The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part II

Updated: December 15th 2018

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

Gasparilla Bowl, South Florida (7-5) vs Marshall (8-4), Thur 12/20 at 8:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Tyre Brady, WR, Marshall
    • I first reviewed Tyre Brady’s film in the offseason and came away very impressed. I admit that it may be primacy bias since Brady was the first wideout I studied this draft year. He’s definitely somebody I plan to revisit. I posited that Brady looked like he could develop into a starting X receiver in the NFL. I liked his acrobatic nature, his strong hands and his toe-tapping body control. His speed and fluid change of direction ability will be important traits as he matures as a route runner. Brady’s numbers dipped a bit in 2018 (60-819-9) but I’m still optimistic. In his last two games of the C-USA regular season (before the Va Tech makeup) he went for a combined 11-207-3. I previously suggested a Day Two grade for Brady but after a somewhat disappointing stat line, I’ll bump him down to the 4th round.
  • My Pick: USF, +2.5
    • Both teams are a horrendous 4-8 ATS this season, including 20+ point losses for both in their last contest. USF has been disappointing this season but they might get a bit of an edge playing in-state. Take the points but you won’t feel great about it.

Bahamas Bowl, FIU (8-4) vs Toledo (7-5), Fri 12/21 at 12:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Cody Thompson, WR, Toledo
    • Thompson is a fifth year senior who was granted an extra year of eligibility after breaking his leg early in 2017. From 2015-2017, Thompson averaged a whopping 20.3 yards per catch. However, that fell to just 13.8 in 2018. The biggest difference for Thompson? He was originally catching balls from the prolific Logan Woodside so it’s hard to say if it’s quarterback play or a slow return post-injury. Pre-injury, Thompson was not fast but he showed skills after the catch, particularly with a killer spin move. He’s inconsistent with his hands, often body catching the ball. One unexpected bright spot was his blocking; he lacks top end strength but shows a willingness and above average technique for the position. He’s likely a late rounder but will latch on to a team as a special teamer.
  • My Pick: FIU, +6
    • FIU has been an underdog three times this season (Indiana, Miami, Marshall) and won ATS each time. For the season they are 9-3 and are 5-0 away from home. Toledo has struggled at QB this season, switching between Mitch Guadagni and Eli Peters (for both health and production reasons). Meanwhile, graduate transfer QB James Morgan has been playing very well for the Golden Panthers and lead the conference in most passing stats. If you’re telling me I am getting the better quarterback and the points, slam dunk.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Western Michigan (7-5) vs BYU (6-6), Fri 12/21 at 4:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Corbin Kaufusi, DE, BYU
    • When I came across Kaufusi this past offseason, I felt like I found a diamond in the rough. Here’s a largely unknown guy who measures in at an immense 6090-275 and makes plays in the backfield (18.5 tackles for loss and 16.0 tackles in his career). Not only is he an interesting prospect but he comes from an interesting family. His dad was the longtime defensive line coach at BYU; his older brother Brandon was a 3rd round pick by the Ravens in 2016 (he’s now with the Jets); his younger brother Devin and cousin Isaiah are also on the football team; and his mom is the mayor of Provo! I watched some of Kaufusi against Boise State from 2017 and he honestly did not jump off the screen with burst or explosiveness. He’ll win the workout though.
  • My Pick: Western Michigan, +12
    • I really struggled with this pick. I went into the preview thinking that BYU was going to be a no-brainer pick but the more I looked at the team stats I started to sway towards the Broncos. Western Michigan leads BYU in each offensive team stat, including significant advantages in time of possession and yards per play.  BYU has the better defense so maybe they keep it low scoring.  Twelve is a big number so if I had to bet it, I’ll take the points.

Birmingham Bowl, Wake Forest (6-6) vs Memphis (8-5), Sat 12/22 at 12:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis
    • I’ve been waxing poetic about Henderson for awhile now so there’s no reason to stop now.  Henderson is a bit undersized at 5090/200 but his playing style belies his size.  He runs downhill with a momentum you can feel through the screen.  When necessary, he can use his shorter stature to his advantage to get through tight holes.  He contributes well in the passing game, averaging 21 receptions per season.  His per-rush numbers are off the charts: per Sports-Reference.com, Henderson leads the NCAA in yards per attempt (8.2) for rushers since 1956.  Henderson will be an interesting study in the offseason because I like his tape and his stats but the rest of the industry does not seem to be buying in yet.
  • My Pick: Memphis, -5
    • I’ve been watching Memphis closely the last two years because they’ve featured two of my favorite prospects (Henderson and Anthony Miller).  So, I may be partial but some of the betting stats are on my side too.  Memphis is 8-5 ATS this season while Wake is just 4-8.  The Tigers have won their last five ATS as a favorite.  Expect a high scoring game because the defenses rank 93rd and 101st.

Armed Forces Bowl, Army (9-2) vs Houston (8-4), Sat 12/22 at 3:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Austin Robinson, LB, Houston
    • Buzz, your girlfriend, woof.  No offense to Mr. Robinson but I would much rather be writing about either Ed Oliver or D’Eriq King in this space.  Both are dynamic playmakers for the Cougs, however neither will be playing in this one.  Oliver is sitting out for self-preservation purposes (he’s likely to be a top 2019 pick) and King suffered a knee injury in November.  (Admittedly, King is not a realistic draft prospect for 2019 but still, he’s so explosive he’d warrant a write-up).  Without any draft hopefuls on the Army squad, Robinson will need to carry the mantle.  He’s a quarterback turned linebacker and exploded in 2018 for 115 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.  Robinson had a mind-boggling stat line against the other triple-option service academy on Houston’s schedule: 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.  I think it’s safe to say that Robinson is going to standout in this one.
  • My Pick: Houston, +3
    • As I mentioned above, Army deploys a triple-option offense which is usually tough to gameplan against.  However, Houston should be prepared because they play Navy every year who features a similar run-heavy offense.  Houston won the last two against Navy by double digits.  The line started out at Houston -1.5 but has moved towards Army.  This feels like a steal to be getting points.  Army is better than Navy and Houston will be missing key pieces but still, I will take them straight up.

Dollar General Bowl, Buffalo (9-3) vs Troy (9-3), Sat 12/22 at 7:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo
    • Prior to the MAC Championship, I suggested that Johnson could play his way into a mid-round grade if he played strongly in his last two contests. Game one for Johnson went well. Against NIU, he finished with a 7-124-2 line. The Bulls ended up losing after a furious Huskies comeback but Johnson wasn’t to blame. Johnson is an outside receiver with starter potential; he’s 6020 so a bit shorter than other elite X prospects but he is strong in the air. I’m not as high on him as I was heading into 2019 but he’s still likely to factor into your rookie drafts next season.
  • My Pick: Buffalo, -2.5
    • I haven’t seen any of Troy’s games this year so it’s hard to pick them with less than a field goal advantage. Buffalo has a few NFL hopefuls (including QB Tyree Jackson and LB Khalil Hodge) so I would expect them to field the better team. Buffalo was a three point favorite over Northern Illinois and blew it so that does give me pause. I’d pass on this one if I could.

Hawaii Bowl, Louisiana Tech (7-5) vs Hawaii (8-5), Sat 12/22 at 10:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Jaylon Ferguson, DE, Lousiana Tech
    • I recently read a profile of Ferguson on The Athletic and was happy to come across his name again when researching this bowl. His 2018 stands out (60 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 15.0 sacks) but he has produced consistently all four years at La Tech. His 42.5 career sack number is one of the highest I have seen in recent memory. In fact, according to Sports-Reference.com, Ferguson leads the FBS in career sacks since they started tracking since 2005. Since I was not familiar with Ferguson’s tape, I consulted TheDraftNetwork.com for some insight. According to their scouting reports, we should expect Ferguson to find a home as a run-stopping end in the NFL. He may not be the most athletic prospect in the class but it’s impossible to ignore his production over a four-year career.
  • My Pick: Hawaii, -1
    • This should be an overlooked game that turns out to be a fun watch (plus, your SO will probably already be asleep by the time it gets going so you can watch it in peace). Hawaii features the 9th best passing offense in the FBS while Tech only allows 193.6 passing yards per game (29th best). I agree with Vegas that this will be a close one. I’ll lean towards Hawaii who is a rare bowl team playing a home game. (Bettors beware: Hawaii is 2-4-1 ATS at home this season so be cautious and don’t bet big)

 

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/5.

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 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 watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had 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, mcubed.net
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.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, Athlon Sports
  • 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, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: oddsshark.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 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: 2018 Week 5 Preview

Updated: September 26th 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks and observations, 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. 

Games to Watch

  • Syracuse at #3 Clemson, 12:00pm on ABC: Well, it looks like this one will be the battle for the ACC Atlantic. The Orangemen beat the Tigers 27-24 last season so Clemson will be looking for blood in this rematch. Clemson just announced that Trevor Lawrence will be taking over as the full-time signal caller so either coach Dabo Swinney is overlooking Syracuse or he’s so worried about them that he’s abandoning his QBBC strategy.
  • #12 West Virginia at #25 Texas Tech, 12:00pm on ESPN2: This matchup showcases the 21st and 5th highest scoring offenses in the country. Combined they average an eye-popping 94.3 points per game. I’ll be watching the trio of towering receivers that will feature in this one: West Virginia’s David Sills (6040; 19-246-5) and Tech’s Antoine Wesley (6050; 30-511-4) and TJ Vasher (6060; 16-273-3). I’m not a huge fan of WVU’s Will Grier but he’s a quarterback name you should know. Expect an entertaining four hour game with a whole lot of points.
  • Baylor at #6 Oklahoma, 3:30pm on ABC: This one is a potential trap game for Oklahoma. They are coming off a harder-than-anticipated victory against Army and have Texas in the Red River Shootout next week. Baylor’s offense isn’t as explosive as years’ past but they do have two NFL hopeful receivers in Denzel Mims and Jalen Hurd. Keep an eye on this one just in case it’s close late.
  • #4 Ohio State at #9 Penn State, 7:30pm on ABC: Ohio State and Penn State both won big last week (a combined 82 point margin). They got there differently though, with Ohio State hanging 42 on Tulane in the first half, whereas Penn State poured it on late but let Illinois stay close early. RB Miles Sanders ended with an even 200 yards and 3 scores for PSU. Buckeyes QB Dwayne Haskins continued his uber efficient season going 21-24 for 304 yards and 5 TDs. Haskins’ TD:INT ratio is now an outstanding 16:1. I can’t pick against Ohio State, even if they are missing their best player (Nick Bosa).
  • #7 Stanford at #8 Notre Dame, 7:30pm on NBC: Notre Dame’s head coach Brian Kelly finally made the decision to start Ian Book over Brandon Wimbush and the decision paid off. Notre Dame beat Wake Forest 56-27 with Book leading the way (325-2-0, plus 43-3 rushing). As far as I have seen there has been no announcement about this week’s starter but it has to be Book. Let’s see how he fairs against a bend-don’t-break Stanford defense that ranks 10th best in points but 56th in yards allowed.
  • #20 BYU at #11 Washington, 7:30pm on FOX: I think Top 25 rankers are setting BYU up for a fall here by putting them at #20. Their scalp of #6 Wisconsin was impressive but the Cougars don’t have a strong enough offense to keep hanging with top Power 5 teams. RB Squally Canada has played well (322-5) but aside from him the offense is struggling. QB Tanner Mangum has just 3 TDs and the team’s leading receiver has just 129 yards (Aleva Hifo). The defense is the stronger unit (they are ranked 25th by points) and features one of my preseason favorites: DE Corbin Kaufusi. Kaufusi has 21 tackles and 2 sacks so far, including six stops in that big Wisconsin game.  Washington’s offense isn’t great either but it’s led by name-brand guys like QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon:  I’ve been listing Herbert as my QB1 for awhile now and nothing I have seen thus far changes that.  If anything, the injury to Duke’s Daniel Jones (my QB2 at the moment) helps cement Herbert atop the ranks.  Herbert was fantastic in regulation against Stanford, completing 25 of 27 attempts.  He totaled 346 passing yards for the game and added 35 yards on 11 rushing tries.  Herbert is as good of a bet for the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft as we have right now.
  • D’Eriq King, QB, Houston: King is an undersized junior (5110/195) who is unlikely to come out as a quarterback but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch now.  He came into the season as the basis for one of my favorite stats: he was Houston’s leading returner passer (1,260 yards) and receiver (264 yards).  Houston is off this week so he’s a name to file away for next week when he’ll be facing off against Tulsa on the national Thursday night game.  King has 20 total TDs and is being careful with the ball (62.7% completion percentage, just 1 INT).
  • Parris Campbell, WR, Ohio State:  I’ve talked a lot about the Ohio State quarterbacks and running backs in my articles this season but I don’t think I have discussed a single pass catcher for the Buckeyes yet.  Campbell’s 8-147-2 line against Tulane caught my eye because he’s rarely been a volume play in this offense (53 career receptions in 25 games before 2018).  Campbell often gets the ball on screens and jet sweeps but I was pleased to see three promising downfield plays against Tulane.  Late in the second quarter he caught a fifteen yard out after which he had the awareness to get his feet down and get out of bounds.  His two touchdown catches were even more telling of his potential.  Both scores required him to track the ball through traffic and concentrate on a bobbling ball to secure it.  Granted, it would have been better to catch it clean but the fact that he was able to adjust and make the play is great.  Campbell is already halfway to last year’s production and has a touchdown in all four games this season.  I’m starting to wonder if Campbell will be somebody we look back at in a few years and regret that we overlooked.

Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis

  • Listed at 5090/200 per sports-reference.com
  • Film watched: Georgia State 2018, Navy 2018
  • 2017: 12 games, 130 carries, 1,154 rushing yards, 8.9 yards per carry, 9 rushing TDs; 24 receptions, 226 receiving yards, 9.4 yards per reception, 2 receiving TDs
  • 2018: 4 games, 58 carries, 709 rushing yards, 12.2 yards per carry, 8 rushing TDs; 6 receptions, 124 receiving yards, 20.7 yards per reception, 1 receiving TD

The per-touch numbers that Henderson has through four games are just unfathomable.  When you combine his rushes and receptions, Henderson is averaging 13.02 yards per touch.  I haven’t done the math for other running backs but I assure you, nobody else is close to that.  Henderson leads the FBS in yards from scrimmage with 833 (second place Jonathan Taylor has 648).  What’s that you say?  This must be a case of a small sample size giving us fluke results.  Consider this: Henderson averaged 8.9 yards per carry last season, leading all FBS running backs.  Despite all of the statistical superlatives I just rattled off, I knew I had to take a look at Henderson’s film to make sure this wasn’t fool’s gold.

Henderson is listed at 5090 but runs with an upright style.  He’s a downhill runner who runs with good acceleration and momentum.  In this clip you can just feel his momentum.  It’s as if the field is tilted towards the opposing end zone.  The defenders at the end of the run didn’t stand a chance of staying on their feet.

Since he’s not the biggest, Henderson probably won’t project as a goal line or short yardage back at the next level but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to fight for yardage.  Against Navy he ran right into the pile, kept his legs moving and found space to the outside for the score.

Against Georgia State, Henderson showed that he can use his smaller stature to squeeze through holes that bigger backs couldn’t.  Take a look at this play as a perfect example.  He stutter steps in the backfield, uncertain where to break the run.  He decides to hit a closing hole, slips an arm tackle, hurdles a prone defender and then stiff arms another defender.  After breaking the second tackle he turns on the jets and gains extra yardage.  In addition to getting skinny in the hole, he also showed that he has good contact balance which is a very important trait for running backs.

My favorite play of Henderson’s came in the middle of the third quarter against Navy.  The Tigers were down and needed a big play on a 2nd and 10.  Henderson delivered.  It was a 78 yard touchdown run but Henderson probably ran 120 yards to get to pay dirt.  He starts off tackle left and speeds through the hole.  He senses space to the right, breaks three tackles, patiently waits for downfield blocks and then outruns the entire naval academy.  The run showcases so many of his attributes that I felt it was a perfect way to end this study of him.

It feels odd to say but I think we need to see Henderson fail before we can truly evaluate him.  He’s playing so well right now that there are a dearth of negative plays on his tape.  It’s like you’re always watching a highlight reel.  In version 1.0 of my 2019 mock draft, I had Henderson as my RB13 and that already feels woefully low.  I’ll need to reevaluate my rankings but I don’t want to overreact just yet.  For now, I’ll say that Henderson is likely a top ten back with the potential to leapfrog some Power 5 names like Myles Gaskin and Damien Harris if he keeps up this production.

 


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 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 watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had 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, mcubed.net
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, 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, Athlon Sports
  • 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, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members

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: 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.

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