Another draft cycle, another round of mining for draft gems from Group of Five and FCS teams. And let’s be clear, players from these schools are not just mid-round or undrafted training camp fodder. There is Pro Bowl talent and franchise-changing players out there when you look past the traditional college football powerhouses. From Carson Wentz (North Dakota State) to Tyreek Hill (West Alabama) to David Johnson (Northern Iowa) or Kevin Byard (Middle Tennessee State), great players can be found anywhere.
This is the annual small-school big board. This year, we have expanded the list to include Group of Five prospects (No independents, sorry BYU. Sorry, Fred Warner).
1. Mike Hughes, CB, UCF
In a deep cornerback class, Mike Hughes might be the best.
I know this for sure: He is the most aesthetically pleasing. An excellent press corner, with a nose for the ball, schematic versatility, a big mouth and bigger skills. Sign me up.
Hughes is a standout athlete. He is a little shorter than the long-limbed players who fill up NFL secondaries these days. But he makes up for it with rare football intellect – his understanding of route combinations, leverage and foresight. Opposing offenses actively went away from him as 2017 went along. He was too good.
He is at his best in press coverage (top of the image):
There, he can jostle and fight with receivers all over the field. He likes the hand fight, rerouting receivers and disrupting their release.
And he can be equally as effective in off-coverage. He has the hip fluidity to move and break in space. He can, however, get caught peeking in the backfield – a problem that shrinks when he is playing bump-and-run.
There is a Marcus Peters feel to his game, with one distinct difference: Hughes isn’t allergic to tackling.
In fact, he seems to relish it:
That is a stupendous play. It might not seem important, but we now live in a bubble screen world. The game is played on the perimeter. Corners who can tackle are viewed as a premium (even if it falls way down the list of wants).
Hughes is quick out of his backpedal, with the read-and-react skills that would make a linebacker proud. The play above is perfect. He hit the outside shoulder, with anger, forcing the runner to turn back inside where he could be corralled by Hughes’ fellow defenders.
One extra tidbit: Hughes hasn’t played a ton of high-level football – he was forced to transfer from North Carolina after being charged with misdemeanor assault in 2015 (all record of the charges eventually were dropped). He spent a year at a JUCO before winding up at UCF. His upside is as exciting as any defensive back in this class.
2. Will Hernandez, OL, Texas-El Paso
A gigantic human being who moves in ways giants should not. That is the best way to summarize Will Hernandez’s game.
The nimble giant (swing tackle) weighed in at 340 pounds at the Senior Bowl. It is tough to comprehend how someone his size can even get out of his stance, let alone dance up to the second level to chuck linebackers out of the club.
That is what Hernandez does. He makes pancake blocks an art form.
But he is not just a schoolyard bully, picking on people half his size. He packs grace and guile into that humongous frame. His skip step, pull blocks are as elegant as his drive blocks are violent.
In pass protection, Hernandez, obviously, has a sturdy anchor. And he works hard to stick on blocks – often through will more than skill. He has more dip than one would suspect given his frame; just enough to hold off quick-twitch interior rushers.
Hernandez has experience at tackle. He will move inside in the NFL. He is the second best interior lineman in the draft — behind Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson.
3. Marcus Davenport, Edge, Texas-San Antonio
Is there anything more fun than watching a springy pass rusher wreak havoc on Group of Five competition? I don’t think so.
Not since Khalil Mack has a non-Power 5 pass rusher inspired such attention at the top of the draft.
Marcus Davenport is a tantalizing prospect. He has everything you could look for in a pass-rusher prospect: hops; go-go-Gadget arms; relentlessness; an unnatural ability to bend around the edge despite standing 6-7; and just enough speed-to-power skills to overrun weaker tackles.
Davenport’s game is based on stop-star quickness. He is quick, capable of wrecking the game off the snap:
Davenport pairs that initial quickness with good flexibility. A guy his size shouldn’t be able to angle around the corner and close on the quarterback with such elegance. Davenport does:
He doesn’t always have a plan. That is a concern.
It is not an issue when you’re in Conference USA and you can take a tackle for a stroll into the backfield whenever you feel like it:
But his technical game will need more refinement than playing a cruel style of, “I’m better than you, deal with it” keepaway.
There are fluidity concerns, too. It will be interesting to see how he tests. He is a north-south runner who prefers to be up in a two-point stance (he has an odd, delayed get-off when asked to play in a three-point stance). Don’t expect him to be dropping into coverage too much:
A team won’t draft him to move backward, though. He will be there to get to, and hit, opposing quarterbacks. Once he is moving forward, it’s all gas, no brake. Good luck to anyone standing between him and his target.
Few pass rushers have been blessed with Davenport’s physical tools. And there is an interesting package of football skills there, too. Davenport might never put them all together, but it’s going to be fun watching him try.
4. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Josh Allen is the draft’s most polarizing player. You can read my full film breakdown of the Wyoming star.
5. Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State
The nation’s leading receiver in 2017 never was supposed to be a wideout. Initially recruited to Georgia as a quarterback, Michael Gallup has blossomed into a player who should get late first-round consideration.
He is an advanced route runner, who runs a more diverse route tree than many, if not all, of the pace-and-space receivers who put up equally gaudy numbers in school.
Sure, Colorado State manufactured him touches; wouldn’t you? He was the spark plug for the offense. Get the ball in his hands and he made plays.
He will in the NFL, too. He can win in many different ways: separating from press coverage with his size; winning down the field with footwork; making defenders miss in space on quick screens; and, where he is at his best, doing damage after the catch.
Gallup’s matchup against Alabama – the top competition he has faced – was an interesting study. He failed to gain any kind of vertical separation against Anthony Averett. Bluntly: Averett worked him.
But Gallup showed off other facets of his game, ones that may prove to be more transitive than if he were streaking open against inferior competition. He was forced to go in the post, working his body to create funky angles and modicum of late separation from Averett’s glue coverage – if not, at least a path for the quarterback to throw him the ball.
Colorado State liked to isolate Gallup on one side of the formation, into the boundary. If he was left 1-on-1, the quarterback was going his way virtually every time, Crimson Tide or not:
There, he is showing off his combination of upper-body control and lower-body power. That is how you win contested catches.
A team is going to fall in love with Gallup’s versatility and effectiveness.
6. Alex Cappa, OL, Humboldt State
The offensive line class this year is as deep and talented as it has been in years. Many of the small-school guys are larger projects than the talents from traditional powers. But it is a group of freak athletes with the talent to be long-term starters.
Alex Cappa is a mauler who outclassed all around him at Humboldt State. He plays with a nasty streak. And when I say nasty, I mean N-A-S-T-Y. You almost can see the victim pleading “Can you take it easy, once?” No. No, he cannot.
He specializes in locking in on defenders and reenacting the bear scene from The Revenant:
Division II defenders didn’t stand a chance.
The only concern: He can get highlight block happy. Little intricacies that will be important in the NFL – his hand placement and positional leverage – fell by the wayside as he went head hunting. There is a lot he will need to clean up.
The run-game stuff is fun. It makes for great clips. Protecting the quarterback is where he will boom or bust.
I think he booms. He is quick out of his stance, with the hops to jump out against speed rushers and the base to anchor against power players:
At the Senior Bowl, he played with a fierce certainty that he belonged, taking it to projected top-20 pick Davenport. It will be fascinating to watch how Cappa evolves. He has all the hallmarks of a franchise tackle.
7. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State
Every year, teams hunt the middle rounds for running backs who can be immediate contributors. Rashaad Penny, the nation’s leading runner in 2017, fits the bill.
He can be a factor in three phases: as a runner, return man and catching the ball out of the backfield. He won’t split out wide or into the slot, but we can’t have everything.
Penny offers a little of everything as a runner. His patience and vision set him apart. He always is thinking one and two steps ahead of the defense, rarely, if ever, missing the right cutback line.
He is a compact runner, who lowers his strike zone through the hole and watches giddily as bigger, badder defenders slip off his slimmed-down frame.
Penny needs only the teensiest crease to rampage downhill:
Give him any more and he is a threat to score:
Whether he winds up in a zone-cut or gap-oriented scheme, Penny can deliver an instant impact.
8. Shaquem Griffin, Edge/LB, UCF
Shaquem Griffin isn’t merely a unique evaluation in this draft, he is likely the most unique evaluation in league history.
It shouldn’t be that tough. Stick on the tape and you see a relentless rusher with the versatility to play in space as an off-ball linebacker. He moved right across the defensive front at UCF playing in a bunch of different alignments and executing all manner of post-snap responsibilities:
He does a decent job in coverage, though sometimes he can get entranced by whatever is going on in the backfield and void his zone. But it is going forward where he is at his best. As a force and containing defenders, he is excellent:
Griffin can dip and bend with the best of them, morphing his body to unusual angles to maneuver around a blocker. And, when needed, he can convert speed into overwhelming power.
It sounds facile to say: stick on the Auburn tape. But it’s correct. That was SEC competition. NFL athletes all over the field. Griffin looked quicker than everyone:
His football intellect is off the charts. He doesn’t arrive at the collision point on time, he arrives early. He sniffs things out seemingly before an offense has decided for itself:
Oh, and he does it all with one hand. I failed to mention that. It’s unique, but it doesn’t disqualify him as a prospect. The tape is the tape. Is he effective or not? There aren’t many players in the country who have the combination of speed and smarts needed to make this play:
There are concerns: his size. He could overpower tackles in the AAC. I’m not sure he will be able to in the NFL (though he bullied some future pros at the Senior Bowl). And there is the question of where you put him, and in what packages. A good staff will figure it out.
Griffin has disproved doubters at every turn. Teams undoubtedly will pass on Griffin because of the unique circumstance. They will rue it.
9. Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
Another year, another smaller-school tight end with outrageous physical abilities.
Dallas Goedert is a north-south vertical receiver with little nuance to his game:
And that’s fine! A team just needs to know who he is: a player who can get upfield in a hurry, box out smaller bodies and do ridiculous things after the catch. Ask him to do much more, though, and you’re in trouble.
He isn’t quick in and out of breaks:
That limits his route tree. And while he is an effort blocker – better on the move than in-line – he just isn’t where an NFL team would need him to be to have an instant impact in the run game.
His size and quickness make him an interesting move piece. Even as a coverage revealer he has value. He can be flexed across the formation: from the backfield, to in-line, to the slot, to an isolated spot on the backside of the field. That alone will make him a matchup problem for any defense.
The intoxicating size-speed combination will draw comparisons to Rob Gronkowski, Tyler Eifert and Travis Kelce. He could even sneak into the first round.
10. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
Opinions on Courtland Sutton are all over the place. Some view him as the top pass catcher in the draft. Others see an unrefined route runner with great size but not a whole lot else.
Sutton has undeniable talent. His size (6-4, 220) speaks for itself. He could be a red-zone menace. He can win contested catches, and he is better after the catch than he is given credit for.
However, he is prone to lazy stretches as a route runner. His footwork off the line of scrimmage, and in and out of breaks, isn’t quite good enough. That can improve, of course. But he’s far from the finished product.
11. Chukwuma Okorafor, T, Western Michigan
Chukwuma Okorafor’s journey from Nigeria, to Western Michigan, to top NFL draft prospect is a unique story. As always with players from diverse backgrounds, the usual cliché will be rolled out: He’s raw.
That is not the case. Okorafor is a refined tackle who knows what he is doing and does it well. He owns power rushers; he sets a strong base, clamps them in a vice-like grip and doesn’t let them go until he is good and ready.
Speed is what he struggles with. And that is the big concern as he moves up to the NFL. Right now, he doesn’t pick up stunts, twists and blitzes well enough to shift inside (and while his footwork is excellent, there is a dip issue).
It is outside where he will have to play.
There, he can be exposed by next-level quickness. Sometimes he sets too wide, freeing up a corridor inside to a rapid pass rusher. Other times, he is slow to get out of his stance, forcing him to play catch-up as the rusher ducks around the edge.
He should improve as he gets more reps against NFL speed. It is more of a stance than athletic issue. His size, length and movement skills will have teams intrigued from the 20th pick onward.
12. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
Leighton Vander Esch may not be the glitziest prospect in this class, but he will play in the league for a long time.
He is an idyllic “rat” defender — a marauding role in the middle of the defense — with off-the-charts diagnose-and-attack instincts.
Vander Esch likes to play cleanup duty. He will shoot downhill and dart through gaps when they’re available, but he likes to do things more orderly than that.
He will drop into coverage, survey the landscape and then make a well-informed decision when he would like to chase someone down, thank you very much:
He plays on instincts. But he is far from reckless. The next time you see him overshoot a play will be the first. He appears in the right place at the right time, navigating the field with the confidence of a five-year vet.
Boise’s zone-heavy system gave him ample opportunity to learn the tools of the “rat” defender trade: picking up smaller, zippier receivers on crossing routes. Vander Esch is at a physical disadvantage in those matchups. But his anticipation skills often win out. He hits a receiver’s landmark before he arrives.
There are man-coverage concerns, but he has the fluidity and size to match up with tight ends down the field — it’s running backs leaking out of the backfield that is the issue.
However, he has a shot to be a three-down player, right away, in the right system. His range in the run game will afford a coordinator the ability to play nickel on downs when he is tempted to stick in base. That is a nice treat for any coach.
13. Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky
Mike White is an advanced quarterback with the traits teams are looking for from a developmental QB prospect. Think Kirk Cousins.
White is the master of rhythm throws. And he has proven himself as capable as any of the nation’s top-tier QBs at manipulating coverages and individual defenders with his eyes.
An accurate quarterback completes throws. A precise quarterback completes specific throws against specific coverage principles. White is the latter.
14. Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis
Anthony Miller doesn’t have all the measurables teams are looking for. There will be better combine players. Better players in shorts and T-shirts. There won’t be a whole bunch better on Sundays.
He just makes plays.
His almighty tussle with Hughes (the No. 1 player on this board) was one of the best prospect vs. prospect matchups of the season (and we got it twice!). Miller bested Hughes for a red-zone touchdown:
The cornerback failed to turn his head around. But you can’t do it any better than Miller did: He leaped, tracked the ball over the DB’s head, secured it at its highest point and safeguarded it to the ground.
That is Miller in a nutshell. He is not the most dynamic playmaker, and he won’t test off the charts. But he is technically sound — a mighty refined route runner — with enough elusiveness and athleticism to high-point the ball against anyone and do some damage after the catch.
15. Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
Darius Leonard is a poor man’s Deion Jones. Like the Atlanta Falcons linebacker, Leonard is a weakside linebacker who may not have sniffed a team 10 years ago. Now he is becoming the prototype.
As everyone goes spread, and the game is played outside the tackle box, defenses need guys with the flexibility to match up against different body types and the athleticism to cover ground in a hurry.
He put up a ludicrous stat line in 2017: 113 tackles, 8 TFLs, 8 sacks, a forced fumble and a pair of interceptions. The tape was even more impressive. He bounces all over the field with blurry speed.
He plays aggressive, bordering on violent. He takes on blockers with a visceral disdain, dispatching them at will – he finished his collegiate career with 14 sacks and 42 TFLs. That is a lot of plays in the opposing backfield.
Yet it is Leonard’s coverage skills that separate him from others. He mirrors backs out of the backfield and has shown the ability to turn and run in coverage with receivers downfield.
16. Deadrin Senat, DL, USF
Every year there are prospects who you grow to appreciate more and more with every viewing. Enter: Deadrin Senat. The moving fire hydrant offers the positional flexibility to line up over the center or slide out as a three-technique in pass-rushing situations.
Here is the thing, though: He doesn’t always jump off the tape. Instead, Senat does the little things that help a teammate make a play but often go unnoticed. He does something hard to spot that just works.
Senat is a lane clogger against the run. He clamps his giant mitts on a lineman, controls them effortlessly and routinely takes blockers for a stroll in the backfield. Linebackers and the rest of his buddies collect the numbers, but it is Senat who makes the thing tick. Runners are routinely forced to divert their course after Senat plops himself in their way.
He is at his best working in reduced fronts, when a center is forced to confront him without any help from slip blocks or with double-team help:
Every team in the league is looking for plug-and-play, base down, run thumpers in later rounds. Senat will be the favorite of many. He can two-gap, with a game based almost exclusively around leverage and power:
Those are the boring things, but they help a team get to third down – where all the fun and games and exotic looks and blitzes come.
And there is enough pass-rush upside to warrant teams to take a look at the end of Day 2. He is no game wrecker but has enough burst and in-line power to create a nuisance in the middle of the field.
17. Nathan Shepherd, DL, Fort Hays State
Here is a fun game: Make yourself a list of all the ways an offensive lineman could be embarrassed by a twitched-up, overbearing defensive lineman. Now grab some ice cream and watch Nathan Shepherd go to work.
It won’t take you long to tick everything off. Shepherd has a nice blend of burst, power and a non-stop motor. It makes a potent pass-rushing cocktail:
There are size issues vs. the run. And he can go through prolonged stretches of ineffectiveness, not ideal at his competition level.
But his skill set is perfect as a sub rusher. He will be particularly potent in split fronts – where he can work 1-on-1 – or in creative stunt-and-twist packages, where his innate quickness will allow him to beat less-agile guards to their sets before edge defenders come zooming in behind him.
18. Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond
Kyle Lauletta has become an internet sensation. With good reason, as the Senior Bowl MVP!
The non-stop links to New England are fair. He screams coach Bill Belichick (He played college lacrosse!). But, wait, doesn’t everyone want a talented quarterback who makes excellent decisions, has a quick release and decent arm?
Given the number of quarterbacks who will go in the first round, I don’t think Lauletta makes it to Day 3.
19. Sean Chandler, S, Temple
One of my favorite subplots of this draft cycle: the evolution of safety evaluations.
College football is resplendent with defenses running a variation of a quarters-match system – four deep defensive backs orchestrating a pattern-matching system (a hybrid zone-man coverage). Heck, the Big 12 seems to have enforced the thing by decree.
But here is the rub: It is a major departure from what the NFL runs. Quarters-match systems are designed especially to defend against explosive plays: condense the field; keep four guys deep whenever possible; convert to man-coverage when receivers get deep downfield; and help the defense against the onslaught of exotic RPOs. It is the epitome of bend-don’t-break.
The NFL, by contrast, has shifted to press-and-trail three-match systems. Everyone has gotten in on the act. It is the kind you see at Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and other schools with NFL athletes all over their defense.
Other schools have veered away from the pro-style system. You need great players (and a bunch of them) to commit to a heavy dosage of man coverage. And it requires a particular set of skills from safeties to deal with all the rotations, reading, route adjustments spinning and funky run fits.
A ridiculous amount of internet data has been used on grand think pieces about spread-option quarterbacks moving up to the NFL level: How ever will they cope? Will the league adapt? Is it possible they could learn to take a snap from behind center? (sarcasm intentional)
Here we have the defensive equivalent.
Everything is different. There are now two deep safeties, not one. No one is rotating toward the line of scrimmage – late –- in order to reroute any kind of vertical release, and, if necessary, form a second wall against the run.
Run fits are different: A safety now is responsible for the cutback lane, as opposed to a weakside linebacker. Oh, and there is much, much less ground to cover in the pass game – with everything unfolding in front of a safety’s eyes, as opposed to running in-phase with a receiver.
That is a huge departure. Scouts and evaluators are making similar projections with safeties as they have for the last decade with spread-option QBs: The guy has the traits, but he doesn’t show what we do on tape.
Temple’s Sean Chandler will prove to be an interesting case study in this regard. He played as the field-side safety in the Owls’ quarters-match system. It was one of the most well-coached, disciplined and brilliant defenses in the nation in 2017 – finishing 41st in defensive S&P+, per FootballStudyHall.
Chandler flashed. He had good games, and he was exposed in others. He lined up on the far hash regardless of where the ball was spotted. That gave him more ground to cover and showed off his fluidity, eyes and coverage skills in space.
Off the ball, he excelled. But when matched in man coverage – typically sliding into the slot or matching up against a bigger player – he was in trouble:
The Owls staff trusted him more in 2017 than his safety colleagues. Without him, the other safeties looked lost, particularly against the run:
Chandler’s understanding of his responsibilities in the run game, despite starting from a much deeper position, is a skill that will innately transition from one scheme to the other. Chandler finished third on the team in tackles. However, how he matches up in man coverage throughout the pre-draft trials will have a bearing on his draft position.
This class is filled with guys whom the league will project from quarters-match to three-match defenders – needing to fill both the roles: as a middle-of-the-field deep defender and as the rotator/rerouter. Chandler’s run-game intellect will get him a look.
20. Greg Senat, OL, Wagner
All-star games, well, more accurately, the week of practices leading up to the game, can make or break a smaller-school prospect in the eyes of evaluators.
Greg Senat didn’t attend the Senior Bowl, but he was brilliant throughout the East-West Shrine week. He is another in the long line of crazy athletic smaller-school offensive linemen who will be picked up on the third day of the draft.
Right now, he is as unrefined as it gets – getting by on athleticism. His tape vacillates between mauling fools on one play, and apocalyptic, cover-your-eyes technique the next.
He is a rare two-sport athlete, starting at left tackle for the Wagner football team before playing some power forward in his spare time. He has size and quickness, a pair of tools you can’t teach.
A line coach will convince himself (and his personnel staff) they can mold Senat into a gem.
Correction: Tyreek Hill’s first name was misspelled in the original post. DieHards regrets the error.