The Watch List: Independents Preview

Updated: July 23rd 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Adam Breneman, TE, UMass: I’m not ready to anoint Breneman as my favorite prospect yet, but he’s at least my favorite that you’ve never heard of.  Breneman transferred to UMass from Penn State and made a name for himself in 2016 after sitting out 2015.  He led the FBS in receptions by a TE (70) and was second in yards (808) and TDs (8).  I had honestly never heard of him before my research for this article and I guess that’s what happens when you play on a 2-10 independent team.  As a freshman, Breneman caught just 16 passes but for a solid 12.4 yards per catch.  He’s 6’4″ and 243lb – comparable to Dennis Pitta when he came out of BYU.  Film is tough to come by right now, but the first two clips on his “official” highlight reel are of one-handed catches.  Hopefully those sure hands are borne out when we have some more film to digest.  Maybe  my optimism is misplaced but the potential for an athletic, decently sized TE with good hands is too good to ignore.  Watch for him in early games against Hawaii and Tennessee, broadcasts that should be widely available, and impress your friends with your deep TE sleeper knowledge.
  • Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame:  The first thing that stood out to me about St. Brown, aside from his name, was how long and lean he looked on the field when I watched his film against Miami from 2016.  He’s 6’4″ and 205lb and needs to add 5-10lb before coming out for the NFL.  Of the seven WR who measured 6’4″ and around 205lb at the combine since 2010, all were busts.  If he puts on about 10lb, he’ll measure up with the likes of AJ Green and Martavis Bryant.  ESB has just one year of production and those numbers don’t jump off the page.  As a freshman in 2015, he played predominantly as a reserve with some special teams snaps (I was surprised to see a blocked punt against USC in his 2015 game logs).  In 2016 he transitioned into the lead target and had a line of 58-961-9.  I was not impressed by the film I watched of his against Miami.  Most of his receptions were on screens or short hitch routes.  From what I saw, he does not attack the ball and catch with his hands away from his body.  He’s tall but against Miami his height wasn’t used at all.  In fact, his touchdown catch was a diving catch where he basically trapped the ball against his body while falling to the ground and blocking out the defender.  It was a nice play and maybe a sign of his versatility but at his size he should be going over defenders, not through the middle.  There were three plays that I counted where he was an aggressive and useful blocker, another good sign.  Luckily for ESB, the Irish play a tough, cupcake-less schedule so he’ll have plenty of opportunity to show us what he’s got.  Phil Steele has him as his 14th ranked draft-eligible WR; meanwhile WalterFootball.com doesn’t even have him ranked.  Looks like others are as equally as unsure about his future fantasy and NFL draft stock.
  • Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame: I was really looking to have a prospect from BYU in this preview but nobody really stood out for me.  Instead I decided to go with Adams.  He has two solid seasons under his belt, but neither has been overly impressive.  In 2015 he rushed 116 times for 838 yards and 6 TDs; in 2016 it was 158, 933 and 5.  In 2016 he also added in 21 receptions and 193 yards.  In the tape I watched of Adams against Stanford, I was surprised by how often he seemed to be a decoy, usually by running patterns from the backfield.  He rarely stayed in to block; I counted just one time that he was in pass protection.  The times when he was handed the ball, it was mostly up-the-gut and stuffed; he didn’t show me much speed, bounce or cutting ability.  Speaking of his speed, DraftScout.com has him listed as a projected 4.58 – I don’t see it.  He’d be lucky to get close to the similarly sized TJ Yeldon who ran a 4.61 in 2015.  It may not seem like a big difference but there’s something mental about going slower than 4.60.  I’ll have to watch some more tape of Adams to get a better feel for his athleticism.  With a good 2017 season and about 1,300 rushing yards, Adams will become the fifth leading rusher in Irish history – that will get him noticed.

Storylines to Watch

  • Brian Kelly on the Hot Seat: Kelly is a household name but his record at Notre Dame doesn’t really deserve the recognition.  Everybody knows the Irish severely under performed last year when they started the preseason at #10 but finished at 4-8.  The previous winning seasons should make up for it right?  I’m not so sure.  Kelly is 59-31 overall at Notre Dame, a respectable record for most coaches, but he’s just 2-5 against Top 10 opponents, 11-14 against the Top 25 and 3-3 in bowls.  Losing records against top competition is not the way to curry favor with fervent Notre Dame fans.  Kelly has to start fresh at QB which will make 2017 even tougher (DeShone Kizer was drafted by the Browns and Malik Zaire transferred to Florida).  If Kelly doesn’t win 9+ games and win a name-brand bowl, he should be looking for a new job next Spring.
  • Can Army Repeat 2016: The Black Knights were a surprising 8-5 in 2016 and managed upset wins over Temple, Wake Forest and Navy.  Can they repeat the winning ways in 2017?  My money would be on no based on their past track record.  Before last season, Army had just one winning season (7-6 in 2010) since 1995.  The argument for continued success is that Army returns 12 starters and nearly 85% of their offensive yards, per Phil Steele.  Call me patriotic, but the college football world is just better when Army is winning games.
  • The Return of Tanner Mangum:  Mangum had a good 2015 season when filling in for the injured Taysom Hill (3,377 yards, 23 TDs) but was benched in favor of Hill again in 2016.  Mangum got back under center for the bowl game when Hill was hurt again, but he was disappointing with just eight completions and one TD.  I considered spotlighting Mangum as one of my draft prospects but he will be 25 years old at the start of the 2018 season if he came out after his junior season. That’s likely too old for NFL teams to strongly consider him as their QB of the future, and compounded if he stays for a senior year (he missed his first two years of eligibility for mission work).

Games to Watch

  • September 2, BYU vs LSU: As far as early season games go, this is nearly as good as it gets.  If Mangum has any hope of gaining some draft buzz, a strong start to the season is his ticket.  After LSU, BYU also plays Utah and Wisconsin.  If they go 2-1 in those three games I bet they end up in the Top 25 and buoy Mangum’s prospects despite my concerns about his age.
  • September 9, Georgia at Notre Dame: Another banner early season game finds Georgia traveling to South Bend for the first time in school history.  Georgia should be Top 15 to start the season but I’m a bit worried they will get caught looking ahead to the Irish when the play Appalachian State on September 2.  If the Bulldogs don’t falter to start the season, getting a scalp against Georgia could very well save Brian Kelly’s job.
  • December 9, Army vs Navy: This matchup is always one of my favorite games of the season.  The game rightfully has the spotlight to itself before the bowl games kick off and it usually features some fun-to-watch triple option offenses.  It’s rare you can watch a game and find yourself rooting for both sides, enjoy it.  ‘Merica!

 

Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.