TEMPE, Ariz. -- At first glance, it’s hard to tell Sam Mentkowski and Adam Thielen apart.
They’re both wide receivers. Both are similar in stature. Mentkowski is 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. Thielen is 6-2 and 200 pounds.
And if the two were to stand next to each other, they could pass for brothers. But it’s when their games are compared that it’s even tougher to tell the two apart.
Mentkowski, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh product, has found a niche in this year’s draft lead-up thanks, in part, to Thielen’s success with the Minnesota Vikings.
“I think just the way we play and also the background story,” Mentkowski told ESPN. “Now everyone knows who he is but I read his story about a year ago. I just think we’re really similar on the field and off the field. I think just because of both aspect. He’s a D-II guy. I’m a D-III guy.”
Once Mentkowski started having his breakout season this year, which finished him atop the Division III rankings for most receiving yards with 1,477, the comparisons to Thielen started to pour in. The size was an obvious similarity, but because Mentkowski was putting up such eye-popping numbers at UW-Oshkosh and Thielen stood out at Minnesota State-Mankato, the comparisons became almost too easy.
And this year, the Arizona Cardinals may have an opportunity to land the next Thielen. They’re one of five teams who have reached out to Mentkowski and his coaches. The Cardinals saw first-hand how effective Thielen could be in 2016, when he reached 65 yards and a touchdown on five catches in a Vikings’ win at home over Arizona.
When Mentkowski started hearing about the comparisons to Thielen about a year ago he discovered an NFL receiver who looked just like him.
“I think the biggest thing I learned was how attentive to detail he is when it comes to route running,” Mentkowski said. “He’s not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy, not the strongest guy, but what he brings to the game with his attention to detail and really takes the route running aspect seriously and that’s what gets him open is the biggest thing.”
The two haven’t met. Mentkowski has thought about “sliding into his DMs on Instagram” to try to talk to the fifth-year receiver, but he’s still debating whether to do it.
“Hopefully, one day I’ll meet him,” he said.
For his first three years at Oshkosh, Mentkowski was overshadowed by his two roommates, quarterback Brett Kasper and running back Dylan Hecker. Kasper won the Gagliardi Tropy in December as the Division III player of the year and became known nationally for saving a girl’s life by donating his bone barrow in 2015. He’s also the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Hecker is the school’s all-time leader in points scored and rushing touchdowns, and is second in rushing yards.
Mentkowski, on the other hand, toiled, somewhat, in anonymity to the rest of the football world.
He broke his collarbone his junior year but returned to join his roommates by closing out a record-breaking career. He’s UW-Oshkosh’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Seeing Kasper and Hecker get all the interviews and accolades was all the motivation Mentkowski needed. He doesn’t think he’ll ever pass their status in OshKosh, but Mentkowski just recently separated himself from his teammates.
In March, thanks the help of scouts from the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks, Mentkowski secured an invite to the Wisconsin Badgers pro day. While the stage was larger than he’d ever experienced, Mentkowski wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment.
He had spent his offseasons traveling to Madison -- about 90 miles away -- to work out with the Badgers’ receivers. That, UW-OshKosh head coach Pat Cerroni said, was part of Mentkowski’s work ethic that separated him from other players at his level.
“In our business, we have to be self motivated,” Cerroni said. “These kids have to do things on their own. They don’t have coaches in their face every day, so it’s really got to come from within.
“You don’t find that many kids at this level who have that intangible, where he just [went to Madison to work out] and he wasn’t afraid to do it. He wants to be put up with the best.”
At the pro day, Mentkowski was the best in one category. He turned in the fastest 40-yard dash with a time of 4.41 seconds. That turned some scouts’ heads. It helped that he had the second-fastest 20-yard shuttle in 4 seconds and fourth-fastest three-cone drill.
“If I go five years back in my life, I would definitely not think I’m in this situation,” he said. “So, it’s cool just knowing that there’s GMs and coaches and other scouts on teams that know my name and when they hear my name they know exactly what everyone’s talking about.
“It’s been a cool experience.”
An experience that Mentkowski believes has opened itself to him for two reasons: His speed and Thielen.
“That was big for sure,” Mentkowski said of his 40 time. “The shuttles were big. I know because as a receiver, showing agility is obviously crucial but I think if someone were to watch my film, they would see me running by a lot of people. But them, all of a sudden, they’re going to put that D-III label on me and say, ‘Oh, he’s playing lesser talent.’
“But, now I go run a 4.41 and now they say, ‘Oh, wow. That speed is actually legit.’ So, I think it put a number to the film, which his big for me.”
Cerroni said the talent level at Div. III schools in Wisconsin is skewed because of how the state’s college football teams are structured. There’s one Division I school -- Wisconsin in Madison -- and 13 Division III schools. He said there’s plenty of talent that stays home.
“A lot of the guys that we have are 1-AA or D-II talent,” Cerroni said.
Just like Thielen was.
Without Thielen’s success, Mentkowski may not be as bright on the radar of a handful teams.
“I think he opened it up for all of us six-foot, lower-level school type guys,” Mentkowski said. “I think before him, I don’t think I’d be getting as much attention but now people see that people like me and him can play in the NFL and I think that’s helped me get attention and people like me get attention.”