Marist wide receiver Juston Christian has been eyeing this weekend for a long time.
Similar to hundreds of other top football players being selected, or signing undrafted free agent deals this week, the NFL Draft is the culmination of years of training and preparation to get to this moment. But for the majority of the players being selected, they are coming out of bigger programs where getting a chance at the next level is almost an expectation.
When Christian attends NFL tryouts, other attendees are often surprised when Christian tells them he played at Marist.
“I think it just shows how hard I have worked,” he says. “Their response is usually like ‘wow that’s incredible, that you got this opportunity from a small school.’ So they are pretty surprised when they find out.”
Christian is hoping to become the second Marist player to be drafted in the NFL. Defensive lineman Terrence Fede was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. If he is not picked during the seven-round draft, he is expected to sign with a team as an undrafted free agent, giving him the opportunity to prove himself this summer during training camp, and eventually earn a 53-man roster spot.
NFL scouts routinely visited Marist to see Christian practice last season. He impressed scouts with his athleticism during his University of Buffalo pro day, with all NFL teams in attendance. Most notably, the former high school track star clocked a 4.38 40 time. Although it was measured with the less-reliable stopwatch method, the time would have ranked tenth for a wide receiver at the NFL combine.
“His athletic ability is on par with anyone who he is going to face,” Marist Head Coach Jim Parady said. “That is what scouts question when asking about a player coming from this level. He is a guy that is going to be able to compete athletically with anybody that he steps on the field with.”
His road to become an NFL prospect came about gradually. Christian was not heavily recruited in high school and had to settle for a non-scholarship football offer.
“We had no idea he was going to be this good [coming in],” Parady said. “We couldn’t have had imagined his growth over these four years.”
Christian was determined to make a splash in his freshman season. “I have to dominate freshman year. Just dominate, I have to go crazy,’’ Christian would tell himself. “Just to prove to myself that I am a really great player.”
Once his freshman season started in 2015, he quickly made an impression and exceeded expectations. He was brought along to a road game against Georgetown. Parady said that he would not have normally had traveled with the team, but the coach had a few extra slots available. He did not play in the game, but he impressed the coaches during practice.
In the third game of the season, things began to change. Christian appeared in his first college game against Sacred Heart and immediately made an impact. Coming off the bench, he racked up 117 yards off of four catches.
“A couple of the catches that he made were impressive…he was actually laid out horizontally for one,” Parady said. “It was one of the best pictures we have of him on the goal line. It was one of the catches that was really eye-opening.”
The performance was also a pivotal moment for Christian’s confidence. He said that his first college game was when he initially thought it was possible for him to play in the NFL.
“I was like ‘wow I can actually do this if I work really hard and polish up my game. I could do something with this football thing.”’
Over the next few seasons, Christian focused on expanding his game beyond where he would rely on blowing past his defenders with his impressive straight-line speed. He worked to polish his route running and extensively studied defensive coverages to increase his football I.Q.
“He has some God-given talent.” Parady said. “But, you can only live so long on that before they tend to bail out on you. So he really worked at studying defensive backs, studying coverages and breaking down the defensive backfield.”
The idea of Christian being a legitimate NFL prospect came a little later for Parady than it did for the receiver.
“I would say at the end of sophomore year,” the coach said. “Before that, he had good productivity, but it was more just straight line stuff and going by people. In that spring he started to develop the overall craft.”
In his four seasons at Marist, Christian accumulated 4,069 yards (a program record), scored 34 touchdowns and averaged 21.4 yards per catch. This past year he had his best statistical season, as he finished with 1,155 receiving yards (second-highest single-season total in program history) and scored 15 touchdowns. He broke the program’s single-game record with 274 receiving yards against Columbia, scoring three touchdowns. He had a similar performance two weeks later, with 246 receiving yards against Davidson, again scoring three touchdowns for the Red Foxes.
“I guess my production [initially] got me noticed,” Christian said. “Leading the FCS in major categories probably helped me get some attention to NFL teams.”
During his junior year, Christian said that the Bears, Texans, and Rams had all come to watch him play and talk to him.
Christian has spent what would have been his final semester as a student, training and preparing for this opportunity. “I can come back and finish it,” Christian said about finishing his degree.
He has done a good amount of traveling, working out with a trainer in Texas, and attending an assortment of tryouts, local days, and the Buffalo pro day.
“I kind of had a good idea [of the process],” he said. “I had guys in the past that taught me different situations that I needed to know, or things that I had questions about going into the process.”
Parady put Christian in contact with all of the NFL players that he has coached; including NFL Pro-Bowl kicker Jason Myers, Terrence Fede, and Michael Rios, a wide receiver for the Red Foxes who was the first Marist player to attend an NFL camp.
“I talked to Fede a lot,” Christian said. “He just gave me advice about the process. Just focus and work really hard and just enjoy all the little things that happen in the process.”
For Christian, the most surreal moment of this process has been the opportunity to prove himself at the Buffalo pro day. “Just enjoying the moment of my pro day. Getting to showcase my talent in front of all 32 teams that was a really big moment for me.”
Christian will wait this weekend to see if he will be selected as a late-round pick. Regardless, he’ll receive an opportunity in some way to prove that he can make an NFL roster. He is used to being overlooked and uses attending a smaller program as fuel to prove coaches that snubbed him after high school wrong.
“I definitely have a chip on my shoulder,” Christian said. “It will be with me throughout my professional career, also. Just coming out high school, [coaches] didn’t think I was able to compete against the top talent in the country.”
With his production at Marist and now the attention that he has gathered from NFL teams, he has shown that he belongs in the same group as other top-tier Division I players. But the Baltimore native is still that FCS player proving that he belongs with his peers.
“Just to have that opportunity to make it to the NFL,” Christian said, “you have to have the mindset that you don’t belong.”
Edited by Will Bjarnar and Lily Caffrey-Levine
Header art by Kristin Flanigan