The Watch List: 2019 FCS & DII Season Preview

Updated: May 30th 2019

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

FCS Storylines to Watch

Walter Payton Award Contender: Zerrick Cooper, QB, Jacksonville State.  Since 2002 when Tony Romo won the award, just two non-QBs have won the Walter Payton Award.  So, picking a passer was a safe bet.  Which one to pick was the tough part.  I went with Cooper because he has some name recognition―he was a 4-star recruit who transferred from Clemson after the 2017 season―and he offers some rushing upside that Jake Maier does not.  Cooper amassed 3,416 passing yards and tossed 32 TDs; he added 366 and 6 on the ground.  Jacksonville State is predicted to make another playoff appearance in 2019 so voters will have plenty of opportunity to see Cooper.

Underclassman to Watch: Josh Davis, RB, Weber State.  Davis was crowned the top freshman in the FCS last season, winning the Jerry Rice Award.  He’s an explosive running back and punt returner who has tremendous breakaway speed.  He’s shifty enough to get around defenders and can also throw a wicked stiff arm.  His 30 receptions were the cherry on the sundae.  Weber State may not be high on your watch list, admittedly I had no idea the school was was in Utah, but they are projected to be a Top 10 team this season so we should all plan to check them out at least once to see some of Davis.

Newcomer of the Year: Zeb Noland, QB, North Dakota State.  Noland is transferring in from Iowa State where he was a spot starter over the last two campaigns.  He posted a 2-3 record in the five games where he was the primary quarterback.  His career stat line for the Cyclones was 1,255 passing yards with 6 TDs and 2 INTs.  There’s been no official announcement that Noland will be the starter but I doubt you publicize bringing him in without planning to give him the job.  He’ll be filling the large void left by Easton Stick who was drafted by the Chargers this Spring.

Coaching Carousel: The last two coaches to win an FCS Championship, Mike Houston and Chris Klieman, have moved up to the FBS level and leave their blue blood programs in flux.  Mike Houston left James Madison (2016 champion) to take the job at East Carolina (9 combined since 2016).  Meanwhile, Klieman is heading to Manhattan, Kansas to take over the Wildcats.  Klieman’s Bison won four of the last five FCS titles; while he’s likely to have more early success than Houston with a more talented roster, it will certainly be an adjustment for Klieman.  Defensive coordinator Matt Entz takes the reigns in North Dakota State and the Dukes will have former Elon coach Curt Cignetti on the sidelines.

FCS Players to Watch

Jake Maier, QB, UC Davis: Maier is heading into his third season as the starting quarterback for UC Davis.  He’s topped 3,500 passing yards in each of those two seasons and has a combined 60 TDs to 20 INTs.  Maier is a pocket passer who throws a strong and driven football.  However, he can be flustered by the rush and lets his mechanics break down, often making fade-away passes.  He leads his backs well on swing passes from the backfield but his anticipation on other routes needs to improve.  In the film I watched it appeared like Maier patiently went through progressions on a number of passes.  If he can compile another big season, Maier may attract some NFL scouts with his strong arm.

AJ Hines, RB, Duquense: Hines has topped 1,000 rushing yards each of his three years with the Dukes, totaling 3,849 so far in his career. His freshman season impressed so much that he was honored with the aforementioned Jerry Rice Award. I was excited to dive in and came away from his highlights thinking that he could earn a role in the NFL as a short-yardage back. He’s stocky with a low center of gravity. He prefers to run into defenders rather than around or past them. Hines lacks the acceleration to beat faster defenders to the edge but he does pick up momentum once he starts downhill. You might assume that he’s just a two-down runner but he’s also a factor in the passing game, with a career 42-544-3 receiving line. From what I’ve seen so far, I think Hines has a chance to land on an NFL roster, probably as a priority free agent. If he does, he can stick around for a few years in a specialized role (a la Zach Zenner).

Josh Pearson, WR, Jacksonville State: Pearson’s stats and measureables drew my attention when I started my preseason research. He’s listed at 6040/205 and scored 17 TDs last season. Unfortunately, after a deeper dive, I think he may be a better story than prospect. Pearson, a redshirt senior, had a rocky start to his career at Jacksonville State after being declared academically ineligible and losing his scholarship. He fought to get his grades up and finally debuted in a game in 2017 before starring in 2018. I was able to find some highlights online and was encouraged to see his strong hands stab the ball on numerous occasions. Pearson appeared significantly smaller than his listed measurements; I’m thinking a more realistic estimate of his size would be 6020/195. If he’s able to replicate his dominance from last year, I’ll need to revisit Pearson in the Winter.

Matthew Gonzalez, TE, Robert Morris: Gonzalez is the only tight end on my shortlist who had 40+ receptions, 600+ yards and 10+ TDs in 2018.  After reviewing some Robert Morris highlight packages, it looks like Gonzalez has more of a receiver’s build than that of a tight end.  Whether you view that as a positive or a negative depends on your spin.  He’s listed at 6030/230 which puts him in line with Evan Engram, one of the smallest (albeit productive) at the position in recent history.  Gonzalez does line up in-line so he has experience as a blocker and as a route runner from that alignment.  I wasn’t able to isolate clips of him as a blocker so that aspect of his report is largely TBD.  Since the NFL trend is towards “move tight ends” I think it’s worthwhile to keep an eye on Gonzalez in 2019.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Case Cookus, QB, Northern Arizona: Cookus started his career at NAU strong with 50 TDs in his first fifteen game.  Disappointingly, his sophomore season was cut short by injury after just four games.  The same happened in 2018 after just two games.  If he can stay healthy and find his freshman production he may earn some attention because he has good size at 6040/205 and throws well on the run.
  • Jaquez Ezzard, WR, Howard: Ezzard averaged more than 26.0 yards per catch in both 2017 and 2018 so he’s a big play in waiting.  He’s compact at 5090/190 but looks like he may be strong enough to win inside at a higher level.  It was hard to judge his speed in the highlights I saw but it seems like he’s plenty quick.  Ezzard has done some kick and punt returning in his career at Howard which is a positive because that’s likely how NFL teams would try to take advantage of his explosiveness.
  • Luke Stuffel, TE, Findlay: It’s possible that Luke Stuffel is a unicorn because it’s nigh impossible to find Findlay football highlights anywhere online.  He’s listed at 6060/269 and averaged 18.9 yards per catch last season (16/302/5).  You’ve got my attention Mr. Stuffel, now just point me in the direction of your game film!

DII Players to Watch

Jayru Campbell, QB, Ferris State: Campbell looks like an FBS player when you watch his highlights online.  He’s imposing at 6050/200 and is a true dual-threat quarterback who runs with speed and elusiveness.  As I was taking notes I thought to myself, “this is too good to be true.”  Unfortunately, some further research found that Campbell has numerous off-field issues including three violent incidents (one including an opposing player, one with a school security guard and one with his girlfriend).  Campbell was a verbal commit to Michigan State but instead attended the JUCO powerhouse of Garden City Community College to start his career before transferring to Ferris State.  I hope that Campbell has sought help; it’s unfortunate that we may never get to see his true potential.

Walter Fletcher, RB, Edinboro: Fletcher has starred the last two seasons, gaining over 1,800 scrimmage yards in both 2017 and 2018, adding 38 combined TDs.  He stood out to me when combing through statistics because of how involved he is as a receiver: 30+ receptions in all three seasons.  Luckily for us, he posted a long highlight reel from the 2017 season which I dove into.  He has a fantastic juke move, cutting on a dime without losing much speed or momentum.  He has enough speed to beat DII defenders but it’s hard to get a true feel for his long speed―I’d guess about 4.60.  I’d love to see Fletcher get some postseason all-star game love if he has another successful season.

Shane Zylstra, WR, Minnesota State: Zylstra has dominated Northern Sun opponents for the last two seasons.  In 2017 he went for 51-861-15; then he improved those numbers last year with 66-1,261-14.  He has a big frame, 6050/220, that appears ready for the rigors of the NFL.  I underestimated his speed, thinking he’d be a plodding runner at his size.  A change to tight end could be a possibility for the NFL because in my short study it appears that he’s at least an average blocker.  His combination of attributes would make him a versatile addition to an offense.  Zylstra is big, powerful and racks up numbers―that’s what I want to see from my under-the-radar  prospects.


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 7

Updated: October 14th 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:  No player did more for their Heisman chances in Week 6 than Bryce Love.  Love is finally getting some national attention and just when more viewers started paying attention he shined again.  Against Utah, a decent rush defense, Love ran 20 times for 152 yards and a score.  What if I told you that that stat line was Love’s worst of the season?  Strange but true because he’s been that good.  More on Love below so let’s not dive too deep yet.  I thought it was very interesting to see the top ten players as far as current Heisman odds.  I ended up needing to go to the eleventh spot to get to my man crush, Rashaad Penny.  I think Penny is criminally undervalued and would be worth a bet if I were so inclined; meanwhile Jalen Hurts and Jake Browning are at least five spots too high but buoyed because their teams are undefeated and in the Top 5.  Here are the current odds per OddsShark.com:
    1. Saquon Barkley
    2. Baker Mayfield
    3. Bryce Love
    4. Mason Rudolph
    5. Lamar Jackson
    6. Sam Darnold
    7. Luke Falk
    8. JT Barrett
    9. Jalen Hurts
    10. Jake Browning
    11. Rashaad Penny
  • Winter is Coming:  The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released in three weeks.  When I saw that I couldn’t believe it – we are already half way through the season, wow.  I can’t share my thoughts on the actual CFP ranks yet but here is how I would have them:
    1. Clemson – based on resume more so than the eye test.  Clemson has beaten three top teams (#13 Auburn, #14 Louisville, #12 Virginia Tech) and up until this point has the harder schedule between them and Alabama.
    2. Alabama – the Tide may end up being a victim of a weaker SEC and their weak cross-division schedule this season.  There’s no regular season matchup against Florida or Georgia this season and the jewel non-conference win against Florida State is looking less special as the weeks progress.  Alabama will likely have two back-to-back Top 10 games to end the season against Auburn and in the SEC Championship game but by then I think Clemson will be well established as #1.
    3. Georgia – There’s no way the CFP committee would actually have Alabama and Georgia play in the semi-finals since it’s likely a SEC Championship repeat but it would still be awesome to see.  Georgia is a lot of fun to watch and they will challenge Alabama if they both make it to the end undefeated.
    4. TCU – I struggled with putting TCU over Penn State for the last spot.  Ultimately, I went with resume over the eye test again as I did above.  TCU has two Top 25 wins (#6 Oklahoma and #12 West Virginia) while PSU has zero.
    5. Penn State – However, Penn State will have a chance to prove themselves over the next three game stretch.  They are off this weekend but will then face #17 Michigan, #9 Ohio State and #21 Michigan State in successive weeks.
  • Co-Backups in Clemson:  File this under something I have never seen before, Clemson has named Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson as “co-backups” on their updated depth chart.  Hmm.  The reason for the subterfuge is starting quarterback Kelly Bryant’s ankle injury.  Some reports say that he’ll play while others say it is a game time decision.  Who knows.  My gut says that he will not play and Dabo is just playing with Syracuse’s ability to gameplan.  Bryant is also the team’s leading rusher (97 carries, 401 yards, 7 TDs) so having to factor for him is a big deal if all that goes out the window when he is inactive.  If Bryant can’t go, I expect Hunter Johnson to take the lead.  He went 5-5 for 42 yards and a score against Wake Forest when he split relief duties with Cooper.  Johnson is a former 4-star recruit who was #21 in the ESPN300 and was the top quarterback recruit of his class.  The concern is less about Syracuse, I would expect Clemson to win either way, but more about the tougher games against North Carolina State and Florida State coming later in the month.

Players to Watch

  • Bryce Love, RB, Stanford:  There’s a lot of talk about the East Coast Bias that is going against Love and that he’s being ignored.  That’s certainly not the case here at Reality Sports.  It’s unfortunate that there is not more tape of Love available – DraftBreakdown.com has just one game from 2017 and one from 2016.  I decided to fire up that lone 2017 film and take a closer look.  Let’s start with the negatives.  Love is not a pass catcher with just 4 receptions this season and 8 last year.  I was looking for positive pass protection moments and found one in the 4th quarter during Stanford’s comeback bid where he capably picked up the blitz and gave Keller Chryst time to throw.  Unfortunately, on his next offensive play, later in the quarter, he whiffed on a block and let Chryst get blown up.  It’ll take more film study to see which of those plays was closer to the reality.  When you watch Love two things stand out, his spectacular speed and his tackle breaking ability.  To illustrate those two skills, we’ll take a closer look at two plays from the first half.  In the 1st quarter, Love took a toss left and sprinted through a massive hole for a 75 yard score.  The blocking was great, yes, but Love was at the second level before anybody on the defense could even react let alone catch him.  With seconds left to go in the 2nd quarter, Love took a pointless handoff meant to kill the clock.  Most backs would probably run up the back of their center and head into the locker room but not so for Love.  He immediately breaks a tackle five yards behind the line of scrimmage as he tries to break right, he then reverses field and breaks another tackle still five yards deep, he then makes his way up field for a minimal gain.  It was a nothing play, barely a blip in the play-by-play, but it illustrated his elusiveness and also his heart.  It didn’t matter to him that it was a clock killing play while the team was out of field goal range, he still gave it his all.  Love is 5’10” and 196lb.  He was a 4 star recruit and #215 in the ESPN300.  A definitive 40-yard dash time is hard to find but there were two numbers quoted online: 4.30 and a 4.32.  He ran a 10.7 second 100m dash in high school which is Olympian speed (8th place in the men’s 100m gold medal race at the 2016 Olympics ran a 10.6 for comparison).  To further illustrate how dominant his speed is, let’s look at combine comparables in his size range.  CJ Spiller ran a 4.37 and Jahvid Best ran a 4.34 – Love would have both of them beat.  Love is on his way to being a top RB prospect.  Right now I would have him in the RB5-RB7 range but might have to move him above guys like Bo Scarborough, Mike Weber and Ronald Jones if he keeps the production up.  Oh, hey, speaking of production… Love has 1,240 yards and is averaging 10.5 yards per carry.
  • Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn:  I haven’t seen enough of Kerryon Johnson to have a full formed opinion yet but I am definitely intrigued by his potential and production thus far.  While watching Michigan vs Michigan State last weekend a stat on the bottom line caught my eye: that Johnson had rushed for 3 TD in three consecutive games.  That stat doesn’t even give the full story because one of those games was 5 TDs (!!) and all three came against the SEC.  I was sure one of them must have been against McNeese State or some directional school.  I’m not saying that Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all have good run defenses but they are all respectable Power 5 teams.  Johnson did miss two games this season with a hamstring injury but it is encouraging that all three of these monster games have come after his return – at least we know there is no lingering injury.  Johnson is 6’0″ and 212lb and looks to have a long stride which helps him cover ground without elite speed (NFLDraftScout.com estimates 4.45 speed).  I watched film of Johnson against Mississippi State and noted his power at the goal line and in short yardage.  He also looks to be a patient runner at the line of scrimmage; on multiple runs he placed his hand on the blockers back to follow them through the hole.  One negative that was apparent is that Johnson is not much of a receiving threat: he has just 36 career receptions (14, 17, 5).  I need to see more before I can properly give him a draft projection but he’s probably a 5th-6th round NFL prospect now and a fringe RSO prospect depending on how deep your league is.

Games to Watch

  • #2 Clemson @ Syracuse, Friday 7:00pm on ESPN:  If you can only devote one weekend night to watching college football this week, make it Friday since there are two good games.  As discussed above, there is some intrigue around who will be starting for Clemson.  Either way, I don’t expect it to matter.  It will be interesting to see Clemson’s smothering defense against Syracuse QB Eric Dungey.  Dungey is 2nd in the NCAA in passing attempts and 8th in yards; plus he leads the team in rushing yards (325) and rushing TDs (8).  He’s not as skilled as Bryant but he does pose the same type of dual-threat as Bryant.   I’m not calling for the upset but, pending the line, I will be tempted to take the Orangemen with the points.
  • #8 Washington State @ Cal, Friday 10:30pm on ESPN:  It’s not often that you get a Friday night doubleheader featuring two Top 10 teams on the road.  Wazzou’s defense is for real – 6th against the pass, 11th in total yards and 8th most turnovers.  They will be facing a turnover prone QB in Cal’s Ross Bowers.  Bowers has thrown 9 INTs so far which is 5th worst in the NCAA.  He’s a high volume, low efficiency passer so I expect the Cougars to be opportunistic.  This one won’t be nearly as close as the Clemson matchup but it’s worth staying up for since in addition to seeing one of the country’s best defenses, you’ll also get to watch Heisman hopeful Luke Falk pepper the Bears defense (he had 373 yards and 5 TDs against Cal last year).
  • #6 TCU @ Kansas State, Saturday 12:00pm on FS1:  The Horned Frogs disappointed me a bit last week, I thought they would have played better against West Virginia.  Specifically, I thought RB Darius Anderson would do well (he went just 9-43).  Kenny Hill did score his first rushing touchdown of the season but was less efficient than he has been in past weeks.  Kansas State was ranked earlier in the season but lost last week to Texas and is trending in the wrong direction.  If TCU wants to be in the CFP conversation, this is the type of game they need to win convincingly.
  • #10 Auburn @ LSU, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS:  You wouldn’t know it by listening to sports talk radio, but the LSU Tigers are 4-2.  Coach Ed Orgeron has been under fire, from his own supporters no less.  They pulled off a nice 17-16 win against #21 Florida last week so hopefully that has bought Coach O some time.  Auburn’s been led lately by the aforementioned Kerryon Johnson, but it’s also important to point out QB Jarrett Stidham’s recent improvement.  He started slow but since the poor outing against Clemson, he has just 19 incompletions in the last four games.  The Auburn defense is 21st or better in just about every stat category except turnovers forced.  Expect this one to be a low scoring 16-9 type affair.
  • #13 Oklahoma @ Texas, Saturday 3:30pm on ESPN:  The Red River Rivalry is usually good for a fun game.  In my Big 12 season preview, I noted that the last four matchups have featured a ranked Oklahoma and an unranked Texas.  They have split those four.  OU is coming off a disappointing loss to Iowa State, a team that Texas beat.  Texas has still vacillated at QB but went with freshman Sam Ehlinger last week against Kansas State.  He ended up playing well and went 30-50 for 380 yards with 2 TDs and an INT.  Baker Mayfield & Co were not at fault for the Sooners’ loss last week, it was the defense that allowed the comeback from a walk-on QB and a remarkable two-way performance from LB/QB Joel Lanning.  This game feels like a true toss up, regardless of the early line (Oklahoma -8).

 


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