On Nov. 27, 2018, running back Justin Rankin took to Twitter to announce he was leaving the Kent State football program in search of a new backfield to call home.
Last fall, Rankin settled in at Northwest.
Roughly five months after his collegiate career ended via a 25-3 loss to Ferris State Dec. 7, 2019, in Big Rapids, Michigan, he’s hoping to receive the biggest phone call of his life — one that would serve as the messenger to inform him that he’s been drafted to an NFL team.
“The whole process, in general, is kinda surreal,” Rankin said in a phone call. “To finally be like, on the doorstep of being on an NFL team, it’s surreal.”
“I mean, going through all of it through this pandemic is ridiculous, if I’m being real,” Rankin joked. “No pro days, to not being able to train as hard as you want to train, gyms being shut down — it’s kinda different.”
The difference between draft prospects this year compared to the past is the unprecedented circumstances that are direct consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020 NFL Draft, which the league originally scheduled to be in Las Vegas, is now completely virtual. There aren’t chances for scouts to go to pro days of smaller schools, where players such as Rankin would have the opportunity to showcase their talent.
For those same caliber players, there might not be any rookie camps. Some teams, specifically the New Orleans Saints, announced that there wouldn’t be an offseason program until training camp.
Those circumstances, of course, hinder Rankin’s ability to get his shot and perhaps limit his chances to prove himself should he get one.
“You get picked up by a team, you’re jumping straight in with five- and six-year vets,” Rankin said. “So you’ve gotta just be ready as soon as you get in there and make sure you’re on your p’s and q’s.”
“Either way, how I see it, my foot’s in the door,” Rankin said. “So if you get me on the field, you’re giving me a chance to prove myself. It is gonna be more difficult; you’ve got the guys that have been there for six years, they know how it works, what’s going on. But if you give me the opportunity, I’m gonna show out — whether it’s with the rookie camp or with the vets.”
Rankin said that he and his agent knows he isn’t going to be a high-round pick. That’s the reality of playing at a Division II school as opposed to Division I, more often than not. But, he added, it doesn’t matter where he ends up or when he’s selected, he’s living out his dream. Even if he’s not drafted, Rankin said, he’s confident that he’ll get a chance to suit up for a team when the preseason starts.
“We’re just waiting until Saturday to see if I can end up somewhere,” Rankin said. “A lot of the teams that contacted me, they’re like, ‘You’d be a good undrafted free agent.’ If I were to get drafted, that would be amazing. But I know what’s up. I know I’ve gotta go undrafted; I know I’ve gotta work my butt off and gotta grind, but it’s nothing new — I’m used to it. … I don’t care where I end up; I couldn’t care less as long as I’m on a team.”
Rankin said that his time at Northwest humbled him. Amid reminiscing on his time at Kent State, he said that he didn’t really understand what Division II football was like until he became a Bearcat. It’s a humbling experience, he said, to see the differences between the levels and realize the talent and work ethic that resides among the ranks he’s now exiting.
While in the backfield for Northwest, Rankin compiled 1,133 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns on 197 carries. Rankin’s role, which he’s hoping makes him a standout at his position in the NFL, is that he is a proficient route runner out of the backfield as well, serving as a dual-threat running back. Along with his tallies rushing, he accounted for 359 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns on 34 receptions.
His versatility, he said, is what he hopes keeps him on a roster should he find himself on one.
Back in his hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, Rankin is hopeful for that phone call. Whenever that might be, whichever team might be calling, he’ll be ready, he said.
“I already know I’m gonna get those butterflies in my stomach,” Rankin joked. “It don’t matter who’s calling me; it might even be my sister calling me.”
“It’s obviously just a foot in the door, but a foot in the door means everything,” Rankin said. “You give me that chance, I’m gonna take that and run a mile with it. … I could get cut the next day. So, I gotta bust my butt to stay in the door.”