The Watch List: Sun Belt 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

  • Jordan Chunn, RB, Troy: Chunn is my pick for the player from the Sun Belt most likely to end up on your fantasy team next Spring.  He has good size for a RB at 6’1″ and 231 lb (very similar to D’onta Foreman and James Connor from this class).  As a true freshman in 2013, Chunn split time as the lead back and had a solid 514 rushing yards, 21 receptions and 104 receiving yards; he added an eye-popping 14 rushing TDs.  He was less of a pass catcher in 2014 but upped his per carry average slightly despite not getting the bulk of the carries.  He finished 2014 with a 111-509-6 rushing line.  In 2016, Chunn was the unquestioned top back and went for 279-1,288-16 while adding 30 receptions and 228 yards through the air.  I was able to view a find some student-made highlight reelss from last year’s Troy’s games.  Chunn is a straight ahead runner who would much rather go through the defender than around.  He didn’t show me much elusiveness or speed (maybe 4.60-4.65) but that’s not why you’d be drafting him.  Two negatives I’ll mention… First, he runs upright which the conventional wisdom says is a concern as it makes him a bigger target for tacklers.  Second, he was sidelined for nearly all of 2015 with a collarbone injury.  Luckily for his future pro prospects, a broken collarbone will give GMs less pause than a knee.  Come May 2018, Chunn could find himself on a team looking for a little “thunder” to go with their “lightning.”
  • Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State: It was even harder to find film out there for Moore.  I didn’t have the patience to sit through long highlight packages of random Sun Belt games just to see a glimpse of him two or three times on touchdowns or long runs.  It’s disappointing because he was the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2016 and named to the All-Sun Belt First Team and I wanted to actually see him in action.  Funnily enough, it’s far easier to find high school highlights of his.  As a freshman in 2015, Moore ran for 731 yards on just 99 carries, a 7.4 per carry average.  In 2016, he was the lead guy and had a 237-1,402-10 rushing line.  Unfortunately, he adds very little in the passing game with just five career receptions, all in 2016.  Moore started 2016 slowly but exploded in the fourth game against Akron for 257 yards and 2 TDs on 39 carries.  He had seven more 100+ yard games after that to finish strong enough to make you forget about the earlier struggles (two of which came against Tennessee and Miami FL).  Moore is 5’11” and 205 lbs, lighter than you’d hope for in an every-down back; size-wise he compares similarly to Christian McCaffery.  Moore is only a junior so he has some time to bulk up (and put some good tape out there) but there’s no guarantee he comes out in 2018.
  • Matt Linehan, QB, Idaho: If I’m being honest, I had not heard of Matt Linehan before I started my Sun Belt research.  Idaho originally caught my eye because they are moving back to FCS (more on that below) so I decided to learn more about their quarterback.  He’s been the starter since 2014 as a true freshman when the Vandals joined the Sun Belt and now he will see them out of the conference.  Linehan has some inflated counting stats from a heavy pass offense but the stats aren’t great when you look closely.  He finished strong with 10 TDs and just 3 INTs in the final four games of the season (including a 4 TD game in the Idaho Potato Bowl against Colorado State), but he started the year with just 2 TDs and 1 INT in the first four (granted one was against Washington but the other three were against Montana State [FCS], Washington State [112th passing defense] and UNLV [81st]).  Despite a high volume of attempts, he just doesn’t hit paydirt often enough  (just 46 career TDs over 35 games).  His career completion percentage of 61.1% is good enough but in the film I watched he looked pretty inaccurate.  I watched Linehan play against Washington and predictably his teammates did him no favors: he was sacked, had to scramble and suffered a number of drops.  He does look comfortable throwing on the run, which is a positive because Idaho ranks 108th in returning offensive line starts per Phil Steele.  I also watched his tape against Colorado State and two plays from that game give me hope.  On two of his four TD tosses, Linehan identified the blitz and threw to a hot route receiver for a touchdown.  Maybe I’m being hard on the guy, but I just wasn’t impressed when delving into his stats or his tape.  Two of my favorite resources disagree though.  Phil Steele has Linehan as his #16 draft eligible QB, meanwhile DraftScout.com has Linehan as the #3 senior QB (notably ahead of Baker Mayfield).  For what it’s worth, his dad is Scott Linehan, Cowboys offensive coordinator and former Rams head coach so that will all but guarantee he gets a shot with an NFL team.  Linehan is a guy I will definitely be checking in on again in the future to see if my initial impressions were right or off base.
  • Blake Mack, TE, Arkansas State: Here’s a deep name for you.  I realized that in my first few previews, I didn’t list a single TE as a player to watch so I was determined to find one to write about from the Sun Belt.  Lindy’s lists Mack as the 10th best draft eligible player from the conference so maybe I’m on to something.  I was initially turned away from Mack because of his size.  At 6’3″ 231lb, he’s smaller than Evan Engram who was 2017’s smallest TE prospect.  Some talk, from myself included, supposed that Engram might transition to WR or at least play most of his snaps out of the slot.  That’s likely the future for Mack too.  I found a highlight reel for Mack from 2016 and was interested to see where the Red Wolves utilized him.  He was very versatile, lining up in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.  He was not on the line often and I did not see a single highlight of him blocking (possibly more a feature of what constitutes a highlight, but my gut tells me he doesn’t block much).  He has the speed to beat safeties and linebackers in coverage, which he did on a number of plays.  Mack looks smaller on the field than expected so I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even enter the combine as a TE but instead as a WR (or maybe with the RBs as an H-back).  Perhaps not the best comparison these days, but his usage and versatility reminded me of Aaron Hernandez at Florida.  You’ll have to be in a pretty deep league to consider Mack but hey that’s why I’m here!

Storylines to Watch

  • Idaho moving down to the FCS: As far as I can tell, no team has left the FBS for the FCS by choice in decades.  Some have left due to funding or NCAA sanctions, but to leave the top division willingly is unprecedented.  It’s an interesting story and one that gets more interesting when you think about the future of head coach Paul Petrino.  Petrino has been with Idaho since they moved up to the FBS in 2013 (they played as an independent for a season before joining the Sun Belt in 2014).  His overall record is bad (15-33) but the trend line is encouraging.  The Vandals started off with two 0-11 seasons but improved to 4-8 in 2015 and then 9-4 last season.  If Petrino can keep the team competitive, which should be made easier with such an experienced quarterback like Matt Linehan, I would expect him to stay in the FBS and latch on with another up-and-coming Group of 5 team.
  • Troy’s experience will help them surprise: As readers will know, I like to refer to Phil Steele’s experience charts to determine potential surprise teams.  What did I find for the Sun Belt?  Troy is returning an insane 98.7% of their offensive yards from last year – the highest percentage in the FBS.  Their top seven rushers and receivers will all be back for 2017, including standout RB Jordan Chunn.  Troy has two tough non-conference games against Boise State and LSU, which I’m assuming will be losses, but they avoid Appalachian State who should lead the conference.  If Troy can avoid a late season upset like they suffered in 2016 against Georgia Southern, they should challenge App State for the title.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Appalachian State at Georgia: I’m a Michigan fan so I know all about opening weekend upsets against App State.  Georgia will be a preseason Top 25 team and features some bonafide NFL prospects (including RBs Nick Chub and Sony Michel) but they need to make sure they don’t get caught looking ahead to Notre Dame who they play the following weekend.  It’ll also be a good opportunity to see RB Jalin Moore play on what should be a national broadcast.
  • September 16, Coastal Carolina at UAB: This probably won’t be a football game featuring any future NFL talent but it is at least an interesting story.  UAB is returning to football after two seasons off and Coastal Carolina will be playing its first season in the FBS.  Both of these teams literally have nowhere to go but up.
  • December 2, Troy at Arkansas State: Without a conference championship game, this is probably the closest we’ll get.  As I mentioned above, I think Troy will challenge for first and you’d expect Arkansas State to be in the running since they have the best conference record over the last three, five and ten years.

Next up… the independents!

 

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.