Jason Wilde / Special to The Forum, Published February 22 2014
Slight by Gophers still sticks with former Bison standout Billy TurnerINDIANAPOLIS – Billy Turner hasn’t forgotten.
It doesn’t matter that the North Dakota State offensive lineman loved his time in Fargo, or that the school ended up being the perfect fit for him. It doesn’t matter that he started 56 games for the Bison, was a two-time Associated Press FCS All-American and won three straight national championships with them.
It doesn’t matter that he’s now on the verge of the NFL, having followed up a strong showing at the Senior Bowl last month by making another good impression at the annual NFL Scouting Combine. It doesn’t matter that he’s projected as a third-round pick in the May 8-10 NFL Draft.
As a prep, Aaron Rodgers used to sneak into the Pleasant Valley High School computer lab and look at the rankings of quarterback prospects in northern California – lists he wasn’t on. He still has the rejection letter from Purdue that read, “Good luck with your attempt at a college football career.”
Now an NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion and football’s highest-paid player, Rodgers carried those slights with him as motivation all the way to the NFL. They pushed Rodgers to prove himself as much as his brutal wait during the 2005 NFL Draft did.
For Turner, his hometown University of Minnesota snubbing him when he was coming out of high school continues to do the same for him.
“I think it is tangible,” Turner said during a break in the Combine. “I kind of play like I have a chip on my shoulder. I’ve carried that with me from high school to college and now to here.
“I’ve always kind of been that guy that for some reason had something to prove. Coming out of high school, I got under-recruited. Making this next step and coming from a smaller school, guys want to see me against bigger opponents. I have that question mark above my head.
“I’ve had that chip on my shoulder and I played that way, and I think that’s going to continue to propel me throughout my career.”
It’s taken him this far, with two NFL scouts saying they had Turner as a third-round pick following his Senior Bowl performance. And that’s further than the Gophers evidently thought he’d get coming out of Mounds View High School.
Even though he had an uncle who played at Minnesota, Turner watched as the Gophers passed on his older brother Maurice, who ended up playing wide receiver at Northern Iowa. He hoped he wouldn’t meet the same fate, but during the recruiting process, the Gophers were in on Twin Cities blue-chip recruit Seantrel Henderson, and according to Turner, they told him he could gray-shirt – meaning they would have him delay his enrollment or have him walk on until a scholarship came available. Then, if Henderson went elsewhere, their position on him might change.
Henderson, who played at Cretin-Durham Hall and was in the same conference as Turner, ultimately chose Miami (Fla.). And when Gophers coach Tim Brewster reached out to Turner again, he wasn’t interested.
“The University of Minnesota being 5-10 minutes from my house, I got overlooked,” said Turner, whose father Maurice was drafted by and played for the Minnesota Vikings. “They told me they were looking at me, might have a scholarship.
“They called me (after Henderson went to Miami) and I said, ‘You guys missed the boat.’ I ended up choosing North Dakota State because I liked the coaching staff up there and everything going on. And it turned out one of the better decisions I made.”
Last season, Henderson rotated at right tackle for the Hurricanes and is projected as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. It’s a safe bet that the ultra-motivated Turner will be chosen before Henderson, who never realized his collegiate potential.
“It was always a dream for me to the play in the NFL. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” said Turner, whose older brother Bryan Kehl is a linebacker for the Washington Redskins. “When I got to NDSU, I ended up playing as a true freshman as an offensive lineman, which isn’t really done that often. After progressing from year to year, that dream in my hand became more of a reality to me. When I got invited to the Senior Bowl and combine, I knew it was right there. I just had to reach out and grab it.”
Those NFL bloodlines do mean something, too, according to Vikings GM Rick Spielman, whose brother Chris played in the NFL.
“(But) you always have to look at it individually. Me and brother had bloodlines, but I was a little bit more stiffer than him,” Spielman said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now, and he was a great player. But from a background standpoint, going into the NFL is not going to be something that’s brand new to him. He has family that’s been through the process and probably has a pretty good idea of what he’s walking into as a rookie.”
According to the NFL official reports, Turner ran the 40-yard dash in 5.16 seconds Saturday and bench-pressed 225 pounds 25 times. He measured at 6-foot-4M, – “Which was surprising because I was 6-5 something at the Senior Bowl,” he said with a laugh – and weighed in at 315 pounds, with 10-inch hands and 34-inch arms.
Although Turner will face some questions about coming from NDSU, it will not be a significant factor.
“They’re all playing football,” Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. “Obviously it’s a different level of competition a lot of times, and you kind of have to make a projection as we talked about earlier about what they’re going to be able to do at the NFL level, but they’re all playing football. It’s played the same way by the same rules. There’s been a lot of those guys that have been very successful, and we’ve been able to have success with some small-college guys.
“There are good players in the small colleges. You’ve got to spend some time looking at those guys and trying to find out if those guys’ games project to this level.”
As the draft approaches, Turner’s game – he has good feet and athleticism, and he could play right tackle, guard or even center at the next level – projects quite well. And he’s plenty motivated to prove it.
“I came from an FCS school, and FCS guys definitely don’t get as much love as a lot of these other guys from the BCS schools,” Turner said. “Regardless of me being up at North Dakota State, we won three national championships in a row, we beat every FCS team that we played the last four years. But there’s still a question mark above my head.
“I felt it was important for me to get there and prove myself that I can play with those guys, (that) guys at smaller schools are still able to chase their dreams.”