From Division III to the NFL Draft: How a high school bench warmer developed into a pro talent at Dubuque

Dargan Southard
The Des Moines Register

Settled in behind the mic, his all-black suit pressed to perfection and his phone perched on the podium to help navigate through the words, Michael Joseph forewarned those in attendance at the Little Rock Touchdown Club.

Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph goes through drills at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

“I apologize ahead of time,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “I’m feeling a little emotional today. It’s starting to hit me.”

Joseph’s somewhat reticent personality has evolved over the years, but the spotlight isn’t yet a fully acquired taste. He’s still new to this, the waves of attention and recognition, and moments of extended reflection can bring everything surging back at once.

This night was one of them.

It’s Jan. 11 at the Cliff Harris Award banquet, where the University of Dubuque cornerback received the trophy honoring the top small-college defensive player of the year — one of Joseph’s countless accomplishments along this unfathomable voyage from overlooked prep to NFL Draft hopeful. He knows the journey — it’s his journey, the one he’s molded from nothing after years of perseverance. But putting all the pieces together in one place as Joseph did in his post-award speech further emphasized just how incomprehensible this excursion has truly been.

It’s far from a finished product. Joseph penned another quality chapter this week at the Senior Bowl and hopes to write another in about a month at the NFL Scouting Combine ahead of April's draft.

Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph (orange) goes through a drill during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

What’s unfolded to date, though, is already quite the story.

Here’s Joseph to guide you through:     

“It’s pretty crazy,” he said with a smile.


The tears started flowing about halfway into Joseph’s speech as he highlighted his family’s unmeasurable impact. “I first want to thank my parents, Nicole and Larry Rogers,” he said, dabbing his eyes with deep breaths in between. “They never gave up on me. They’ve been there for my ups and downs.”     

Growing up in Oswego, Illinois, a southwestern Chicago suburb of about 35,000, Joseph yearned for an athletic future along with his older brother Malcolm. And although their passions differed — Michael football, Malcolm basketball — the duo set out together, prepared to conquer their lofty dreams.

“They were best friends,” says Larry Rogers, Joseph’s stepdad since his early years. “Malcolm was pretty much his idol.”

Joseph thrived as a youth football player, but still hadn’t cracked 100 pounds when his prep career began at Oswego High School. His playing time was minimal as the seasons whipped by — zero starts in four years, just two hands needed to count his career tackles.  Rogers failed to understand how he wasn't playing more.

His son shot up nearly nine inches and 50 pounds over four seasons, and Joseph was an impressive athlete. Rogers felt that should, at least, have generated an opportunity. His father pondered how much futility his son could bear.

“I used to ask him over and over again, ‘Why you keep doing this — not to me — but to yourself?’” Rogers recalled. “Because as a parent, you don’t want to see your kid just being let down when you know they’re trying their best and working their hardest.”

Malcolm experienced similar turbulence, but rebounded enough late in high school to land a spot on the Olney Central College basketball team as a freshman. His career ended shortly after, though.

It was a decision Malcolm ultimately used to help reignite his brother anytime he contemplated following suit. He had Michael join him for runs in the early-morning darkness and workouts before the school bell rang. Instead of spending extra time going out with friends, Malcolm saw his brother ripping off rounds of push-ups in his room, determined to pack on weight and muscle any way he could.

Quitting basketball became a regret that gnawed at him. Malcolm didn't want see his brother experience the same.

“Michael wanted to give it up,” Malcolm says, “and I was just telling him basically, like ‘You gotta go hard. You’re gonna regret quitting more than sticking it out and going through it.’

“I didn’t want him to experience the stuff I went through, so I always kept that in his head.”

Joseph eventually earned some special teams and reserve defensive reps as a senior, but certainly didn’t entice any next-level suitors on his own. He cobbled together a brief highlight film — Rogers is still perplexed he found enough quality plays “because I don’t remember any of them” — and the family set out to uncover a collegiate fit, wherever that may be.

Rogers was most worried about how good each school's academics were, but Joseph lobbied to meet the football coach at each stop. Some were intrigued by the snippets of raw athleticism on film — others didn’t seem to care — and as a decision neared, Dubuque emerged thanks to Joseph's cousin, former Dubuque track standout Bridget Hosley, who believed Joseph could thrive there in one realm or another.

So off he went, into the blue-and-white wilderness, trying to make something happen.


After rattling off a ton of thank you’s to begin his speech, Joseph jumps right into his winding tale. “Coach Z still gave me all I ever wanted," he said with a smile, “and it was just an opportunity to play college football.”

Stan Zweifel remembers the sporadic promise on Joseph’s abbreviated tape — the change of direction, the explosive movements, the brief flashes of ball skills.

But ...

“He looked like an eighth grader,” the veteran Dubuque football coach laughed. “I’m just telling you. He didn’t look very good.”

Barely 150 pounds at 5-foot-11, Joseph didn’t exactly fit the collegiate mold as a freshman. But he showed up with a work ethic and an unwavering desire to learn, so the Dubuque staff opted to hand him a chance. Zweifel preaches that Division III is all about opportunity, and if a kid shows up with a quality attitude, then he’ll at least get a shot.

So Dubuque stuck Joseph on the program’s developmental squad, where players can still lift with the strength coach and strive to develop without being on the actual roster. Those players then get a shot to make the real team in the spring, but Zweifel estimates that “less than 15 percent” do so.

It was a low-risk move, now on Joseph’s shoulders to capitalize.

"That following school year, I actually watched the team from the stands as just a student," Joseph said, "and I played flag football just to keep busy. But it motivated me to try out in the spring." 

Then his body caught up with his heart. 

After displaying remarkable coverage skills in “15 to 20” reps against all-American wide receiver Tyler Rutenbeck the following spring in 2014, Joseph cracked the primetime roster as his physical maturation finally started taking shape.He added about 18 pounds in four months of lifting, and despite seeing primarily special teams action during the ensuing 2014 season, Joseph’s gradual improvement as a scout-team corner had coaches enticed for what was next.

“The young man really loves football, and it just showed his determination to go after something that he wanted,” said Dubuque defensive coordinator Carl Coleman, who was hired in 2015 just as Joseph began taking off. “He wanted an opportunity to play.”

Extensive film work, a grounded approach and ample time in the weight room culminated in 2015, when Joseph, as a redshirt sophomore, busted into a starting lineup for the first time since his youth football years. That season was his first of three straight as a first-team All-Iowa Conference defensive back. Now, putting together a highlight film was a cinch. 

Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph has taken a circuitous path from high school backup to NFL Draft hopeful.

Coleman can swiftly rattle off the eye-openers — the pick against Simpson where the receiver had his hands draped over Joseph’s facemask; the one-handed snatch versus Nebraska-Wesleyan; the somersaulting interception against Loras that capped a goal-line stand.

But the moment Coleman can’t shake arrived in a late-season loss versus Wartburg, a game in which the Spartans led late and couldn’t close the door. Joseph’s stats that day were top-notch — a team-high 12 tackles and three pass break-ups — but he believed he left something out on the Dubuque turf.

So he waited for Coleman, prepared to linger for as long as it took to deliver this message.

“He waited outside of our offices for about an hour, hour and a half after that game and wanted to apologize for his performance in the game,” Coleman recalls. “He felt like he let the team down.

“And for a young man to come up to you and want to do that and want to carry it and put it all on his shoulders and vow to get better, it said a lot about him.”


The tears have dried, and Joseph is nearly done with his speech. He then flipped toward his potential NFL future with a message for Harris: “You set the foundation for small-college players to prove that we can continue playing the sport we love after college. You showed me I can too play football at the next level.” 

NFL teams started arriving last spring after coaches submitted Joseph’s film to a scouting service designed to put potential low-level prospects on draft radars. Zweifel said his cornerback measured just short of 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds and generated a 40-time as fast as 4.3 seconds, when a handful of NFL personnel trekked to Dubuque last April. Almost every franchise checked in through the fall — 15 were in at least twice and five were in three or more times, Zweifel said.

Joseph’s drive only amped up as a result. Shelby Bildstein, Joseph’s girlfriend, can recall “dates” where they’d go to the stadium or an empty field and work on technique or throw football. She’d make him backpedal, assist with his turns or time him running up a hill. When she’d be watching Netflix, Joseph would be locked in on his latest film selection. Their relationship is primarily long-distance right now as Bildstein finishes up nursing school at TCU — so their time together is a coveted commodity — but she’d rather do nothing else than help Joseph chase his dream.   

“It’s surreal,” Bildstein said. “His passion is just amazing.”

NFL teams are continuing to learn the same this week at the Senior Bowl, where Joseph has held his own with college football’s heavy hitters. He’s the only D-III player in Mobile, Alabama, for the event and would become just the sixth D-III player selected in the previous 11 drafts.

He measured 6-foot and 5/8th inches and weighed 186 pounds this week and has displayed promise in multiple one-on-one settings. How he runs at the NFL combine will dictate a lot about his potential draft position, but the dialogue appears to be trending toward a Day 3, potentially late Day 2 selection.   

“(Cornerback) is probably the easiest to make the jump from Division III to the National Football League,” said Gil Brandt, who led the Dallas Cowboys’ player personnel department from 1960-89 and now writes about the draft for “It’s really hard when you talk about offensive linemen. It’s really hard when you talk about quarterbacks. But I think that the fact that it’s more of a one-on-one game (at cornerback can make that jump easier).

“… I definitely think if he runs OK — and it looks like he is fast — he’ll be a draft choice.”     

Michael Joseph (middle) stands with former NFL running back Marcus Allen (left) and former NFL safety Cliff Harris (right) during the Cliff Harris Award banquet. Joseph won the award as the nation's top small-college defender.

Brandt has seen small-college success firsthand. He worked for the Cowboys during Cliff Harris’ NFL tenure and is on the committee that selects the winner for the award named after the Ouachita Baptist alum turned six-time Pro Bowler.

Joseph’s speech ended with a rousing applause, those in attendance thrilled to have hopped on the ride. The next stop is still unknown, and there will undoubtedly be more adversity along the way.   

But that's nothing new for Michael Joseph. 

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.