Feature: Pack continuing to send players to the next level

Feature: Pack continuing to send players to the next level

By Weston Allenback, GoThunderWolves.com Insider, & Anthony Sandstrom

PUEBLO, Colo. (GoThunderWolves.com - Oct. 12, 2012) - What does the University of Alabama football program and the tiny but successful football program at Colorado State University-Pueblo have in common?

Their coaches are on NFL scouts' speed dials.

It has been a fairly common sight to see NFL scouts take in some elite, pro-ready ThunderWolves this season, and it leads one to believe that sometime very soon, a former ThunderWolf's name will be called during the NFL Draft.

Entering this week's game with Colorado School of Mines ranked second in the nation, it has been well established that the 6-0 Pack are a force to be reckoned with in the Division II world, also having ended the 2011 season with a number-one ranking. The Pack's rise to national prominence from that of an upstart program in 2008, though, has been quick but methodical, built on the foundation set by those first few teams in 2008 in 2009.

It should be no surprise, then, that players from those squads have been quietly working out and fighting for a chance to play at the next level, not only achieving their own dreams but building a reputation that is benefitting the current crop of ThunderWolves.

The first to get a shot

Following the 2008 college football season, Augustine Agyei was about ready to give up on his college football dream altogether. 

A great sprinter who boasted 4.3 speed in the 40-yard-dash, Agyei, an Aurora, Colo. native, was searching for a home after the football program at Western Washington University was dropped following the 2008 season. 

Western Washington was already his second collegiate home, having started off at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.  With one year of eligibility remaining in 2009, he never imagined that his home and future family would come from a school just 100 miles away from his hometown.

From the beginning, Agyei said he fed on the positivity of the locker room, which inspired him to be the best player - and person - he could be.

"Coach Wristen always has a great atmosphere," Agyei said. "He is always good at getting high caliber players and they seem to always buy into the team concept."

Agyei had a very modest senior year statistically, catching 34 balls for 547 yards, which still stands, though, as the best pass receiving season of any ThunderWolf in the run-oriented offense the team has used since the program's revival in 2008.

He also lit it up as the team's kick returner, averaging 25.8 yards per return with a 96-yard touchdown, earning All-RMAC honors as a returner and finishing the season with 1,261 all-purpose yards, which set school records for the most all-purpose yards in a single season by a non-running back.

With his size (6-foot, 185 pounds) and blinding speed (he would eventually improve his speed to sub-4.3 during post-graduate workouts), Agyei carried the ThunderWolf torch into the pro game. 

He was signed to take part in the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals rookie minicamp following the 2010 NFL Draft, and though he didn't make the roster, he would sign subsequent contracts with the Utah Blaze of the Arena League as well as his current squad, the Colorado Ice of the Indoor Football League.

"When I talked to Wristen and he gave me a chance to be a part of the new program, he never mentioned getting us a chance to play pro; it was also about being a great team."

"Playing pro was just a bonus."

Agyei helped pick up a tradition from the past incarnation of the CSU-Pueblo football team, which had a history of sending players to the NFL for at least a "cup of coffee." 

Agyei was the 17th ThunderWolf to get a pro tryout and the first since 1984, when current head coach John Wristen and running back Jeff Patterson got camp invites from the Denver Broncos, and running back Herman Heard was drafted in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs. 

'Chasing' the dream

Chase Vaughn hated Alamosa.  He'll be the first to tell you.  An alum of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, he played his first two seasons of college football at Adams State College, and when CSU-Pueblo started its program in 2008, he jumped ship immediately.  He got his release and enrolled in CSU-Pueblo, where he became an immediate contributor.

That was obvious in his first game, in front of 10,000 fans at the Neta & Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl on Sept. 6, 2008, when Vaughn set CSU-Pueblo as well as Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference records with 4.5 sacks in one game as the ThunderWolves beat Oklahoma Panhandle State 24-13. 

From there, Vaughn enjoyed a great career with the ThunderWolves, playing for two seasons and graduating as the school record-holder in sacks, earning All-American honors in 2008.

In his final game, at Adams State in 2009, the ThunderWolves inserted him at tailback against his former team, running for two goal-line touchdowns in a 41-7 rout. 

Since, he has been chasing his dream of playing in the NFL, making a few pits stops across the way.  He has played with the Colorado Ice of the IFL and participated in preseason camps with the Las Vegas Locos of the United Football League (coached by former NFL coach, Jim Fassel) as well as the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.

Finally, in 2012, attending another camp with the Locos, he made the roster and is currently three games into the Locos' season, looking to help the team to its third UFL Championship in four seasons.

Vaughn said he certainly attributes his post-graduate drive and success to the quality of the program at CSU-Pueblo and loves the family atmosphere it has for its past players.

"Coach Wristen always holds everyone to a high standard," Vaughn said. "All the coaches were supportive and still are. Anytime any former player needs a place to work out we know we can always come back and use the facilities."

Vaughn's story was echoed by some other teammates from 2009, including quarterback Colin Clancy, who played abroad in Germany with the Monchengladbach Mavericks of the German Football League (GFL). He would go on to get assigned to the Utah Blaze alongside Agyei in 2012, but also didn't make the final roster.  While with the ThunderWolves, Clancy was the starting quarterback during his senior season in 2009, breaking most school single-season passing records.

Another 2009 starter, fullback Johnny Wood, had one of the more successful professional experiences, following up his one season with the ThunderWolves by playing with the Wyoming Cavalry of the Indoor Football League.  He earned the league's Rookie of the Year award and was named Player of the Week three times in 2011.

On the radar

In the summer of 2012, Lee Meisner was able to live out a boyhood dream, nearly achieving his goal of playing in the National Football League.

Meisner, a 2011 All-American and RMAC and Regional Defensive Player of the Year selection, was a four-year starter at middle linebacker for the ThunderWolves, ending his career ranked in the top 20 for most career tackles in NCAA Division II history.

Adding to his on-the-field accomplishments, he was a near-4.0 student, was named the RMAC Academic Player of the Year and a semifinalist for the William F. Campbell Trophy for the top student-athlete at all levels of college football. 

In short, he was prime for at least an NFL look. 

The Atlanta Falcons gave him that shot, inviting him to their 2012 rookie minicamp following the NFL Draft.  The Falcons liked his size (6-foot, 230 pounds) and inserted him into the fullback position.  They liked him enough to pick him as one of just three signed to the Falcons from the minicamp tryout.

The signing made him the first ThunderWolf since 1989, when Heard was finishing up his six-year career with the Chiefs, to participate in an NFL training camp. 

Meisner played in a three preseason games for the Falcons against the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins, catching a pass in the Dolphins game.  He didn't survive the first series of cuts, but with his academic pedigree - as well as his drive to succeed athletically - another shot could be on the horizon for Meisner.

Even if Meisner never battles his way onto an NFL roster, his time in camp did one thing - opened the eyes of NFL scouts to Pack football.  In the NFL, Division II signees and draftees are usually short on talent but high on heart and discipline, traits that are usually missing from some high-level Division I prospects. 

Scouts are recognizing this, and when that fine mixture of talent and heart comes out of the program, rest assured that some team is going to recognize and snatch him up.  The next candidate for this is tackle/guard Ryan Jensen, who is currently listed on D2Football.com's list of NFL hopefuls, which is an exclusive list of just 18 Division II players expected to find a hime on an NFL team.  Jensen is currently projected as a free agent signee.  The attention to Jensen has also put scouts' eyes on other ThunderWolves, as well.

But, to a man, getting players to the NFL is not what the CSU-Pueblo football program is about.  It is about winning a national championship, and that's something that the currently undefeated ThunderWolves are hoping to do in 2012. 

"What we want to do in this program is take guys where they can't take themselves, and that's to a national championship," Wristen says hundreds of times per year to his players, supporters, friends and boosters.  "We want guys who will check their egos at the door and understand what it means to play Pack football."

And it just so happens that the NFL and other professional leagues seem to agree with approach, as well.