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Quick Hits: Bengals Grading Small School Players With Big Dreams At Senior Bowl

WR Adnrei iosivas celebrates during the Browns-Bengals game on Sunday, January 7, 2024 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
WR Adnrei iosivas celebrates during the Browns-Bengals game on Sunday, January 7, 2024 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

MOBILE, Ala. _ We are on the prowl this week at the Senior Bowl looking for the next Andrei Iosivas and we ask Dylan Laube, the bed-and-breakfast version of Christian McCaffrey, if he's the guy.

That small-school player who came up big this week on the stage of the best college all-star game, wedged himself into the NFL Draft and became his team's most productive offensive rookie in the middle of a playoff run.

Just as Iosivas did last year for the Bengals. The odds are Laube won't do it for the Bengals, but we want to find the next Iosivas of the Senior Bowl, anyway.

"A hundred percent," says Laube on Wednesday, who seems to know exactly what you mean. "The Princeton wide receiver. What round did he go in? Sixth. I know he scored a couple of touchdowns. And the thing is, you guys have stacked receivers and he still balled out.

"That's exactly what I'm trying to do."

By all accounts after two days here, he is. raved Wednesday that Laube "showed off his speed to turn the corner during a wide-flowing run on Tuesday and beat Washington State cornerback Chau Smith-Wade on a post corner as a wideout during one-on-one drills on Wednesday. He's worked at his craft as a slot receiver, and it showed last season with 68 catches for 699 yards and seven receiving touchdowns."

At a smidge over 5-9, 210 pounds, Laube is nowhere near the physical or athletic specimen of Iosivas, an All-American heptathlete. A solid player in the schoolboy capital of lacrosse on Long Island, Laube arrived here on the coattails of relentless production at running back for the University of New Hampshire, an FCS school tucked into the leafy anonymity between Boston and Vermont.

That's where he modeled his game on McCaffrey, the 49ers All-Pro running back:

First in the nation in all-purpose yards and second in both total touchdowns and scoring. No. 3 in kick returns, No. 8 in combined kick returns and receptions per game. And, No. 16 in punt returns while compiling 2,095 all-purpose yards.

And after the National coaches have lined him up all over the place in the backfield and in the slot, Laube could have looked up on the Whitney Hancock Stadium scoreboard and seen he was the second fastest player on his offense after the first day of practice.

Behind North Carolina wide receiver Devontez Walker and just ahead of Rice wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. Naturally, McCaffrey's baby brother.

"Crazy, right?" Laube says. "Best running back in the league. It's his versatility switching into what the NFL needs now at running back."

The Bengals already grabbed a back like that out of this game last year in Chase Brown and a draft expert like Tony Pauline believes his true test is going to come in Saturday's game (1 p.m.-NFL Network) when he returns both punts and kicks. In the round before taking Brown, the Bengals took a punt returner in Charlie Jones.

So it would appear Laube wouldn't be an option, but they call it due diligence and Andrew Johnson, the Bengals' East Coast scout, did it. Off the tape he watched in spring and summer, Johnson scheduled a rare campus visit to Durham, N.H., a decision that was validated when Laube was invited to the Senior Bowl just after UNH's season.

"Evaluating those FCS schools and Division II in today's climate has changed," Johnson says.

With the rise of the NIL and transfer portal, many guys who start out in small schools transfer to a higher level. But if they do transfer, Johnson has started the work. And given the access of small schools, he's got plenty of info. In Laube's case, he hung at New Hampshire, the one school that gave him a shot, and where he had developed a niche.

"You can certainly tell it means something to him," says Johnson, who agrees Laube is having a nice week. "He's tough. He's showing the moments are not too big for him. He's running hard. He's catching the ball well. He's doing well on return stuff.

"But it always comes back to this no matter how big the school. The game tape."

ON THE HUNT: James Hunt, who flew in from Norman Beach, Fla., to watch son Jalyx this week, knows all about Iosivas. Jalyx Hunt, who had quite a journey here via the Ivy League and Houston Christian, actually played against Iosivas as a backup safety at Cornell before showing up here as an edge rusher. If Iosivas was viewed as a project, that would make Hunt even more so, but no less intriguing.

"We're so proud. My wife is flying in tonight. It took a lot of work. He had a process," James Hunt says Wednesday. "Yesterday he was a little tight. Today he was a little looser. He's never played with his hand in the dirt. They moved him to linebacker this year and they stood him up. He's a smart kid. A quick learner."

Bengals scout Christian Sarkisian, who basically covers the Central time zone, quickly learned the story. His area cuts through a slew of small schools. He's gone into Southeast Missouri State. He's picked up Georgia State. On his way through Houston, he visited the tiny campus going through a name change from Houston Baptist while Hunt was helping it to its first winning football season and being the first player from the school invited to the Senior Bowl.

"Really tremendous athlete," says Sarkisian after watching Wednesday's work in the end zone. "A Junior Olympic athlete. High jump. Every competition drill this week down here, no matter what it is, is big because he's playing against the best competition he sees."

Hunt, pleasantly reaching up into the stands to sign autographs after the American team practice, wondered what Iosivas' jersey number was at Princeton. He says he transferred because he thought he had a better shot at getting to the NFL. He knows he needs to put on ten more pounds to get to 260, but he loves being a pass rusher. He believes he has shown enough this week to show he belongs.

Any little thing this week can be a win. Hunt points to a play in Tuesday's practice.

"I made a stretch (play) bounce back inside," Hunt says. "Between the tight end and tackle. I fought up the field on a double team and made him cut back inside."

Hunt was lured to Cornell because it was a Division I school with an Ivy League degree. Which is another goal.

"I'm going back to get the degree," Hunt says. "I spent too much time at Cornell not to get it."

POWERHOUSE: There are small schools and there are small schools that aren't really on NFL draft boards. Like South Dakota State, riding a 29-game winning streak and back-to-back national titles. Sarkisian knows the Dakotas like Teddy Roosevelt. He was on the Cordell Volson ground floor when the Bengals took him in the fourth round in 2021 out of North Dakota State and he's got a book written on South Dakota State running back Isaiah Davis, an NFL-like 6-0, 220 pounds playing this week with Laube on the National team.

"He's not a surprise. The guy has been so productive for a long time," Sarkisian says. "Really good vision. He's got 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in the last two seasons. He was recruited by a lot of schools as a linebacker. South Dakota State is the only school that offered him as a running back. There can be late bloomers."

Everybody may know where the South Dakota States are nowadays, but Sarkisian says there are plenty of small towns where the media has yet to stumble.


"Can't tell you," Sarkisian says.

LAUBE LOBBY: A guy like Laube gets it.

He's been playing since he was five for the Buccaneers in Pee Wee, when his dad channeled Bucs fullback Mike Alstott and gave him a neck roll and No. 40. Superstition forced him to wear it all through Westhampton Beach High School. He was one of the lucky locals who got to run routes for another resident of The Hamptons, Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

"I did it for three years. Great guy," Laube says. "If it was 7:30, by 7:45 the place was packed and he'd go around and sign and say something to everybody."

Here's Laube, a guy who handles his stammer courageously and seamlessly, doing the most interviews of his life down here. And he's doing it just as well as he's been catching the ball. Here's a guy who never got a sniff from anybody at those camps. At 5-9, 185 pounds, who was looking?

New Hampshire gave him a shot and it turned out to be the perfect place for him. Suddenly, he's looking to be the first New Hampshire player drafted in 11 years, the third one this century, and the first one to play in the league since safety Corey Graham played 12 seasons and retired six years ago.

Not only that, Laube is trying to become the third player from his high school to play in the NFL and the first since offensive linemen Sean Farrell played from 1982-92.

"(The NFL) means a lot coming from a small town where you don't see a lot of guys make it out. It's an awesome experience for me and my family," Laube says. "I think a lot of people didn't understand coming from a small school. Hey, I was pretty good for my level running the ball. Can I break away at this type of speed? I think I've showed that."

He's shown one guy.

"He was the first guy I met at the airport when I landed here," Luke McCaffrey says. "Great to meet him. We're on the other end of the field, but you can see he's out there tearing it up and balling."

Laube says the draft's not here yet.

"There's one more day of practice," he says. "Let's start from there."