The Watch List: 2019 Week 5 Preview

Updated: September 28th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players and games from college football that deserve your attention.  To view more of my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Storylines to Watch

UCF’s Cinderella Run Ends: The Golden Knights fairy tale has come to a close after a close loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers last Saturday.  The last time UCF lost a regular season game was all the way back in 2016 when Scott Frost was in his first season as head coach in Orlando.  Current coach Josh Heupel may have been at the reigns when the chariot transformed back into a pumpkin, but Heupel has found his prince in quarterback Dillon Gabriel.  Gabriel, a true freshman from Hawaii, has shined in his first month.  During the Pitt matchup, the broadcasters repeatedly mentioned how injured quarterback McKenzie Milton, also from Hawaii, has played a large role in Gabriel’s ascent from third-string to starter.  Maybe the Golden Knights are shaping up to be more “made for TV movie” than “fairy tale” this season.

USC’s Quarterback Injuries Continue: Speaking of third-string quarterbacks, against all odds the Trojans remain #21 in the new AP Top 25 poll.  After losing sophomore starter JT Daniels in the opener, USC lost freshman Kedon Slovis to a concussion against #10 Utah.  Junior Matt Fink filled in admirably, throwing for 350 yards and 3 TDs while completing 70% of his passes.  Having two steady signal callers with big game experience might be key for Clay Helton down the stretch.  I’m interested to see who he names as the starter when both Slovis and Fink are healthy, or if he plays both.  USC has a tough road ahead with matchups on the road against #17 Washington and #10 Notre Dame (luckily they get a week off in between).  If they can split those two contests, I think USC would have to be the favorite to come out of the Pac-12 South.

Games to Watch

#21 USC at #17 Washington, 3:30pm Saturday on FOX: This game is a must for me because it’s a rare afternoon kickoff for these two PAC-12 powerhouses.  Above I outlined the quarterback carousel that USC has been riding but there’s no such worry at Washington because Jacob Eason has been on fire to start the season.  He’s already topped 1,000 passing yards and has ten scores to just two interceptions.  WR Aaron Fuller is leading the team with 21 receptions and might also lead the nation in highlight reel catches.  The Trojans have their own 2019 NFL Draft hopefuls in WRs Michael Pittman Jr. (31-437-3) and Tyler Vaughns (27-370-2).  Pittman had an incredible 10-232-1 game against Utah and was easily the favorite target of fill-in Matt Fink — read more about Pittman below.  The last three battles between these two have been low scoring but I’ll be taking the over and hoping for an offensive explosion.  My prediction: USC 39, Washington 35

Colorado State at Utah State, 7:30pm Saturday on CBSSN: I’m not loving the primetime slate this week so I might instead give some love to the Mountain West on Saturday night.  In case you haven’t gotten the pun yet: the main draw in this matchup will be Aggies’ QB Jordan Love.  Love started the year strong with a 416-3-3 outing in a close loss to Wake Forest, however he hasn’t put up the stats in the last two victories against Stony Brook and SDSU.  The game sets up to be strength versus strength because Colorado State held Love to just 169-1-0 last season and their passing defense is even better this year (allowing less than 200 passing yards per game).  I will be watching to see if Love can overcome.  My prediction: Utah State 19, Colorado State 13

Players to Watch

Michael Pittman, WR, USC

Michael Pittman’s stock is on the rise and draft fans like you and I need to start investing our attention. As I mentioned above, Pittman had a huge game against #10 Utah, finishing with 10 catches for 232 yards and 1 TD. Last Saturday was far from an aberration, in fact it was just the latest “big game” for the senior. Dating back to the beginning of October 2018, Pittman has amassed 61 receptions, 986 yards and 8 TDs. Over a nine game stretch, he’s nearly averaging 7-110-1. His production is even more impressive when you consider that Pittman continues to battle for targets with two other future NFL receivers (Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown).

In addition to his outstanding output, Pittman has the size and pedigree that NFL teams covet. He’s listed at 6040/220 and projected to run in the 4.52 range by DraftScout.com (think: Kenny Golladay). His father played in the NFL for eleven years and had a very productive career as a pass catching running back.

“All that’s great,” you say, “but what about his tape?” So far there isn’t much film out there but we do have one tape from last year (UCLA) and highlights from this season. I perused both so I could get a feel for Pittman’s game beyond his stats and size. As you’d expect, Pittman’s primary role is as an outside possession receiver who can excel along the sideline. His ability to catch the ball with his hands at the high point also allows him to win jump balls down the field. He does not have breakaway speed but is functionally fast. In my limited review, I did not notice much success as a blocker but that’s secondary at this point. Pittman does show some versatility in his deployment — he occasionally lines up from the slot or in motion — so I am hopeful that we’ll see positive route running skills when we study him further this offseason.

I’ll leave you with this play that Pittman pulled off against Utah. He gets inside leverage against the corner and jets upfield. The ball is placed between the two converging defenders and Pittman is able to slow himself, jump and hands-catch the ball. He has the balance to keep his feet as he comes down and is able to fend off the tackle all the way to the end zone. The score put USC up by two scores and proved to be a pivotal moment in the upset.

 

LeVante Bellamy, RB, Western Michigan

I first wrote about LeVante Bellamy back in July as part of my MAC season preview. In that writing, I said that Bellamy was “a burner…and it shows on his highlight reels.” At the time, I was basing my speed assumptions on a report that he ran a 4.32 laser time in 2018. Now the school is reporting that he ran a 4.28 laser time this offseason! If that speed holds true throughout the draft process, Bellamy will be one of the fastest prospects we’ve seen in years.

Bellamy’s 165-2 outburst against Syracuse last week wasn’t the first time he showed up against the Power 5 (in which I include BYU). Since he returned from a 2016 ACL injury, he has played seven games against higher echelon foes. In those games, Bellamy averages 99.9 yards from scrimmage and scored four times (ironically all against Syracuse).

As a runner, Bellamy pairs his angle-busting speed with above average play strength. He’s nimble enough to tiptoe along the sideline to gain an extra yard or two. He uses his compact frame (5090/190) to his advantage by squeezing through tight spaces. In the below play, you can see Bellamy making the most of his size and speed as she crashes through the line, angles towards the sideline and then sprints for the goal line.

In addition to being the primary ball carrier, Bellamy is a good outlet receiver and also has experience as a kick returner. I hope to see more of him in these situations as it is more likely to translate to an NFL role for a player of his skill set.

Two cliches come to mind as I close my thoughts on Bellamy.  First: you can’t teach speed.  Second: the best ability is availability.  Unfortunately he missed significant time in 2016 and 2017 and got banged up last week too. I hope he can stay healthy because Bellamy’s speed makes him a late rounder with sleeper potential.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2020 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2019 Pac-12 Season Preview

Updated: August 9th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the Spring and Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona.  According to betting markets, Oregon’s Justin Herbert is the top Heisman hopeful in the conference and if I was looking for a safe bet, I would agree.  However, if you’re looking for a dark horse candidate (+6000) that could help you cash in, go for Tate.  In 2017, Tate earned the starting job mid-season and still managed to rush for 1,411 yards and 12 TDs to go with 1,591-14-9 as a passer.  His future looked bright heading into 2018 but an ankle injury and a coaching change conspired against him to limit his impact.  If anybody has 4,000 yard and 40 TD upside, it’s Tate.

Underclassman to Watch: Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State.  As a true freshman last season, Jefferson showed his promise in the second game of the season, going off for 238-4 against Southern Utah.  He finished with 1,380-12 and added 25 receptions.  I watched two highlight reels and my first thought was that he looked like David Montgomery.  I don’t like giving comps, especially this early, but once I thought it, I couldn’t unsee it.  Jefferson has ideal size for a running back at 5110/211.  He’s an elusive runner, displaying dynamic cuts and effective spin moves, and runs with above average power.  Like Montgomery, he appears to lack top-end speed but that’s not his game so it doesn’t worry me.  Oregon State won’t get much national attention this season but don’t let that stop you from eyeing Jefferson.

Newcomer of the Year: Bru McCoy, WR, USC. McCoy had a topsy-turvy start to his collegiate career.  He first committed to USC before switching to Texas (in response to Kliff Kingsbury leaving) only to transfer back to USC (because he was homesick).  He was the consensus top receiver in the 2019 recruiting class and based on his Hudl highlights, it looks like he could play in the NFL tomorrow.  I’m excited to see him play, sadly it might not be until 2020 unless his immediate eligibility waiver is approved.  (Looking for a true freshman who might make a difference in 2019?  Phil Steele predicts that QB Jayden Daniels will win the Arizona State job.  Daniels was Steele’s sixth ranked quarterback in the class.  Per 247Sports, Daniels is the highest rated prospect the Sun Devils have landed since Vontaze Burfict in 2009.)

Coaching Carousel: With just one head coaching change in the Pac-12 this offseason (Mel Tucker taking over at Colorado), the coaching carousel focus has to be on USC.  The aforementioned Kliff Kingsbury was hired in early December to take over as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, but jumped ship about a month later to take the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job.  Fans who weren’t sold on head coach Clay Helton must have been thinking, “if Kingsbury is good enough for the NFL, why didn’t we hire him as our head coach?”  Another former Texas Tech quarterback, Graham Harrell, was brought in to be the new-new offensive coordinator.  Double-digit win seasons in 2016 and 2017 haven’t earned Helton much job security because he’s often mentioned as a coach on the hot seat.  If Kingsbury starts strong in Arizona, the pressure will mount from the fan base who will want Helton fired so that a similarly-minded coordinator like Harrell can finally take over.  (When I researched articles to back-up my assertion about Helton’s job security, I was actually surprised just how prevalent Helton-on-the-hot-seat sentiment was.  These three articles all featured Helton either as their header image or atop their list.)

Players to Watch

Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

Get ready to hear a lot about Justin Herbert as the 2019 season progresses. He was a top prospect in last year’s class before returning to school and is pegged by most, myself included, as a future NFL quarterback. Herbert doesn’t have the buzz of some of the other quarterbacks right now in college football (i.e. Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence) but I think he shows enough traits, and has enough experience, for draftniks to feel comfortable with him at, or near, the top of their respective draft boards.

Let’s start off by looking at Herbert’s stats and game logs. Herbert took over the starting gig midway through his freshman season in 2016 and then was limited to just eight games in 2017 due to injury. He played a full slate of thirteen games in 2018. He has a career 63:18 TD:INT ratio and averages nearly 250 yards passing per game. His career completion percentage of 62.5% is just good enough but dipped last season. He’s a capable short yardage runner who has a career rushing line of 173-510-9. Strangely, if you remove Herbert’s games against subpar opponents (FCS and Group of Five [except Boise State]), some of his rate stats actually increase. His completion percentage increases to 64.4% and his interception rate decreases. His yardage and touchdown marks drop slightly but not significantly. I can’t say that I have seen Herbert play in many of these “big” games so I’m just looking at context-less numbers, but protecting the ball well against higher quality opponents is a good sign. Speaking of protecting the ball, I noticed that Herbert has only thrown five career interceptions in one possession games. With 367 attempts in those close moments, Herbert threw an interception just 1.3% of the time. (For comparison, Kyler Murray threw five interceptions on 225 attempts in those situations last season, for a 2.2% rate.)

Since Herbert was a top prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft, I had studied him prior to last season.  With an extra year of playing experience, I was interested to see how my initial observations stood up.  My high level takeaways then were: good speed and athleticism, throwing well on the run, average accuracy and arm strength, inconsistent footwork, positive field and situational awareness, and great pump and play fakes.  Add in elite size at 6060/237 and you can see why I had him atop my rankings.

I’m pleased to share that I was much more impressed with Herbert’s arm strength and accuracy when I watched his 2018 film against Stanford and Arizona State.  His ball placement, especially against Stanford, was impeccable.  There were numerous plays where he led his receiver away from coverage and put the ball in a safe spot away from the defender.  I don’t think his arm strength is his best attribute but it’s above average, at worst.  He’s able to throw short yardage fastballs and has ample power to drive the ball across or down the field.  This play against Stanford was a beautiful illustration of his combination of “arm talent.”  The Cardinal drop into a zone defense so his receiver settles into the void.  Herbert throws the pass with enough touch and enough mustard to get it over the first defender but have it hit the receiver before the converging safety.

In my 2018 study, Herbert’s athleticism factored in frequently.  He’s quick getting out of the pocket, has enough burst for short yardage, and can still throw with accuracy while on the move.  I’m glad I watched the Stanford game because that gameplan featured Herbert as a weapon on the zone read.  He rushed for a few key first downs, including one late in the game that totally fooled the defense (but not the commentators).  I planned on sharing one of those designed runs but instead chose a scramble so I could also touch on Herbert’s pocket presence.  Frankly, he needs to learn to feel the rush better than he did in the two games I watched because he was sacked too many times.  When he does scramble from the pocket he can be dangerous, as seen on this play.  He runs with pace, makes a corner miss and stays in bound long enough for a big gain.

It’s difficult to quantify, but I keep leaving Herbert’s study with the impression that he is composed and situationally aware.  Much of the Oregon offense is predicated on quick passes or zone read running, however when given the chance, Herbert is able to read the field and create extemporaneously.  My favorite of the plays I saw of Herbert was a key play late in the Stanford game where he showed off this composure and experience.  The Ducks were up by three and going for it on 4th and 1 to hopefully seal the game (spoiler alert: the defense let Stanford back in it and the game ultimately went to OT).  The play is busted from the start: either Herbert or the running back mess up the play fake as Herbert starts to roll to his right.  He doesn’t panic and instead waits for his wide receiver, Dillon Mitchell, to uncover.  Mitchell realizes his quarterback is in trouble so he takes a subtle step away from the defense and squares his shoulders to give Herbert a target.  Herbert, running out of field on his half-field read, delivers the ball across his body and Mitchell does the rest.  (The Mitchell touchdown was ultimately called back but Oregon converted on 1st and Goal to take a ten point lead.  In the end, they lost the game but that was more on the defense and a late fumble by a running back than it was on Herbert.  This key play was likely the peak of their win-probability graph for the game).

Justin Herbert ended 2018 as my QB1 for the 2019 NFL Draft class and starts the season as my QB1 again.  Herbert showed me how much he could progress in a season, so I think his decision to return to Oregon for his senior season was a positive one.  He’ll be pushed by Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, but I think Herbert’s NFL-worthy combination of size, arm and athleticism will earn him the first overall pick next April.

 

Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado

Laviska Shenault is a versatile player who filled a number of roles for the Buffaloes in 2018.  He’s deployed as a wide receiver, h-back and wildcat quarterback and often finds success in each role.  In nine games as a sophomore (he missed three games midseason with a foot injury), Shenault had a receiving line of 86-1,011-6 and a rushing line of 17-115-5.  If he played a full twelve games, that production would extrapolate to 1,501 scrimmage yards, which would have put him near the top of the Pac-12 in overall production.

As a receiver, Shenault shines as a hands-catcher with strong hands that he places well.  After the catch, he is a powerful runner in close quarters and near impossible to tackle.  He also has the acceleration to break away in the open field.  In my opinion, this is what gives him such a high ceiling as a prospect: it’s rare to have such a mix of power and explosion.  This play exemplifies all three points: Shenault catches the ball with his hands, avoids the first tackler, stiff arms the second and then sprints to the end zone.

In addition to using his talents as a receiver, Shenault is a dangerous red zone weapon as a runner.  Four of his five rushing scores came from inside the red zone, and on just seven attempts (RB Travon McMillian also had four but on twenty attempts).  Shenault’s thick lower body and play strength let him succeed in these high-leverage situations near the goal line.  In the below example, Shenault lines up as the wildcat quarterback on 4th and 1 from the 3 yard line.  He’s surely stopped before the line to gain but he keeps his legs churning and keeps moving forward.  He ultimately drags the pile close enough to the end zone so he can reach across for the score.  Wide receivers aren’t supposed to be able to do that!

Shenault is a jack-of-all-trades prospect whose versatility will appeal to NFL teams.  I’m hopeful that the Buffs manage his touches so he can stay healthy for a full season.  It feels like Shenault has Top 50 upside so expect him to be in the first round conversation come 2020.

 

Honorable Mentions

Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State: With the ball in his hands, Benjamin is a dynamic whirling dervish. He’s elusive in the open field by utilizing myriad cuts, jukes and spins. He’s not a power back but does have enough pop to win the extra yard in a one-on-one situation. His blocking definitely needs to improve, as does his decisiveness. It’s great that his feet never stop moving, but in some circumstances, like near the goal line, that can be a liability. Benjamin is a high-volume back who could top his 335 touches from last season (300 rushing attempts, 35 receptions). The Sun Devils offense is bound to look different in 2019 with the departures of QB Manny Wilkins and WR N’Keal Harry so I’m anxious to see what that means for Benjamin. If he approaches 2,000 scrimmage yards again, Benjamin will be a lock to declare for the NFL Draft.

Aaron Fuller, WR, Washington: One of my favorite Twitter follows, Brad Kelly, recently tweeted that he thought Fuller was going to be a Top 10 receiver in the 2020 class.  Even though I didn’t know much about Fuller I thought I should learn more and include him in this preview, Brad being the receiver guru and all.  Fuller led the Huskies in receiving last season with a 58-874-4 line.  His highlights feature a few spectacular one-handed catches that would be enough to get attention on their own.  What also caught my eye was how well Fuller tracks the ball.  His reels are littered with high-arcing deep balls which he’s able to bring in despite defensive distractions.  Fuller is quick and can be a handful after the catch: he reportedly ran a 4.36 coming out of high school and ran a 4.45 at last year’s Huskies Combine event.  If he continues to progress, I can see Fuller as a starting NFL slot receiver.

Hunter Bryant, TE, Washington: Bryant is a ballyhooed tight end prospect who garnered attention as a true freshman for the Huskies. He’s listed at 6020/241, short for a tight end, and looks lighter to my eye. I watched some of his 2018 Ohio State tape and some highlights to get a feel for both his ability as a receiver and as a blocker. He’s been gifted with great hands and is a bear to tackle. However, he’s lacking as a blocker; he was frequently knocked back at the point of contact by Buckeye DBs. Injuries have impacted Bryant’s first two seasons, perhaps a combination of his size and playing style, limiting him to just fourteen games and 33 receptions. I know he will be a popular name this draft season but for a number of reasons I’m not ready to buy in yet.

Colby Parkinson, TE, Stanford: Like Bryant, Parkinson is a similarly unknown commodity at the tight end position. In Stanford’s offense last season, Parkinson played more of a big-receiver role than an in-line role, at least in the mid-season film I checked against Washington. When I say “big-receiver,” I mean it: Parkinson checks in at 6070/240 with room to add more heft. His size makes him a redzone threat and a difficult assignment for smaller corners. I didn’t see many plays where Parkinson was tasked with blocking but from the few times I did see him blocking downfield, I believe he’ll at least be a functional in-line blocker. If his four touchdown game against Oregon State is any indication, we could be looking at a defensive-gameplan-out-the-window type of player.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2020 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper