The Watch List: 2018 Sun Belt and Independents Preview

Updated: May 24th 2018

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 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. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame.  Few players in this group have the skill or pedigree to be a true Heisman candidate.  If I had to pick a player, I would go with Wimbush because he has upside, despite his flaws, and plays for a name brand like Notre Dame.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Justice Hansen.  In the very unlikely event that the Red Wolves upset Alabama on September 8th, Hansen would leap onto the national radar.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State.  Moore is one of the Sun Belt’s best players and I’m glad he returned to school so he can improve his NFL Draft stock.  He gained 1,037 yards in 2017, the second time in his career he passed the thousand mark.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Corbin Kaufusi, DE, BYU.  Talk about an interesting prospect.  Kaufusi is listed at 6090 and 280lbs and is a former BYU basketball player.  His brother was a third round draft pick by the Ravens; another brother and cousin currently play for BYU; his dad is a position coach for BYU; his mom is the mayor of Provo.  Not only does he have an interesting story and a great pedigree but he can back it up with some stats: he recorded 67 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks last season.  There’s very little about him online, I just happened to stumble upon him.  I think he seemingly will come out of nowhere this season and become a buzz-worthy draft prospect.
  • Newcomer of the Year: Traveon Samuel, WR, Troy.  Samuel is an undersized graduate transfer WR coming from Louisville.  Samuel has 57 career receptions, 746 yards and 2 TDs.  He also contributes in the running game (17-162-1 for his career) and as a kick returner.  He never really broke through but should find more playing time at Troy.
  • Underclassman to Watch: Matt Bushman, TE, BYU. Bushman is listed at 6050/230 which gives him a leaner build than typical tight end prospects but he has time to fill out that frame. He grabbed 49 passes for 520 yards and 3 TDs as a true freshman in 2017. I haven’t done the research but it feels very rare to see a freshman TE put up numbers like that.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Andrew Ford and Andy Isabella, UMass.  Isabella is UMass’ leading receiver over the last two seasons with 1,821 yards and 17 TDs.  Most of those passes came from rising senior QB Andrew Ford.  Ford lost his other favorite target, TE Adam Breneman, so he’ll need to lean on Isabella even more this season.  Ford could turn into a late round flyer quarterback if he improves his rate stats and efficiency again in 2018.
  • Best RB Corps:  Appalachian State.  App State led the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game (223.6) last season and I would expect the ground dominance to continue.  The team did lose rushing QB Taylor Lamb, but they still have the aforementioned Jalin Moore as the starting tailback.  He’s joined by redshirt sophomore Marcus Williams who filled in at times for Moore last year.  He totaled an even 500 rushing yards, including two big games against UMass (125) and Georgia Southern (130).  Sophomore Daetrich Harrington tore his ACL in February so it’s unlikely that he’ll contribute in 2018.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Brian Kelly.  This is an easy one because it seems that there are rumors of Kelly’s impending firing every offseason.  The Irish went 10-3 in 2017 but the wounds of a 4-8 season in 2016 are still fresh.  Kelly is 69-34 in South Bend with a 4-3 bowl record; while that may cut it at most programs, it doesn’t when you have a national television contract.  I think Kelly needs a double-digit win season plus a bowl victory to keep his job.

Teams to Watch

 Liberty (6-5 in 2017 at FCS level)

If Liberty sounds familiar it’s probably because they upset Baylor last September in a back-and-forth contest that ended 48-45.  Quarterback Stephen Calvert (29 TDs and 6 INTs in 2017) returns.  Against Baylor he went 44-60 for 447 yards and 3 TDs.  He added four other 300+ yard games last season so we know he has the potential to sling it.  WR Antonio Gandy-Golden also feasted on the Bears, hauling in 13 passes for 192 yards and two scores.  Liberty will struggle as they adapt to the FBS but it’s fun any time we have a new team to watch and digest.

 Louisiana Monroe (4-8 in 2017)

When I look for an under the radar team to watch, I typically check to see who is returning a majority of their starters.  Louisiana Monroe fits the bill there.  According to Street & Smith’s projected depth chart, the Warhawks will return all eleven starters.  Last year’s leading rusher, Derrick Gore, is a former transfer from Alabama.  He only averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2017 but he did add 13 receptions so that’s a positive.  Senior WR Marcus Green is the one to watch and is a potential game breaker.  He had a 54-812-5 line as a receiver but also added 175 yards rushing and four kick return touchdowns.  He has breakaway speed and can break tackles if somebody does manage to get a hand on him.  I’m not sure he’s NFL Draft worthy but he might end up on my watch list if he shows out again in 2018.  I expect Louisiana Monroe to improve on the 4-8 record of the last two seasons and to steal a few Sun Belt wins.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame:  I am not a Wimbush fan but he’s currently the starting quarterback of one of history’s most successful teams.  So, he has to be mentioned.  Wimbush lost snaps to Ian Book at times in 2017 and I’ll bet the same happens in 2018.  He completed less than 50% of his passes last season (49.5%).  He excels as a rusher though: 804 yards and 14 TDs.  He looks smaller than his listed 6010/228 which worries me in terms of his durability.  Wimbush has such a wide range of outcomes in 2018 that it’s hard to project.
  • Penny Hart, WR, Georgia State:  Hart is an undersized receiver at 5080/180 but he’s been productive on a bad Georgia State team.  He’s particularly dangerous out of the backfield where he’s a complete mismatch for linebackers.  As a freshman in 2015 he had a 72-1,109-8 line.  He missed most of 2016 due to injury but returned to form with 74-1,121-8 last season.  I watched his film against Oregon from 2015 and was impressed by his route running and some of his moves after the catch.  He has a nice hesitation move, varies his speed to mess with pursuers angles and appears to have great change of direction ability.  I doubt he would come out for 2019 but he is draft eligible and deserves a little attention.
  • Andy Isabella, WR, UMass:  Isabella is a former running back, who still wears #23, that plays a versatile role for the Minutemen.  He plays out of the slot, takes hand offs and can use his RAC ability as a kick returner too.  He has back-to-back 60+ reception seasons and a third could put him on the NFL radar.
  • Alize Mack, TE, Notre Dame:  Mack is all potential right now.  He measures 6040 and 250, right in the middle of my tight end watch list.  He has just 19 career receptions in six games.  He’s missed time due to injury, suspension and eligibility so who knows if NFL teams even want to take a chance despite his athleticism.
  • Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame:  Tillery is a mountain of a man, listed at 6060/306, who broke out as a junior in 2017.  He totaled 56 tackles, 9 of them for loss, and 4.5 sacks.  Tillery decided to return for his senior season instead of testing the pro waters.  There’s limited film out there but the little I did watch (Texas 2016 and NC State 2017) did not impress me.  I watched a handful of plays from each game and did not see Tillery make much of an impact.  He was often pushed off the line, did not control his gaps nor did he get pressure.  My sample size is very small so I’ll need to do more research.

Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State

Hansen finished 2017 second in the Sun Belt in most passing stats except for one: he lead the conference with 37 passing TDs.  Second place had just 27.  He has good height at 6040 but could use some extra weight because he’s listed at just 207lbs.  Along with those 37 scores, Hansen accumulated 3,967 yards passing and 415 yards rushing.  He did throw 16 INTs though which is not good.  His completion percentage (62.6%) and yards per attempt (8.1) are average when compared to those on my 2019 watch list.  Arkansas State runs a pass-heavy spread offense that is high volume.  You can interpret that as a positive or a negative depending on your opinion of Hansen.  I see a quarterback who runs the zone read well and shows good vision and patience when he runs with the ball.  He has above average speed for the position but needs to work on ball security if he’s to feature as a runner in the NFL.  He has a quick release, key for all the screens he throws, but lacks touch on his passes.  The lack of touch is especially evident on throws near the endzone, like fades.  His movement translates to the pocket too where he can slide to avoid the rush and scramble.  Hansen exhibits below average accuracy on the run and in the intermediate to deep range.  Right now I would project Hansen as a late round guy and somebody unlikely to be fantasy relevant in 2019.  (Film watched: MTSU 2017, LA-Lafayette 2017)

Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State

Moore is one of my favorite prospects for 2019 already.  I was touting him for 2018 before he decided to go back to school, something that was ultimately a prudent decision.  He’s a little light at 185lbs but has good height at 6000.  Moore rushed for 1,037 yards in 2017 despite missing some time to injury.  In 2016 he topped 1,400 yards.  He’s not a receiving threat but he excels at pass blocking.  According to Pro Football Focus’ advanced stats, Moore was the best back in the FBS in terms of pass blocking efficiency.  Per their stats, he pass blocked on 38% of his snaps and did not allow a single sack, hit, hurry or pressure.  Most rookie RBs struggle in pass protection which limits their snaps early in their career but that won’t be a concern for Moore.  When I watch Moore I see a back who runs with power and does not fear contact.  He often lowers his head and falls forward for extra yards.  He is not fast, maybe 4.55 speed at best, but he does show some finesse at the line of scrimmage.  I made multiple notes of Moore getting skinny at the hole and finding a way through tight quarters.  He shows some vision and patience but is inconsistent with it, running right into a blocker or defender at times.  Pass protection was a mixed bag in my study; I noted three positive examples and two negatives.  The two worst were in the Miami game from 2016 so considering the PFF stats I’m guessing Moore improved mightily.  Aside from one very good stiff arm on a long touchdown run, I did not see Moore make any special moves like spins, hurdles or make-them-miss jump cuts.  He also did not catch any balls in the two games I watched so I can’t evaluate that part of his game.  Moore does not appear to have the speed or arsenal to be an every down back in the NFL but I believe he’ll find a role at the next level.  (Film watched: Toledo 2017, Miami FL 2016)

Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame

Claypool is an interesting prospect because he has elite size but a very small sample size of production.  It’s hard to make much of him at this early stage and another season with the inaccurate Brandon Wimbush under center may not help settle matters either.  Claypool checks in at 6040 and 228lbs, one of the biggest receivers on my 2019 watch list.  He had just 29 grabs in 2017 though, for a disappointing total of 402 yards and 2 TDs.  I was hoping to give Claypool a proper film study but the only thing I could find online was a 2017 highlight reel.  That short reel was still instructive though.  My first takeaway was that, unsurprisingly, Claypool can dominate in the air.  There were multiple examples of him hanging in the air and coming down with a contested catch.  That will be important for Notre Dame to help hide Wimbush’s inaccuracy.  My second takeaway was that Claypool often lets the ball get into his body and does not have good hand placement when attempting a catch.  Due to the limited film available to watch, I was not able to evaluate Claypool’s route running.  In order to be a true NFL Draft prospect, Claypool will have to improve his technique in 2018.  (Film watched: 2017 Highlight reel)


Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the second 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.  Then watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  For top prospects I may add a third game, while for long shots I might only devote the time for one. 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.  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 college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.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
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes

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 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: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 30th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  During the college bowl season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year.  Note: times listed are Eastern.

Monday, Jan. 1

Outback Bowl, Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Michigan: 88th scoring offense, 112th passing offense, 44th rushing offense; 14th scoring defense, 1st passing defense, 21st rushing defense
  • South Carolina: 99th scoring offense, 79th passing offense, 108th rushing offense; 27th scoring defense, 71st passing defense, 42nd rushing defense

As my readers know, I am a Michigan homer but I’m going to be as impartial here as possible. There is no reason this game should be on New Year’s Day. I guess the NCAA (read as: ESPN) prefer to have some of the biggest games spaced out on Dec 29 and Dec 30 but it’s hard to get excited by this matchup. Both teams are 8-4 and were a combined 1-5 against ranked teams (notably that single win was Michigan over #17 Florida in the first game of the season before we knew how bad Florida was going to be). The teams are also banged up: per Sports-Reference.com’s injury reports, the teams have a combined 22 players injured with varying severity.

Since Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel has not returned to practice and will not play in the bowl, the most significant injury is likely to Michigan QB Brandon Peters. Peters started the year as the third stringer but was elevated to the starting role on Oct 28 against Rutgers. Wilton Speight got hurt in the team’s fourth game but wasn’t playing well anyway. Wolverines fans like myself got a taste of truly dreadful quarterback play when John O’Korn took over and struggled mightily. Peters has not been great (57.6% completion percentage, 4 TDs and 0 INTs) but he’s a significant improvement over the turnover prone O’Korn. The offense is led by a trio of running backs: Karan Higdon (929 yards, 11 TDs), Chris Evans (661-6) and Ty Isaac (548-2). Not surprisingly, none of the WRs are a factor. The team’s leading receiver is TE Sean McKeon (29-285-3). Keep an eye on FB Khalid Hill near the goal line. Hill only has 34 yards on 17 carries this season but he has three scores and had ten last year. Michigan’s defense is chock-full of NFL talent and they alone should warrant their own full-length piece. The biggest difference makers on that unit are DT Maurice Hurst and DE Rashan Gary. Hurst has 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks; Gary has 55-10.5-4. Gary is the better pro prospect, don’t be surprised if he’s a Top 3 pick in 2018, but the stats belie his skill because of how often he’s double teamed. This Youtube video is a good cut-up of 2016 highlights for a number of 2017’s key defensive players, including LBs Chase Winovich and Mike McCray.

It’s a shame Deebo Samuel won’t be back for the bowl after a broken leg. Reports earlier in the season were that he could return but he has not practiced. Samuel is draft eligible but he should probably return for another year. He has fifteen career touchdowns (7 rushing, 5 receiving, 3 returning) and is an explosive game breaker. Sophomore QB Jake Bentley regressed in 2017 in terms of his rate stats and efficiency. I have not watched much of Bentley so I’m not able to provide much analysis here but I’ll bet that there’s a good chance he doesn’t start 2018 as the starter. TE Hayden Hurst is the team’s best NFL prospect. He had 41 receptions for 518 yards and 2 TDs this year. He has not been a high volume scorer (just 3 career TDs) but he is a good pass catcher and at least an average blocker in my film study. Hurst was my TE2 when I did 2018 rookie positional rankings in November; he’ll probably come in a little lower than that but he’s still a possible rookie pick in many fantasy leagues. LB Skai Moore is a four year contributor who has 346 career tackles, 5 career sacks and 14 career interceptions. Moore is WalterFootball.com’s 12th ranked OLB. His versatility in pass coverage should earn him a Day Two draft pick.

Michigan’s defense, without a doubt, will be the most dominant unit on the field in this one. I’ll make the homer pick and take my Wolverines. Prediction: Michigan

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, #7 Auburn (10-3) vs. #12 Central Florida (12-0), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Auburn: 25th scoring offense, 68th passing offense, 22nd rushing offense; 10th scoring defense, 17th passing defense, 32nd rushing defense
  • UCF: 1st scoring offense, 7th passing offense, 34th rushing offense; 53rd scoring defense, 111th passing defense, 66th rushing defense

What a game this one is going to be.  We all know the story surrounding outgoing UCF head coach Scott Frost so let’s not beat the proverbial dead horse because the spotlight should be on the players.

Auburn had a roller coaster of a season.  Heading into SEC play they were 2-1 but with two poor wins and a close loss to #3 Clemson.  They made it up to #10 but a loss to LSU bumped them all the way down to #21.  From there they worked their way into the playoff picture with wins over #2 Georgia and #1 Alabama (both of whom are playing in the playoff despite their losses to Auburn).  A poor showing in the rematch against Georgia sealed their outside-looking-in fate.  Throughout the season they were led by two players on offense: QB Jarrett Stidham and RB Kerryon Johnson.  I was lukewarm regarding Stidham for most of the year but he won me over against Alabama.  I wrote him up that week and compared him favorably to Alex Smith.  He’s an efficient and athletic game manager which sounds like an insult but it’s actually high praise (don’t forget that Smith was taken first overall in 2005).  Stidham threw just one INT in SEC play but has a mixed bag of results in the year’s biggest games (good games against Georgia and Alabama, bad games against Georgia and Clemson).  UCF has a poor passing defense so I expect Stidham to put up big numbers.  Kerryon Johnson has battled some injuries this season but he was still very productive in eleven games (1,320 rushing yards, 23 rushing TDs, 23 receptions, 188 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs).  I did not rank Johnson in my Top 15 for 2018 rookie RBs but his success in November has me re-thinking that: over 700 totals yards and 15 total TDs.  As far as non-offensive skill positions go, the Tigers have three NFL talents.  At corner, Carlton Davis could land near the end of the first round.  According to Pro Football Focus, Davis was the 50th ranked player in “Cover Snaps per Reception” and was average in passer rating against.  Still, my preferred draft sources (WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com) favor him over guys I like more like Josh Jackson or Jaire Alexander.  OG Braden Smith will be a second tier option for teams who miss on the elite prospects in a guard-heavy draft.  K Daniel Carlson will end up getting drafted before the 6th round by some team desperate to end their kicking woes; he has played in 52 career games and hit on 90 of his 111 attempts (plus a perfect 195-195 record on PATs).  In a game destined to come down to who has the ball last, Carlson could be a factor.

The UCF offense is all about QB McKenzie Milton.  I have been praising him for a few weeks now because he is one of the purest passers I remember watching in recent memory.  His deep ball looks effortless and he’s not afraid to throw it – he can just spin it.  Milton played as a freshman in 2016 but exploded in 2017.  He threw for 3,795 yards and 35 TDs and completed 69.2% of his passes.  The biggest knock on Milton is his size.  He’s listed at 5’11” and 177lbs and that might be soaking wet with two sets of shoulder pads on.  I don’t think there is any way we talk about Milton as a pro prospect next year so enjoy him now as a fun to watch college QB.  WR Tre’Quan Smith is the biggest benefactor of Milton’s prolific passing.  He only caught 54 balls but went for 1,082 yards (an outstanding 20.0 yards per reception) and 13 TDs.  Per PFF, Smith is fourth in the FBS in “Deep Receiving Catch Rate” by catching 68.4% of his deep attempts.  Smith has 50+ receptions in each of his three seasons so who knows maybe another solid 2018 gets him drafted.  UCF does not have any high level NFL hopefuls but you should read up on LB Shaquem Griffin.  He was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 after finishing with 92 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.  His stats all decreased this year but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.  Griffin’s left hand was amputated in 1999 and against all odds he is pushing for a shot in the NFL.  I envy people like Griffin who can overcome their physical limitations to do great things, I’m not sure I would have the strength to do so myself, and I don’t doubt for a second that he’ll make an impression on NFL scouts.

I’m not a gambler but if I were, I would avoid this one.  I’m picking with my heart and not my head here: I love watching UCF and am rooting for them to show the playoff committee that they deserved a chance.  Prediction: Central Florida

Citrus Bowl, #17 LSU (9-3) vs. #14 Notre Dame (9-3), 1 p.m. (ABC)

  • LSU: 72nd scoring offense, 86th passing offense, 30th rushing offense; 16th scoring defense, 20th passing defense, 22nd rushing defense
  • Notre Dame: 22nd scoring offense, 104th passing offense, 7th rushing offense; 32nd scoring defense, 51st passing defense, 49th rushing defense

LSU has earned some headlines over the last 24 hours as reports have come out that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is leaving the team.  Canada’s offense is famous for its pre-snap shifts and movement.  Ironically, Canada’s career is famous for its movement too because he can’t stick around anywhere too long (six different schools since 2010); maybe the gimmick just isn’t worth all of the effort and time it must take to learn.  Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is always surrounded by rumors too because half the fan base hates him.

LSU was an enigma to me this season.  Midway through the year, I was honestly surprised to see that 5-2 LSU was ranked #24.  One of those losses was to Troy from the Sun Belt which would seem to be disqualifying.  Of the other Power 5 teams in the Top 25, only Stanford (vs San Diego State) has a loss to a Group of 5 team; and that is without a doubt a stronger loss than LSU’s.  I guess the committee felt that LSU’s win over then #10 Auburn more than made up for the bad loss (but by that logic Ohio State should have been in over Alabama).  LSU has two players who will go at the top of drafts: DE Arden Key in the NFL Draft and RB Derrius Guice in your rookie draft.  Guice has been as under the radar as the soon to be 1.02 can.  Saquon Barkley has, deservedly, received a ton of attention this season but second tier backs like Ronald Jones and Bryce Love have stolen some of the shine that should be on Guice.  He has confirmed that he will play in the Citrus Bowl which is good because I figured he might follow former teammate Leonard Fournette’s lead and skip the bowl.  Guice had a solid season but was not as dominant as he was last year when sharing the backfield with Fournette.  This year Guice finished with a 1,153-11 line.  He’s not a big receiving threat (just 29 career receptions, 15 of which came this year) which could limit his utility at the start of his NFL career.  It turns out that my feelings about Guice from August were spot-on: “I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette…in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.”  Injuries derailed Arden Key’s season and will cause him to miss the bowl.  He still has an elite size and speed combination plus enough production to guarantee he finds the Top 10 in the NFL Draft.  WR DJ Chark had 47 touches for 874 total yards and 4 TDs; his production is undraftable but his 6’4″ height could get him a look.  CB Donte Jackson is WalterFootball.com’s 3rd ranked corner.

The strength of Notre Dame’s team, stop me if you’ve heard this before, is their offensive line.  I would not at all be surprised for Notre Dame to have both the first tackle and the first guard drafted, both likely in the Top 15.  T Mike McGlinchey (6’8″ and 315lbs) and G Quentin Nelson (6’5″ and 330lbs) were both first team All-Americans.  They pave the way for RB Josh Adams and QB Brandon Wimbush to rack up rushing yards.  Adams finished with 1,386 yards and 9 TDs while Wimbush had 766 and 14.  I am not a fan of Wimbush because he is such an inaccurate passer but you can’t deny his ability as a runner.  I have waffled on Adams throughout the season but I remain concerned about his size at the next level (he’s too tall – click the link for my analysis).  In Week 9, I predicted he’d be a 3rd round rookie draft pick and I’ll stand by that now.  It’s a shame that Wimbush has struggled to complete passes because WR Equanimeious St. Brown (my vote for the first player to break RSO’s draft software because of the length of this name) has such potential.  St. Brown is long and lean (he really needs to add about 10lbs to make it in the NFL) with a good pedigree (4 star recruit, offers from a number of big schools).  If he comes out he is going to have to dominate the combine because his production is below average (90-1,437-13 in two seasons as a starter).  LB Nyles Morgan considered coming out after his junior year (88 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) but returned to school; unfortunately for Morgan, 2017 probably hurt his stock more than helped it (82-6.5-1).  Both WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com have him as either a 7th rounder or undrafted.

I struggled to pick this one because I’m not a fan of either team.  I’ll take LSU because of Guice and the strength of their defense (even without Key).  Prediction: LSU

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1, Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, #3 Georgia (12-1) vs #2 Oklahoma (12-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Georgia: 23rd scoring offense, 111th passing offense, 11th rushing offense; 3rd scoring defense, 2nd passing defense, 12th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma: 4th scoring offense, 3rd passing offense, 27th rushing offense; 52nd scoring defense, 87th passing defense, 39th rushing defense

And here we are, finally the College Football Playoff, 39 games later.  The Georgia vs Oklahoma matchup may lack the familiarity of the Alabama vs Clemson matchup but it will be equally entertaining featuring a great matchup of Oklahoma’s offense against Georgia’s defense.  Baker Mayfield is apparently sick but there’s no way that it keeps him off the field.

Oklahoma’s season was momentarily disrupted by their Oct 7 loss to Iowa State but they went on to win eight straight including three wins against teams ranked #8, #10 and #11.  Coming into the season, I had serious doubts about whether Baker Mayfield was going to 1) win the Heisman and 2) become a top NFL prospect.  Turns out that I was wrong on both accounts.  Mayfield has been exceptional this season.  Who would have thought it would be possible to improve on his 2016 numbers, but he did.  Mayfield finished with 4,340 yards (2nd in FBS), 41 passing TDs (2nd) and completed 71.0% of his passes (1st).  His interceptions went down, his yards per attempt went up, and on and on.  There just aren’t enough superlatives for what Mayfield accomplished on the field this season, especially considering that he is a former walk-on at Texas Tech.  Mayfield does have some “character” question marks but I don’t think any of them are enough to ding his draft stock.  I had Mayfield as my QB6 when I ranked potential 2018 rookies but I think he’ll likely be in the QB4 range by moving ahead of Luke Falk and Lamar Jackson.  I expect Mayfield to be drafted in the first half of the first round in April; depending on his landing spot he could be a factor in fantasy leagues as a rookie.  Mayfield is surrounded by a strong supporting cast composed mostly of underclassmen.  That includes sophomore RB Rodney Anderson (960 yards, 11 TDs), freshman RB Trey Sermon (710-5) and freshman WR CeeDee Lamb (40 receptions, 741 yards, 7 TDs).  Aside from Mayfield, the best pro prospect is TE Mark Andrews.  Andrews is 6’5″ and 254lbs and often plays in the slot to maximize his size advantage over smaller corners and safeties.  Andrews is certainly not the most well-rounded TE in the class but he will likely be the first drafted in 2018 rookie drafts for his receiving ability.  In my early 2018 mock rookie draft I had Andrews as the 2.10 pick and the first TE off the board.  Andrews led the team in receptions (58) and receiving TDs (8) and was second in receiving yards (906).  LT Orlando Brown seems to be a polarizing player in mock drafts as I have seen him as high as the 2nd overall pick to the 18th overall pick to all the way down to 59th overall.  The Sooners defense is led by DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.  Okoronkwo has two straight 70+ tackle and 8+ sack seasons.  He landed on numerous second team All-American lists and was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year (shared with Malik Jefferson).

Georgia had some quarterback controversy very early in the year when freshman Jake Fromm took over for the injured Jacob Eason in the season opener.  Regardless of how well Eason played in 2016 as a freshman, there was no way he was getting the job back from Fromm once he took over.  By virtue of their strong rushing game, Fromm is not counted on to throw the ball much (he had six games with fewer than ten completions) but when he does he is efficient.  He ended the season with 21 TDs and 5 INTs and had rate stats significantly higher than those of Eason in 2016.  The run game is a three-headed monster featuring Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.  Chubb led the way with 1,175 yards and 13 TDs; Michel had 948 yards and 13 TDs; Swift had 597 yards and 3 TDs.  Neither Chubb nor Michel are pass catchers but Swift did have 15 receptions.  Swift is a true freshman and a name to watch for next season after Chubb and Michel leave for the NFL.  Both Chubb and Michel were drafted in my 2018 early mock draft (Chubb at 1.03, Michel at 2.06).  Chubb has an injury history which may trouble some NFL teams but he’s been mostly healthy since his 2015 knee injury.  Swift closed out the SEC Championship game against Auburn and had 94 total yards on 10 touches – look for a similar output here in the bowl because Georgia will need to get the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush.  The Georgia defense is led by two LBs who are bound to be IDP considerations in 2018.  The lesser prospect is DE/OLB rusher Lorenzo Carter.  Carter had 48 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries this season.  I researched him back in Week 4 and guessed he could end up as a first rounder – that may be a little high but he could still get picked on Day Two.  Roquan Smith is an elite prospect.  He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a first team All-American.  In 2016 he had 95 tackles with no sacks, this year he improved to 113 tackles and 5 sacks.  He’s the top draft eligible player at the position and will be a Top 10 draft pick.

I’m taking Oklahoma purely because of Baker Mayfield.  If the game is close, he’ll find a way to win it.  I worry that Georgia could get an early lead and milk to clock with their run game but if they start slow they’ll struggle to keep up with Mayfield, et al.  Prediction: Oklahoma

College Football Playoff Semifinal #2, Allstate Sugar Bowl, #4 Alabama (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (12-1), 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Alabama: 12th scoring offense, 83rd passing offense, 10th rushing offense; 1st scoring defense, 7th passing defense, 3rd rushing defense
  • Clemson: 21st scoring offense, 52nd passing offense, 33rd rushing offense; 2nd scoring defense, 8th passing defense, 13th rushing defense

How often is the third installment of a trilogy the best?  Probably never unless you’re a big Return of the Jedi fan.  I don’t think this one will have the juice of the last two matchups because we’re missing the star that is Deshaun Watson.  Don’t get me wrong it’ll be entertaining but we won’t be seeing this one on ESPN Classic in ten years.

Alabama snuck into the playoff in my opinion.  If it were up to me, I would have taken Ohio State because they won their conference and did not have any FCS wins.  Sure, Alabama has one less loss but in my mind they also have two less wins.  Alabama is full of familiar names so we’ll go through them quickly.  QB Jalen Hurts feels like he’s been around for half a decade but he’s just a sophomore.  He is a run-first quarterback (he led the team in rush attempts with 137) who really improved as a passer this year.  His yards per attempt went up to 9.0 from 7.3 and he threw just one INT (he also only lost one fumble).  He didn’t run as much in 2017 as he did in 2016 but he also increased his yards per rush this year.  Nick Saban trusts him with the ball in his hands and you can see why.  In the preseason, my preferred Crimson Tide RB was Bo Scarborough; he disappointed this year with just 549 yards and 8 TDs.  I will be lowering him in my 2018 rookie rankings (assuming he comes out).  The best back this year was Damien Harris who is also draft eligible; he leapfrogged Scarborough in my early 2018 positional rankings.  Harris ran for 906 yards and 11 TDs but added just 8 receptions.  He’ll probably be an early 2nd round rookie pick for me next year.  WR Calvin Ridley is still my WR1 despite the fact that many draft analysts disagree with me.  Ridley’s production has been hampered by a run-heavy offense so of course we aren’t going to see production like Amari Cooper or Julio Jones.  Ridley is a little too light so I would like to see him add about 10lbs in the offseason to approximate Cooper’s size.  Ridley has a pedigree that few prospects can match: he was ESPN’s #1 recruit in his class and was the leading receiver for Alabama in three straight seasons in which they contended for the national championship.  I’m not scared off by his decreasing production and will keep him as my WR1 until he proves me otherwise.  Alabama has a number of defensive prospects including LB Rashaan Evans, S Ronnie Harrison and DT Da’Shawn Hand but the number one guy is DB Minkah Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick has played both corner and safety so he offers versatility in both pass coverage and run support.  His stats decreased from 2016 (66 tackles vs 55, 6 INTs vs 1) but he was battling a hamstring injury so that could have been the cause.  He has four career interception return touchdowns so when he has the ball in his hands he can change a game too.  Fitzpatrick is likely to go in the Top 3 in the NFL Draft and will instantly makeover a struggling defense.

I put out my first playoff ranking in Week 7 and had Clemson as the #1 team (I also had Alabama and Georgia, three out of four ain’t bad) and am happy to see them ascend back to the #1 spot after that loss to Syracuse.  Like Alabama, the strength of the team lies on defense.  There might be fix or six guys from the defense drafted this Spring.  DT Christian Wilkins started the season with some preseason hype, played well and increased his stats in 2017 (52 tackles, 5.0 sacks).  Wilkins will be a first rounder but challenging him to be the first pick from Clemson will be DE Clelin Ferrell.  Ferrell is just a redshirt sophomore but he broke out in 2017 for 62 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.  The defense also has two tackle machines in Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel.  The Clemson offense is similar to that of Alabama in that it features an efficient rush-first quarterback.  That quarterback is Kelly Bryant.  Bryant managed to play in each game despite an ankle injury and a concussion (he left that loss to Syracuse early due to the concussion).  Bryant only threw for 13 TDs but rushed for 11 more.  Freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who came on early in the season with some big plays to close out blowout wins.  He finished strong too: he had six scores over the last four games.  Etienne only had double digit carries twice so he’s not a high volume player but his speed means he’s only one missed tackle away from a touchdown.  WR Deon Cain (55-659-6) is a top receiver prospect for many analysts but I’m not sold.  He does not have elite size or production; I’ll wait and see how he does at the combine but I’m not sure his speed will make up for the other aspects.  Cain was suspended for the semi-final and championship games in 2015 after a failed drug test which will factor into his draft evaluation too.  WRs Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are undersized but trustworthy possession receivers.

I’m not sure they deserve to be here based on their resume but the Tide deserve to be here based on their roster.  Save for the defensive line, Alabama arguably has better players at every position than Clemson.  Roll Tide.  Prediction: Alabama


Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, 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, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.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, 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
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 3

Updated: September 12th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update: After two strong games to start the season, Josh Rosen will be climbing up ballots.  More on Rosen below.  Lamar Jackson, the reigning winner, will have to move up my personal ballot even though I am not a fan.  Through two games he has 771 passing yards, 5 TDs and zero INTs; plus 239 yards rushing and 3 TDs.  I can’t knock Jackson for his opponents either: both of those big games came against Power 5 teams in Purdue and North Carolina.  Darnold redeemed his Heisman hopes with a solid Week 2 outing against Stanford (316 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) after a disappointing opener against Western Michigan (289-0-2).
  • Brian Kelly on the Hot Seat: The Irish kept it close against Georgia (20-19 final score) but the final score belies the situation.  Georgia was forced to start a true freshman at quarterback (Jake Fromm in for injured Jacob Eason) and should have taken advantage.  The more damning thing for Kelly might be the photos of the sea of red clad fans that peppered social media.  Georgia showed up en masse.  SB Nation tried to play it down but I think it will be tough for the administration to ignore the fact that fans may be turned off and staying home, whether or not it’s Kelly’s fault.  Landing on Deadspin with stories about his handling of the media won’t endear himself to university decision makers either.  I believe Kelly must win the next four games, and compete against USC in the fifth, in order to keep his job.  The opponents in that stretch are: Boston College, Michigan State, Miami of Ohio and North Carolina.  None of those teams should scare Notre Dame so a bad loss could mean Kelly doesn’t make it out of October.
  • Matt Rhule on a Hotter Seat: It’s odd to write that somebody is on the hot seat after coaching just two games but that must be the case for Rhule.  Baylor lost in Week 1 to Liberty of the FCS.  And to answer your question, no they are not some FCS powerhouse.  Liberty was 6-5 last year and was ranked 28th in the FCS heading into 2017.  After the win over Baylor they are just 19th in the FCS poll.  Baylor couldn’t possibly follow up that loss with a worse game, could they?  The Bears put up just 274 total yards in Week 2 against UTSA.  UTSA was 55th in total defense last year by yards, allowing 392 per game.  Between the two games Baylor also had 17 penalties.  So, not only are they losing but they are also undisciplined.  If Baylor doesn’t look better this week against Duke, I fear that Rhule might not even make it out of September (up after Duke in September are #2 Oklahoma and #18 Kansas State).

Players to Watch

  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: There has been a lot to love so far about Rosen.  By now everybody has seen highlights of, and heard all about, the miraculous Week 1 comeback over Texas A&M.  If you were paying attention, you would have seen that Rosen followed that up with a 5 TD game against Hawaii.  Through two weeks, Rosen’s totals are eye popping: 820 yards, 9 TDs, 0 INTs and a 67.9% completion percentage.  I am most impressed with the improvement of his TD:INT ratio (just better than 2:1 in his career) and his completion percentage (60% in 2015, 59.3% in 2016).  It’s not all rainbows though as I did take note of some concerning things during that miracle against the Aggies.  Two of Rosen’s late touchdown tosses were bad throws that should have been intercepted.  If either was picked off it likely would have spelled the end of the comeback attempt.  There were also three penalties down the stretch that were costly, but not killer.  One was a delay of game and the other two were false starts because he called for the snap before the team was set.  These negatives make me question his awareness and will hopefully be corrected with experience.  If he limits mental mistakes, keeps his completion percentage north of 63% and his TD:INT ratio above 3:1, Rosen will be the top pick come the NFL Draft.
  • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon: Staying within the Pac-12, let’s take a look at Freeman thus far…  He started off strong with 150 yards and 4 TDs against FCS squad Southern Utah.  Freeman kept it up against Nebraska last week with 153 yards and 2 TDs.  He’s a workhorse that had 23 and 29 carries in the two games respectively.  If you happen to be in a devy league, Freeman should be on your radar right now because his stock is bound to skyrocket over the next two months due to the weak rush defenses he will be facing.  The next time he faces a team that is currently ranked 70th or better is October 28 against Utah.  Up next are: Wyoming (83rd so far in rushing yards allowed per game), Arizona State (108th), Cal (96th), Washington State (71st), Stanford (114th), USC (110th) and UCLA (128th).  The Stanford and USC rankings are thrown off a bit by their matchup against each other but still, the schedule is very favorable.  Freeman is a big back who runs upright and looks like he’s running downhill.  He doesn’t show much wiggle but he doesn’t need it.  I’m looking forward to watching a ton of film of his in the offseason.
  • Rashaad Penny, RB/KR, San Diego State: In the preaseason, I predicted that the Aztecs would steal a Power 5 win because of their special teams play.  In addition to kicker John Baron going a perfect 3/3 on field goals against Arizona State, Penny contributed with a kick-off return touchdown to start the second quarter when the game was tied 7-7.  Penny has also been a huge factor on offense with 451 combined rushing and receiving yards and 4 combined TDs.  He’s a multi-dimensional player that is fun to watch.  SDSU is a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl berth and a win against #19 Stanford this week should get them into the Top 25 and cement those chances.  If Penny keeps it up he’ll follow former Aztec Donnel Pumphrey to the NFL (a 4th round pick by the Eagles, although he was much more accomplished as the NCAA all-time leading rusher).
  • Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State: Gallup is leading the NCAA in receptions with 26 (he played an extra game than most) but he has just 304 yards and a single score.  Gallup will need to step it up over the next few weeks to keep his draft prospects high.  In Week 3 he will go up against the stout Alabama secondary which is full of future NFL talent, so let’s see how he does.

Games to Watch

  • Illinois @ #22 South FloridaFriday 7:00pm on ESPN: USF is currently the only Group of 5 team ranked in the Top 25.  Their non-conference schedule is laughably weak, with Illinois as the only Power 5 team.  Phil Steele had their strength of schedule ranked 110 out of 130 teams heading into the season.  Regardless, an undefeated campaign would likely land the Bulls in a New Year’s Six bowl game so there is some cash on the line this Friday night.
  • #23 Tennessee @ #24 Florida, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS: The Gators are off to a rough start.  The team suspended a number of players, including their leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett) and receiver (Antonio Callaway) from 2016 for the opener.  Subsequently, their offense was horrible with both Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire versus Michigan.  Last week’s game against Northern Colorado, which would have been a good “get right” game was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma.  To make things even worse, word is that the suspensions may be extended and force Scarlett and Callaway to miss this matchup as well.  I’m not sold on either Franks or Zaire after seeing them against Michigan so I fear this may already be a lost season for Florida.  Tennessee’s offense is lead by RB John Kelly who started strong with 208 yards and 4 TDs; he also has added 10 receptions in two games.
  • #18 Kansas State @ Vanderbilt, Saturday 7:30pm on ESPNU: In my SEC preview, I predicted that Vandy would win 8 games this year.  They are off to a 2-0 headstart with convincing wins over Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M.  In order to hit my 8 win mark, the Commodores will likely need to steal a game against a ranked opponent.  Kansas State will be an easier get than #1 Alabama and #13 Georgia who they have coming up over the next three weeks.
  • #3 Clemson @ #14 Louisville, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  The quarterback matchup here will be an interesting contrast.  Lamar Jackson’s numbers are about as good as they can be (see above) while Kelly Bryant’s have been nowhere near those of the departed Deshaun Watson.  Bryant did show his toughness last week when he came back from injury to lead the team to a W.  Bryant has just one passing touchdown but does lead the team in rushing with 136 yards and 3 TDs.  If any defense can slow down, notice I didn’t say stop, Lamar Jackson, it will be Clemson’s.  The Tigers have 16 tackles for loss through two games and 11 sacks.  DE Austin Bryant outshined Christian Watkins and Dexter Lawrence last week with 7 tackles and 4 sacks.
  • Texas @ #3 USC, Saturday 8:30pm on FOX:  Texas is in turmoil at quarterback.  Sophomore Shane Buechel was supposed to be the starter after a decent freshman season but he bruised his shoulder during the upset to Maryland.  Apparently, head coach Tom Herman is now saying that even if he is healthy, there is no guarantee that Buechel starts over freshman Sam Ehlinger.  It might just be coach speak but it’s a mess already and not a good way to head into the biggest game of the young season.  Texas isn’t doing great on defense either where they are 79th against the run and are facing a Trojans team averaging 269.5 rushing yards a game so far.  Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr have caught my eye, specifically against Stanford, and have combined for 463 rushing yards and 7 TDs thus far.  They will continue to roll against the Longhorns.  Of course you should also keep an eye on Sam Darnold.
  • #19 Stanford @ San Diego State, Saturday 10:30pm on CBSSN: Not sure that I’m willing to call the straight-up upset here but I will definitely be taking SDSU with the points, especially since they are at home.  Rashaad Penny is quickly becoming one of my favorite players and I am looking forward to seeing him against another Power 5 team this week.

Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, 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, 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
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

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.

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