Doing things the hard way is nothing new for former Dixie State tight end Joe Don Duncan.
His path to the pros has included walking on at an FCS school, then going the community college and Division II route, all while dealing with a litany of injuries.
Now, after being unable to participate in this year's Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game after being invited to both — again, because of an injury — Duncan is preparing to find out his first NFL home when the league conducts its annual draft next weekend.
While he wasn't able to participate fully in February's NFL Combine, Duncan bench pressed 225 pounds 35 times, best among tight ends at this year's event. Earlier this week, Duncan was medically cleared at his NFL medical recheck following foot surgery, according to National Football Post. That allowed him to have his Pro Day for NFL teams in California, just days before the draft.
The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Duncan is an intriguing prospect, having earned Division II All-America honors while catching 71 passes for 1,045 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He set numerous records at Dixie State and is one of a small number of small-school players hoping to make their way into the NFL this season.
What are others saying about this southern Utah star?
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks believes Duncan is one of several prospects who could be the next Wes Welker — an underalded, undrafted wideout who has built himself into one of the most reliable receivers in the NFL. "He'll be a 25-year-old rookie in the NFL after having stints at Sacramento State and El Camino (Calif.) Community College, but given the premium teams place on tight ends who can move around and line up in multiple spots, Duncan will get a shot to prove he can elevate his game against much stiffer competition."
Is Duncan a deep sleeper? Packer Report's Dave-Te' Thomas thinks so. "Dixie State's Joe Don Duncan had almost 2,000 receiving yards during his final 20 collegiate games. His leg issues are the only thing stopping him from emerging as possibly the best tight end in draft."
Could Duncan's height — at 6-2, he's a couple inches short of a more ideal NFL height of 6-4 or 6-5 — hurt him come draft day? Scott Baines of CLNS Radio believes so, but he thinks Duncan has the talent to get drafted. "He may be considered a steal in the lower half of the draft. Duncan did well last year, catching 71 passes for 1,045 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 10 games in 2013, but playing Division II level football can hurt his stock."
NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki said Duncan's ticket to making a roster could be his long-snapping abilities. Duncan's strengths include "big, soft hands and adjusts very well to the ball — outstanding hand placement and catching radius. Good muscularity and weight-room strength. Very good coverage recognition — feels his way through zones and finds open areas."
Rob Rang of CBSSports.com said Duncan will be a project as a blocker, considering he played mainly out of the slot at Dixie State. "Dominated against lower level competition and is not a top-notch athlete. Accelerates smoothly but possesses only fair straight-line speed, overall. Shows only fair lateral agility and while physical, simply doesn't break enough tackles given his size advantage over most of the defenders covering him."
Pundits agree that Duncan is likely to be a third-day draft pick if he is selected. Behind the Steel Curtain's Scott Pavelle said, "It's one of those cases where rawness and injury risk are pushing down the draft stock of a superior talent — a lot more potential for boom to pair against the overall likelihood of bust."
The New England Patriots put together highlights of his time at Dixie State. Watch the video here.
Marc Shea of Hogs Haven, a Washington Redskins fan site, said Duncan would be a good fit for teams like the Redskins, Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons. "Duncan is very versatile. He can play tight end, full back, half back, and special teams. He's even been a long-snapper! He is a reliable pass catcher with good quickness. He's a fighter and keep his legs moving until the end."
Raymond Summerlin of Yahoo! Sports said Duncan is generating plenty of buzz as the draft nears. "There is not much tape available on Duncan, but what I could find was impressive. He showed good athleticism and quickness as well as the strength and balance to run through tacklers. He also displayed excellent hands, catching the ball away from his body and making several circus catches."
Duncan talks about his versatility with CSN Chicago:
[email protected]; Twitter: @brandonljudd