Dixie State’s Joe Don Duncan, Why He’s Unique, and Struggles Evaluating Small School-to-NFL Transition

Joe Don DuncanMaking the NFL as a non-FBS player isn’t an easy task. Every year, there’s around twenty-five non-FBS (dubbed “small school”) prospects every year that are in the NFL Draft mix. Inherent concerns are abound, from quality of talent around them, depth of talent they face, and perceived lack of talent they possess.

Joe Don Duncan has played at Dixie State his entire career, quickly becoming the feature weapon of the offense. One of the unique small school players-turned-NFL prospects thanks to the fact that he didn’t transfer down, Duncan has offensive versatility, flashes of NFL talent, and is reminiscent of a recent high draft pick. But for NFL teams, his performance at the Senior Bowl in late January may be the “make or break” week for the currently unknown tight end prospect.

Already receiving an invite to the Senior Bowl, Duncan has been a hot name amongst evaluators since his sophomore year at Dixie State. He was forced out of the 2012 season due to a knee injury, but quickly regained his productive ability. Despite hailing from a relatively unknown division II school, Duncan has been able to both produce and impress athletically throughout his career. Duncan is listed at 6’4, 270, and plays a mix of X-receiver, in an H-Back/slot role, and as an in-line tight end.

As a blocker, he doesn’t play with dominating force and isn’t overly powerful as an inline blocker despite his “listed” 270 pounds. He shows the ability to extend away from his body and match his defenders movement well enough, but doesn’t show the strength or hand placemen to drive block down the field and work in the interior.

As a pass catcher, Duncan shows the ability to attack the ball away from his body, timing his hands to the catch point well. He gathers the ball in traffic well, adjusting after the catch well for a tight end and changing direction as an upfield runner. He does only run a handful of routes, focusing mostly on quick outs (from the slot), hitch routes from the Y and X positions, and vertical routes close to the red zone.

Duncan reminds a lot of Zach Ertz, though slightly less athletic and smooth as a route runner. The fact that Ertz played at Stanford and had experience against top tier defenses certainly helped his value the same way it’ll hurt Duncan.

And that’s the struggle with evaluating small schoolers. The common buzzword is “level of competition”, but that can sometimes be an unfair characteristic of a prospect’s scouting report. There’s NFL talent at all levels of the country, and to just “assume” lesser competition is disregarding key parts of a player’s scouting report.

But, evaluating a prospect at a lower level requires detailed scouting and strict note-taking. When watching an SEC player, you’re evaluating IF they can make a play or HOW OFTEN do they have success. For small school players, it’s WHAT are they doing to produce, HOW are they dominating. Measuring the pure, translatable talents is difficult to feel comfortable with. These prospects need to prove they can not only dominate, but dominate athletically too.

In Duncan’s case, he’s never been matched up with top NFL talent throughout his career. He’s produced at a high level as a pass catcher since he was a sophomore, but has rarely been tested in coverage. He’s been limited by his offense, lack of quality receiving/quarterbacking talent around him, and forced into a “feature weapon” role despite his skill set/future NFL role.

But it’s the way he’s able to high point passes, clearing out defenders subtly and attacking the ball at its highest point. It’s the way he guides the ball into his hands in traffic, showing the route IQ to adjust to the secondary and positioning his body to deflect hits. It’s the way he plants and drives in a handful of routes from a variety of positions on the field.

It’s hard to feel confident in an evaluation on Duncan based on game film. In my case, I’ve heard of Duncan from Optimum Scouting evaluators for two seasons now, waiting for him to recover from his knee injury and gain NFL attention. But extrapolating NFL skills from his role in the offense, with the team around him, or by the competition he’s faced is both difficult and nerve-racking for potential drafting teams.

However, Duncan will have the ability to showcase his ability against top tier linebacker and safety talent at the Senior Bowl, certainly set up to be the biggest week of his football career as he gets a chance to prove he’s able to play in the NFL. If he can impress at the Senior Bowl, the 4th round isn’t out of the question.

The Zach Ertz comparison may be a bit premature, as Ertz is just a rookie in the NFL this year. But the tight end position is evolving still in the NFL. There haven’t been many tight ends that truly have experience as a route runner and blocker at four positions the way Ertz and Duncan have. Both have shown fundamental positioning and IQ as blockers, but mostly win thanks to their versatility, route running for their size, and pass grabbing ability.

Joe Don Duncan has earned the chance to play with the top talents of the big schools in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl. This is his best chance to prove that his skill set matches up (and potentially exceeds) his peers at the higher levels. And this may be the only chance for NFL teams to truly feel comfortable with Duncan’s skill set for the NFL.

Duncan’s a small schooler with a big opportunity. And he’ll make linebackers and safeties pay if they under-rate the kid from Dixie State come Senior Bowl time.