over with. It was stressful because going into the pro day, you don’t know how you are going to perform. You hope it’s good enough.”
Before the draft, Johnson said he talked to five or six teams every single day. In the days leading up to the draft, Johnson tweeted frequently about embracing any opportunity that came his way. When the seventh round ended and the Cardinals called to offer him a shot to make the team as an inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense, Johnson jumped at the opportunity.
“The 31 other NFL teams will regret this move for years to come but I am extremely happy to say I’m an Arizona Cardinal,” Johnson tweeted on the final Saturday of April.
Signing the priority free agent deal wrapped up an eventful month for Johnson. He married his longtime girlfriend, Myley, with their soon to be two-year-old daughter Naiya in attendance. Getting the call from the Cardinals made the sacrifices of the last weeks, months and years all the more worth it.
“It gives me an extra drive, an extra gear to go work out in the morning,” Johnson said. “I know that I have a little daughter that is dependent on me to take care of her. She doesn’t know anything other than her daddy taking care of her. That gives me that extra push when I think I can’t do something. My situation is different than a lot of players. Most of these guys are 20, 21 with no kids. I’m 22 with a wife and a kid. That helps me because it keeps me out of trouble and they are my endless motivation.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or contributed. All Rights Reserved.