2014 NFL Draft Primer: Scouting the Conference USA
Conference USA is very much in transition, having been rebuilt multiple times in the wake of the NCAA’s rush toward conference realignment. Out this season are Houston, Memphis, Central Florida and SMU — all of which went to the American Athletic Conference. Next year, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will follow those schools to the AAC.
To make up for its lost membership, CUSA has added what it hopes are several up-and-coming programs, including Old Dominion and UNC-Charlotte, which will enter the fold in 2014 and ’15, respectively. The result of all the movement is that the talent base in the conference has been thinned, at least temporarily. The football program at Texas-San Antonio, for example, made its debut in 2011.
There are still plenty of NFL-worthy players, though, as one might expect in a conference that includes teams from Florida and Texas. A couple of CUSA players might even get a call on Day 1 or 2 of next year’s draft.
To conclude our 2014 draft primer, here’s a closer look at the top prospects in the 14-team Conference USA:
East Carolina: Vintavious Cooper, RB.
Cooper was suspended for a short time this summer after being booked on a marijuana possession charge, so he’ll have to answer for that. The senior could help his draft stock repeating or improving upon the 1,279 combined yards (1,042 rushing, 229 receiving) that he posted in 2012, his first year with the Pirates after playing juco ball at Southwest Mississippi Community College. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Cooper is well-built and can help in a variety of ways out of the backfield.
Florida Atlantic: Randell Johnson, OLB.
Owls coach Carl Pelini said that the 6-3, 232-pound Johnson is “NFL ready,” though the senior has to actually prove it — he was dinged up all last year and has already missed practice time this month with injuries. Johnson did have 92 tackles in 2011, along with 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, so he has the ability to get to the football.
Florida International: Paul Crawford, DE.
How’s 6-8, 270 sound? That is the height and weight of this senior edge-rusher, about three inches taller than Texans dynamo J.J. Watt, who has used a combination of athleticism and length to become a dominant NFL pass rusher. Crawford is nowhere near the same caliber of player as Watt — he only just nailed down a starting spot — but he has potential. The Panthers will use him off the edge in a 4-3; he could also slide in to a 3-4 DE if he adds some more strength.
Louisiana Tech: Justin Ellis, DT.
Where Crawford brings the lankiness you want outside, Ellis, at 6-2 and 330 pounds, is a space-eater along the interior. His stats won’t blow anyone away: 3.5 sacks two years ago and 54 tackles over three seasons. But for a team in need of a nose tackle to clog lanes, the senior could be an option come the draft.
Marshall: Gator Hoskins, TE.
Best name in next year’s draft? Possibly. Hoskins (6-2, 244) showed talent as a receiver for the Thundering Herd last season, catching 35 passes for 374 yards and 10 touchdowns. The senior’s size probably limits him to a fullback/H-back role in the NFL. He actually came to Marshall as a safety before converting permanently to offense. Hoskins could have a future as a role player in the NFL.
Middle Tennessee: Josh Walker, G.
The 6-5 Walker weighs in at 323 pounds, a gain of more than 20 pounds since his freshman year. He has developed into a very reliable interior lineman for the Blue Raiders — Walker did not allow a single sack last season. The lumbering senior probably cannot play anywhere but guard in the NFL, and he’ll have to find the right system to do so, but his size will keep him in the conversation.
North Texas: Zachary Orr, LB
The Mean Green haven’t had a player selected in the NFL draft since 2004 (Cody Spencer, Titans). Could Orr break that drought next spring? The senior put up big numbers last season, leading North Texas with 108 tackles from the MLB spot in a 4-3 defense. He is undersized at 6-1, 240 pounds, and that will make an NFL transition difficult for him, regardless of whether he lands in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
Rice: Phillip Gaines, CB.
Arguably the best defensive back in CUSA, the 6-1, 185-pound Gaines tied Alabama’s Dee Milliner for the most pass break-ups in the nation last season, with 18. Oddly enough, Gaines has yet to pick off a pass in his collegiate career, so it would behoove the senior to turn some of those passes-defensed into INTs. That said, he clearly knows how to find and attack the football when it’s in the air. Injuries, which sidelined him in both 2009 and ’11, will be a concern.
Southern Miss: Khyri Thornton, DT.
As talented a player as you’re likely to find on an 0-12 team. Thornton turned in a strong and consistent 2012, despite the Golden Eagles dismal record. He’s a 6-3, 308-pound senior with enough quickness to get into the backfield (23.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks in three seasons), and he has enough size to stand his ground along the interior of the line. Thornton certainly looks the part of an NFL defensive tackle.
Tulane: Ryan Grant, WR.
Grant deserves to be in the “best senior WR prospect” conversation, thanks to a 76-catch, 1,150-yard junior season in 2012. Assuming Grant, who took a medical redshirt in ’11 because of a sports hernia, can stay on the field this fall, he could push into the top 50 picks — maybe even higher. He has adequate size at 6-1, 191 pounds, but he uses all of his height to go after the football. Grant also will make plays after the catch, as his career average of 14.5 yards-per-reception indicates.
Tulsa: Trey Watts, RB.
Watts toyed with the notion of turning pro after last season, then opted to head back to the Golden Hurricane for his senior year. Let’s chalk that up as a good call. Watts (5-11, 190) is a talented dual-threat back — 1,108 yards rushing and 34 receptions last season — and he is also an extremely dangerous kick returner. In 2012, he averaged 27.9 yards per return and took one punt back for a touchdown. That all-around game will tantalize at least a few NFL teams next May.
UAB: Kaycee Ike, OT.
The top draft prospect on this team heading into 2013 was set to be WR Jackie Williams, who was a third-team CUSA pick last season with 53 grabs for 799 yards. But he was dismissed from the roster earlier this month for undisclosed reasons and then transferred to Central Florida, where he’ll be eligible to play next fall.
The departure of Williams means that Ike is now the Blazers’ top talent. The 6-5, 293-pound senior started every game last season on the right side and will hold down the left tackle spot in 2013. His best asset: strength — Ike benches 400 pounds and coach Garrick McGee called him the strongest player on the team.
UTEP: Horace Miller, OLB.
A transfer from Louisville, the 6-2, 240-pound Miller has 11.0 sacks to go along with 15.5 tackles for loss in two season with the Miners. He plays outside in UTEP’s 4-3 scheme, though he might be a better NFL fit as a situational pass-rusher in a 3-4 defense. The senior is one of those players who will have to earn a roster spot on special teams for a couple of years before really getting a crack at doing his thing in the NFL.
UTSA: Steven Kurfehs, OLB.
Kurfehs (6-2, 230) played the “Dawg” position on the Roadrunners’ defense last season — a combo linebacker/safety spot in the team’s base 4-2-5 look. This year, the senior is moving to “Hawk”, which is more of a strict linebacker role. Kurfehs had 71 tackles and 5.5 sacks from of his former position, and his athleticism could make him even more of a defensive weapon when moved into the box. The versatility he’s put on display in swapping positions will give NFL teams much more to work with when they check out Kurfehs’ tape.