Saginaw Valley State's Jeff Janis is one of only two Division II players at the Senior Bowl. (Duane Burleson / Associated Press)
Mobile, Ala. — When the Senior Bowl kicks off Saturday, about 50 people from Tawas City, Mich., will be in the stands watching Jeff Janis.
The Saginaw Valley State wide receiver is one of only two Division II players at the all-star game, and he’s hoping his performance in practice and the game can help him reach the NFL.
“I think my mom said when I was really young that I said I wanted to be a professional football player,” Janis said. “And it’s just crazy that it’s working out because a lot of things got to fall in line for that to happen.”
Janis didn’t receive a Division I scholarship out of Tawas Area High. He visited Central Michigan multiple times, but when Janis broke his left index finger on a kickoff return in his second game of his senior year, the chance slipped away because he had to switch to running back.
He was forced to look at Division II schools, and Saginaw Valley State was the last one Janis visited. But he liked the school and was offered a scholarship. And though that broken finger may have cost him a shot at an FBS program, Janis’ production proved the injury may have been a blessing in disguise.
As a junior, the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder led Division II receivers with 1,635 yards, setting the school’s season record. Janis followed that with 83 catches for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, which earned him invitations to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and East-West Shrine Game. But he held out for a Senior Bowl invitation.
“When I got it, I was ecstatic,” he said. “I filled that thing out as soon as I got it and got it mailed back in.”
Unlike most Division II programs, Saginaw Valley State produces a fair amount of NFL talent, including current Cowboys safety Jeff Heath and former receivers Ruvell Martin and Glenn Martinez.
“I see a kid that the stage isn’t too big,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. “He’s come out, and he’s run routes well. I think he’s competed well, and I think he’s a guy we’re going to definitely be keeping our eyes on.”
Janis has also made an impression on some of his North teammates. Oregon receiver Josh Huff said Janis doesn’t look out of place, and Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon praised Janis’ toughness.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” Dixon said.
Janis projects as a late-round pick, and Davis said he can help himself by running crisp routes in the Senior Bowl and proving he can get off press coverage.
“I think I’m really adjusting to it pretty well,” Janis said. “Once I got here and got a feel for things, it really wasn’t that big of a deal for me because once you hit the field, you’re just competing out there just like everybody else.”
Janis also will have another chance to sell himself at the combine next month. His goal is to run the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds, and said at a junior pro day last year, he ran a 4.36.
Even though Janis wasn’t recruited by Division I schools, he said he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. Instead, he draws motivation from his family and hometown, which has a population of less than 2,000 and borders Lake Huron.
“We’ve got a Wal-Mart, so it’s not too bad,” he said.