RALEIGH — RALEIGH In a game of power, football players often are judged by their size.
But two Shaw University players aren’t letting stature hold them back. Senior cornerback Darnell Evans and sophomore running back Marquise Grizzle both measure about 5-foot-7 while putting up big numbers as two of the Bears’ top players.
They are in good company.
N.C. State’s Bryan Underwood is one of the ACC’s most dangerous deep threats. N.C. Central’s Michael Jones leads all of FCS with four interceptions. Ryan Switzer has flashed his game-changing ability in UNC’s passing game and on special teams. And Duke’s Jamison Crowder has the potential to change the scoreboard every time he touches the ball.
All six are small by college football standards, shorter than 6 feet, no heavier than 181 pounds. All six have overcome long odds to stand out. All six have shown you don’t need to be 6-4, 220 to make a difference on Saturdays.
“We all know you can’t have the size we’d like all the time, but these guys, they play like they’re six-foot or above on the football field,” Shaw coach Robert Massey said.
Darnell Evans, cornerback, Shaw
Darnell Evans wasn’t always the smallest guy in the crowd.
“When I was younger, I was actually bigger than everybody,” he said. “Everybody started growing and I just stopped, so it really wasn’t an issue because I just loved the sport so much that I’d go out there and play regardless of how big the other guys are.”
Today, the senior cornerback is dwarfed by many of his defensive teammates.
He’s listed at 5-9, 181 pounds, but says he’s closer to 5-7.
That didn’t stop him from breaking the program’s career interceptions record last month. Evans had 20 leading into Saturday’s game at Fayetteville State.
“He’s deserving of it,” said Shaw coach Robert Massey. “He’ll put that record out of reach before he’s done here.”
Evans walked on at Shaw after spending a year in community college after high school.
“It was tough. I really wanted to play football,” Evans said, adding that his grades weren’t up to par after high school, but recruiters also overlooked the small school he attended in Madison, N.J. “I got one Division III look, and they don’t give scholarships. I felt like a lot of programs slept on me, so that really fueled me.”
Evans was named to the preseason All-CIAA team as a cornerback and kick returner. He was named a second team All-American as a defensive back.
“I think when (opponents) first see me, they think ‘this guy’s little,’” he said. “I’m always going to get that, so I’m used to it. I’m ready for it. ... but it doesn’t really matter how big or fast or how strong you are. It’s if you have heart. It’s how you play the game and your knowledge of the game, it has nothing to do with size.”
Grizzle makes Shaw go
Marquise Grizzle said his mother was a little worried when he started his college career.
The other players would be so much bigger than the the 5-7, 165-pound running back, but Grizzle leads the Bears, averaging 116.8 yards per game, in his sophomore season.
His size can serve as an advantage at times, he said.
“Out of the backfield, with how big my linemen are, I pretty much hide behind them and pick a hole willingly because linebackers can’t see where I am,” Grizzle said.
Coming out of high school in Currituck County, he was told by several Division I programs that he wasn’t big enough to play running back.
“The only way I could overcome it was proving myself on the field. ... I don’t care how big you are, I’m still going to do what I do,” he said.
Massey said Evans and Grizzle are examples that size isn’t everything.
“They work hard. They’re two smart individuals, and they are good football players,” Massey said. “You can’t measure a man’s heart, and they’re proof that. ... They are our two best football players. They just happen to be short.”
Underwood is Pack’s big playmaker
N.C. State junior Bryan Underwood is built like a slot receiver but plays like a bigger receiver. Underwood, who’s listed at 5-9 and 180 pounds, has the ability to beat defensive backs down the field with his straightaway speed.
It also helps that sometimes the defense doesn’t think he’s big enough to make big plays, even though he has 13 career touchdowns.
“Some people do underestimate you because you’re maybe smaller than a typical receiver,” Underwood said.
Underwood leads the Wolfpack with 24 catches for 268 yards. He had an 80-yard touchdown catch against Central Michigan on Sept. 28 and led the Pack with 11 catches against Wake Forest last week.
He ranked second in the ACC last season with 10 touchdown receptions, mostly on deep routes, in the Wolfpack’s pro-style offense. The change to the spread has been an adjusted for Underwood, who didn’t catch a pass in the opener but his role in coordinator Matt Canada’s offense has grown each week.
Underwood has also become a weapon in the Pack’s rushing game. He has seven rushing attempts this season for 101 yards. His 36-yarder against Clemson on Sept. 19 almost turned into an 83-yard touchdown but he was ruled out-of-bounds.
Underwood’s size, he says he’s 5-10 and 175 pounds – up about an inch and 20 pounds since he joined the program in 2009 from University Heights, Ohio – has been an asset in this offense.
“In our offense, you can run a jet sweep and somebody might not be able to see you coming around the horn,” Underwood said.
Size motivates N.C. Central DB Jones
Michael Jones didn’t have to look any further than his namesake to see that size shouldn’t be a deterrent from football.
His father, Michael Jones Sr., played cornerback at Howard University and later at the semipro level.
“Growing up, my father used to tell me the stories about how hard he used to play when he was at Howard. (He) always told me he wanted me to be better than he was,” Jones said.
Jones, a freshman cornerback at NCCU, currently leads the FCS standings in interceptions with four through five games. He is also one of 20 players recently named to the watch list for this year’s Jerry Rice Award, given to the top first-year player in the FCS.
He says he’s 5-9 “and a half,” and is listed at 175 pounds.
“I think being smaller it just makes you want to go harder,” he said “You’re going to be underestimated a lot so you have to do that.”
UNC Switzer’s size? No big deal
Ryan Switzer doesn’t think much about his size, or the fact that he’s usually among the smallest players on the field.
“It’s been something that I’ve been dealing with since I started playing football,” Switzer, North Carolina’s 5-9 freshman wide receiver, said earlier this week. “I was never the biggest guy, but what I lack in height I (make up) in other aspects of the game.”
Switzer’s size didn’t stop him from becoming one of the top prospects in the nation at George Washington High in Charleston, W.Va. He arrived at UNC after earning first-team Parade All-American honors, and after twice being named the Gatorade Player of the Year in West Virginia.
At UNC, he has already played a prominent role on offense and special teams, where he has become UNC’s punt returner. During the Tar Heels’ loss at Virginia Tech last week, he returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown, but a block in the back penalty nullified the play.
A penalty also wiped away the 82-yard touchdown pass that Switzer caught against Georgia Tech. The plays didn’t count on the scoreboard, but they provided a glimpse of Switzer’s game-changing potential.
“Other than what I hear from other people, it doesn’t really come into my head, being a smaller guy,” said Switzer, who’s listed as 175 pounds. “Because it’s not abnormal. One of my good friends of mine, (former West Virginia receiver) Tavon Austin, is 5-9 – the same height as me.
“So it’s been proven that guys this height and this quote-unquote small can have an effect and be a difference maker.”
Duke’s Crowder ‘fun to watch’
As a 5-9, 175-pound receiver, Jamison Crowder was never a combine all-star in high school. But it didn’t take him long to impress his Duke teammates when he arrived on campus.
“You hear it all the time, speed kills,” senior receiver Brandon Braxton said. “He is the quickest person I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Some of the moves he makes on punt returns are crazy ridiculous. We all knew he was going to be something special.”
Crowder, a junior, has straight-line speed, but his true talent is in his ability to change directions and juke defenders. That’s been evident this year on his punt returns, as he ranks fifth in the nation with an average return of 19.3 yards per punt, and his two touchdowns lead the country as well.
On offense, he is Duke’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver, posting 37 catches for 530 yards (both rank top five in the ACC) and a pair of touchdowns. He still plays with that chip on his shoulder he had in high school, making up for what he lacked in height with toughness and speed.
“He could be 3 inches shorter and I’d still take Jamison Crowder,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “If you ever saw him play basketball, you would understand what speed and quickness look like as well. He’s fun to watch.”