NFL Draft 2014 Primer: Scouting the Independents and Sun Belt
Though the NFL draft is still months away, the college football season looms just around the corner. So, with that in mind, Audibles is taking a look at one intriguing draft prospect from each FBS team. Previously: The MAC
Grouping the FBS’s Independents with the Sun Belt conference leaves us with a wide-ranging mix of teams. At the top end of things, there’s Notre Dame, a college football institution, followed by BYU. Also bunched in this group are a pair of service academies (Army and Navy), whose players have more important jobs than to prep for NFL drafts.
The Sun Belt, meanwhile, brings to the table a couple of programs in their infancy, along with a few more established teams.
The Fighting Irish are the big draw here, with their usual truckload of potential NFL talent. BYU’s roster is not all that far behind, with at least one possible Round 1 prospect in DE/OLB Kyle Van Noy.
What other talent is stashed away on the Independents and Sun Belt teams? In part II of our draft lookahead, we’re highlighting one intriguing player from each of those squads …
Army: Raymond Maples, RB.
As mentioned in the opening, there are some teams listed here that will be hard-pressed to land a player in the draft. Army, traditionally, is one. The last Black Knight drafted was DB Caleb Campbell by the Lions in 2008; before him, it was QB Ronnie McAda by Green Bay in 1997.
Maples has a chance to join that sparsely populated list. He ran for 1,215 yards last season and 1,066 the year before in Army’s option offense. Better yet, from an NFL perspective, he has good size at 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds. There also are never questions about the off-field behavior of service academy players — Maples is a strong locker-room presence on a team full of them.
BYU: Cody Hoffman, WR.
The question is not if the 6-3 (or 6-4, according to BYU) receiver will be drafted. It’s how high he can climb. Hoffman is coming off a season in which he caught 100 passes for more than 1,200 yards and, amazingly, he had some bouts of inconsistency. So, he may leapfrog those numbers in 2013. The NFL will be more impressed with that size, the fact that he’s a solid route-runner and that he catches most passes thrown his way. One of the major downsides here? Speed. His current top 40 time is in the 4.6 range.
Idaho: Najee Lovett, WR.
A 5-9, 168-pounder, Lovett is moved around the field by the Vandals, though he’s probably playing out of place when at the X and Z spots — if he has an NFL future, it’s likely in the slot. Lovett actually does a really nice job of adjusting his body and attacking the football when it’s in the air. Think of him almost like a poor man’s Jeremy Gallon, the Michigan receiver who has a similar build (5-8, 187) but plays bigger than that.
Navy: Cody Peterson, ILB.
This is one of those teams likely to be shut out in the 2014 draft. Peterson’s teammate, fellow linebacker Keegan Wetzel, heard from a few teams before this year’s draft before sitting for all seven rounds. Peterson could follow a similar path. His versatility could pique a little interest — Peterson was a fullback out of high school and has played both inside and outside linebacker for the Middies. He finished second to Wetzel in tackles last season, chalking up 67.
New Mexico State: Davonte Wallace, OT.
The Aggie website currently lists the 6-4 Wallace at 315 pounds, up 25 pounds from where his previous reported weight. If he has indeed bulked up that much (and did so without sacrificing any quickness), Wallace will have more of a shot at the next level. He’s started 36 consecutive games for New Mexico State at left tackle, though right tackle or guard might be more realistic, should he get through to the NFL.
Notre Dame: Zack Martin, G/T.
As usual, the Irish have a number of potentially draftable prospects, and you’ll no doubt hear a lot about the likes of DE Stephon Tuitt and DT Louis Nix. Martin, a starter for 39 straight games in South Bend, could have just as much of an impact at the next level. He’s proven himself to be a durable lineman who plays with tenacity. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly also recently cited Martin as the vocal leader on offense, while stating that everyone on the Irish offensive line has “made significant gains” this offseason.
The only potential hiccup will be projecting Martin at the next level. Though he’s held down Notre Dame’s left tackle spot for an extended period of time, Martin probably has a move to guard in his NFL future.
Arkansas State: David Oku, RB.
It has been an odd college existence for the 5-10, 195-pound Oku, who was Rivals.com’s No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2009 recruiting class. He flashed great potential as a freshman at Tennessee, averaging a whopping 26.2 yards on 33 kick returns. He opted to leave the Vols after the 2010 season, though, and his exodus was complicated by a domestic assault arrest.
Oku finally landed on his feet last season with the Red Wolves. He rushed for nearly 1,100 yards and scored 16 touchdowns, setting himself up for a big last go-round. The senior still has terrific quickness and finds his way through some microscopic holes up front.
“David is one of those guys that’s proven and had a great year last year,” Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin told COX Sports at the Sun Belt media day. “Now, what are you going to do this year … when people know who you are?”
Georgia State: Albert Wilson, WR/KR.
Wilson, 5-9, briefly tossed out the notion of declaring for the 2013 draft, for some reason. He’s back for his senior year, which might give him an opportunity in 2014. Wilson is the all-time leading receiver (104 receptions) for a Georgia State program that just started playing in 2010. His real shot at the next level probably would come as a special-teams player — Wilson averaged 25.9 yards per kick return and 9.4 yards per punt return last season, en route to sharing the CAA’s Special Teams Player of the Year award with B.W. Webb, who was drafted by the Cowboys in April.
Louisiana: Terrance Broadway, QB.
Speculative choice here, as Broadway’s just a junior. The Houston transfer got better and better as 2012 carried on, though, and he is a legit dual-threat QB. Over the Ragin’ Cajuns’s final four games of 2012 (counting a bowl win), Broadway averaged 262 yards passing and 110 yards rushing.
His throwing motion and footwork could use some refinement, and he benefited from an offense that utilized quick passes against some porous Sun Belt defenses. Still, Broadway’s talent is undeniable and he just started scratching the surface last season.
Louisiana-Monroe: Isaiah Newsome, FS.
Probably a mid- to late-round prospect right now, Newsome plays a physical and rangy game from the defensive backfield. He has seven interceptions over the past two seasons, helping him earn a spot on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented to the nation’s best defensive back.
In reality, Browning may wind up being the prize of the Warhawks’ potential draft haul. He threw 29 TDs to 10 interceptions last season, after playing through a broken sternum in 2011. Head coach Todd Berry called him “really, truly … an extension of our staff [on the field].”
South Alabama: Enrique Williams, ILB.
The Jaguars’ program is only one year older than Georgia State’s, so the talent base has to grow. Williams, 6-foot-0 and 235, churned out 105 tackles last season — that’s partially an indictment of an overmatched defensive line. He obviously finds the football, though. New South Alabama linebackers coach Travis Pearson called Williams “a throwback player” in an interview with al.com and praised his toughness.
Texas State: Andy Erickson, WR/PR.
Another undersized, slot receiver-type (5-10, 175), who would need to make hay as a special-teams guy to get an NFL shot. Erickson, a Rice transfer coming off a 39-catch season for the Bobcats, might be up for the task. He averaged 16.7 yards per punt return last season, good enough for second in the conference.
Troy: Eric Thomas, WR.
The 6-1, 209-pound Thomas has had a knack for making highlight-reel touchdown catches, including one late in a wild 55-48 loss to Tennessee last season. On that play, Thomas beat a Vols cornerback inside on a post route, avoided a hit from a charging safety, tipped the ball to himself, then caught it and raced another 50 yards for a TD. So, his hands are not an issue. Thomas is not a burner, nor is he going to dominate in the air against NFL cornerbacks. But he has been a very steady, reliable pass-catcher, and some pro teams may take notice over the next few months.
Western Kentucky: Antonio Andrews, RB.
One of the most exciting small-conference hidden gems in all of college football, Andrews already has a lot of fans among the draft community. A 6-0, 212-pound running back, Andrews needs just 90 yards this season to break Barry Sanders’s Division I all-purpose yardage record of 3,250. Andrews has piled up his total every way imaginable: 1,728 yards rushing last season; nearly 500 career yards receiving; 1,400-plus yards as a kick returner and another 285 returning punts.
Andrews has had some issues putting the ball on the deck in the past, but he’s a versatile back, capable of burning covering linebackers in the pass game or grinding out 25 carries per game. There is a lot of time until the draft, but for now Andrews has the look of a Day 2 prospect.