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Many NFL players came from universities in a big football conference like the Pac-10, Big 12 or Big 10. Stars are manufactured at the University of Southern California, Ohio State and Miami University ” not California Polytechnic State University.

Chris Gocong, an engineering senior at Cal Poly, will try to do what most “small school” players never get to: play in the NFL.

Several teams have expressed interest in the 2005 Buck Buchanan Award winner, but the New York Jets told Gocong they intend to select him if he’s still available in the third round of this weekend’s NFL draft. The Jets pick twice in the third, Nos. 71 and 91, respectively.

Gocong is expected to land in the third or fourth round, some analysts even projecting him to go in the second. But questions remain about his ability to make the jump from Division I-AA football to the NFL.

“I’d say I proved myself against bigger guys at the East-West Shrine Game and also against the competition at the combine,” Gocong said.

One of the most popular questions asked of Gocong is if he will be able to compete with seasoned NFL veterans being from a small school. The East-West Shrine Game gave Gocong a chance to match up with some of the top seniors in the class of 2006 ” and several hundred NFL scouts and other personnel in attendance.

Gocong, who roomed with USC defensive end Frostee Rucker at the San Antonio-based event, recorded three tackles in the annual all-star extravaganza.

It was an impressive outing for Gocong. However, doubts about his career at a Div. I-AA school remained. Undeterred, the top pass rusher in Div. I-AA believes he is just as talented as his Div. I-A counterparts.

“Coming into the whole process, (Frostee Rucker) had more clout because he was from USC, not Cal Poly,” Gocong said. “But after the East-West (Shrine) Game, we’re equals. We both played on the same field, we both went to the combine, and I think that kind of equalized (our status).”

The Santa Barbara County native, graduate of Carpinteria High School, averaged 1.81 sacks per game to lead the nation in 2005. He had 23.5 sacks in 13 games to break the Cal Poly record.

Some have compared the 6-foot 2-inch, 263-pound Gocong to Teddy Bruschi of the New England Patriots. Analysts also criticized Bruschi about his size and ability to convert to an NFL-caliber linebacker.

Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson doesn’t buy into the analogy, and he should know. Ellerson coached Bruschi at the University of Arizona as the top defensive assistant on staff.

“Frankly, Chris is bigger, faster, stronger,” Ellerson said.

At 6-1, 247 pounds, Bruschi has become a dominant force in the NFL, anchoring a Patriots defense during a stretch of three Super Bowl wins in four years. While analysts criticized his size, he at least played for a Div. I-A team.

“Obviously Teddy was playing at the highest level, Division I football. Chris has to keep answering that challenge,” Ellerson said.

Gocong isn’t the only potential small-school coup in the draft.

Abilene Christian, Div. II, defensive back Danieal Manning is projected to go in the high second round to low third round. David Pittman of Northwestern State (Louis.), a Div. I-AA school as well, is also projected as an early third round pick.

Manning, Pittman and Gocong are Kiper’s top sleepers in the draft.

Last year, former Cal Poly teammate Jordan Beck had a similar draft experience. The 2004 Buck Buchanan Award winner was selected No. 90 overall (third round) by the Atlanta Falcons.

Beck sat out the 2005 NFL season after breaking his foot in a pre-season game, but is expected to be ready for training camp come summertime.

The most notable defensive player to make the jump from Div. I-AA to the pros in recent years was current St. Louis Rams linebacker Dexter Coakley. The first recipient and two-time winner of the Buck Buchanan Award – 1995 and 1996 – reached the NFL after four years at Appalachian State. He led the Mountaineers to the Div. I-AA quarterfinals in 1994 and 1995, recorded 616 career tackles and tallied better than 20 tackles in a game on seven occasions.

Coakley was selected No. 65 (third round) by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1997 draft.

Gocong will watch the draft from his house in San Luis Obispo with friends and family. Despite the projections, Gocong knows there’s still a chance he’ll fall to the second day of the draft (rounds four-seven).

“I’m pretty happy (about being projected in the third round), but I won’t be emphatic until it happens in the draft,” Gocong said.

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