The Watch List: 2018 Mountain West Preview

Updated: June 27th 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:  Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State.  Rypien is an enigma.  Heading into 2017 I said that Rypien’s potential draft stock would be “be buoyed by the name cachet of Boise State and some gaudy numbers.”  Things didn’t quite work out for Rypien in 2017 (in fact, he lost snaps to backup Montell Cozart) but I feel the same now as I did then.  Rypien will have a number of huge games passing for a team that is a national brand.  If he can do it over thirteen games, he’d be as likely as anybody in the Group of 5 to get a Heisman vote.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Armani Rogers, QB, UNLV.  Seven of the last eight Heisman awards were won by quarterbacks.  Those seven averaged 921 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs in their Heisman winning seasons.  The only passer in the Mountain West capable of sustaining that rushing attack over a full season is Rogers.  The Rebels kickoff the season with a showcase game at USC which would be a great chance for Rogers to become part of the national conversation.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Marcus McMaryion, QB, Fresno State.  I was between Rogers and McMaryion for this pick.  I figured I would go with the more experienced McMaryion who I believe is playing on a team with 10-2 potential.  McMaryion threw for 2,726 yards and 14 TDs while adding 300 rushing yards and four more scores on the ground.  I expect his numbers to increase in 2018 since he’ll be the starter from Day One.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Andrew Wingard, S, Wyoming.  Wingard finished 5th in the conference in tackles last season (114) and tied for the most interceptions (5).  He also added 8 tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles and a recovery.  Assuming he avoids injury, Wingard could hit 500 career tackles.  He’ll be on the shortlist of top safety prospects heading into the 2019 NFL Draft season.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  KJ Carta-Samuels, QB, Colorado State.  By the time you read this preview, Carta-Samuels will have arrived on campus as a graduate transfer but he will have missed Spring practices.  Despite that, he’s likely the favorite to take over for Nick Stevens.  Carta-Samuels attempted just 47 passes in his career as a Washington Husky.  He was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school who earned a high score from 247Sports.  Interestingly, he turned down an offer from Boise State to join Washington so the October 19th matchup between them and Colorado State could be interesting.   (Honorable Mention: Khalil Shakir, WR, Boise State.  This kid’s Hudl.com highlights really impressed me.  If he earns playing time he could rack up all-purpose yardage as a receiver, runner and returner.)
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Armani Rogers, QB, UNLV.  Rogers, a quarterback, is the conference’s third leading returning rusher from 2017 with 780 yards and 8 TDs.  Rogers averaged less than 19 passes per game and was not particularly efficient (122.9 rating) or accurate (52.4% completion percentage) when he did throw the ball.  Despite some of the passing struggles, I am excited to watch Rogers this season.  I sampled some highlights of his and he appears to have a number of good tools, including: height, long speed, toughness and a strong arm.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Marcus McMaryion and KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State.  McMaryion was a rare graduate transfer with two years of eligibility when he joined the Bulldogs in 2017 from Oregon State.  By the end of September he had earned the starting role and WR KeeSean Johnson was the immediate benefactor.  In McMaryion’s first start, against Nevada, Johnson finished with a 7-104-3 line.
  • Best RB Corps: UNLV.  The Rebs have an impressive running game on tap for 2018.  Senior RB Lexington Thomas ran 211 times for 1,336 and 17 TDs, taking a huge step forward after sophomore Charles Williams went down.  Williams is returning from that ankle injury that cost him all but one game in 2017.  As a freshman in 2016 he totaled 141-763-3 and was the team’s leading rusher ahead of Thomas.  Williams is a little bit bigger but Thomas has more experience as a pass catcher.  It’ll probably be a 1A and 1B situation.  Also returning is senior RB Xzaviar Campbell (72-336-1) who gets my vote for best name in the conference.  Let’s not forget that QB Armani Rogers is a big part of the run game as well.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Tony Sanchez, UNLV.  It was surprisingly difficult to pick a coach to single out in this spot.  The others I considered are either too new or too established at their position to come down on them for a bad season (i.e. Brent Brennan from San Jose State or Bob Davie from New Mexico).  Sanchez has a career record of 12-24 at UNLV but has beaten the win projection each season according to CoachingTreeHotseat.com.  Still, I think it would be tough to hold onto the coach through another losing season if the Rebels don’t get to a bowl in season four when Sanchez is playing with his own recruits now.

Teams to Watch

 UNLV (5-7 in 2017)

After doing a bunch of research on the Rebels for this preview, I’m confident that they will be bowl eligible in 2018.  They have a fourth year coach in Tony Sanchez who was increased the team’s win total year-over-year (albeit by just one each season).  The team has a solid offense that will be led by dual-threat QB Armani Rogers and they are my pick for the conference’s best rushing corps.  If Lexington Thomas can keep up last year’s rushing pace while Charles Williams returns from injury, they will be poised to hold onto the ball and win time of possession.  Keeping the defense off the field will be key because it ranked 114th in the FBS in yards per game allowed (458.7).  UNLV has played in just two bowls over the last two plus decades so it’ll be a big deal if they can accomplish the feat in 2018.

 Fresno State (10-4 in 2017)

There’s not much room for the Bulldogs to improve in 2018 but they still earn a spot on my “Teams to Watch” list because of the duo of QB Marcus McMaryion and WR KeeSean Johnson.  I predict that they will lead the conference in passing in 2018 and that Johnson will become a vogue NFL Draft sleeper.  Fresno had the conference’s second best defense in terms of both points and yards allowed per game and they return the entire back seven which will help overcome inexperience up front.  They have two non-conference home games against Idaho and Toledo where Fresno State should be favored; the other two non-conference games are away at UCLA and Minnesota which are obviously more difficult but not unwinnable.  It’s not impossible for Fresno to win three of those four and end the regular season at 10-2 on the way to the MWC Championship game.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Ty Gangi, QB, Nevada:  My favorite play from the Madden video game series, circa 2010, was the “Quick Kick” play that was in the Steelers playbook.  The quarterback would receive the shotgun snap and then punt it over the heads of the safeties.  It was such a fun play and was oddly successful.  Why do I bring that up when previewing Nevada’s quarterback?  When researching Gangi, I realized he punted the ball six times last year for a 29.0 yard average.  In all seriousness, Gangi improved his rate stats from 2016 to 2017 and has two of the conference’s leading receivers returning.  If Nevada is to rebound from a disappointing 3-9 campaign, it’ll come down to Gangi.
  • Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State:  The Aztecs seem to be Running Back University lately with back-to-back NCAA leading rushers (Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny).  I don’t have the same expectation for the diminutive (5070) Juwan Washington but he’s certainly going to put up stats.  He finished with 759 yards and 7 TDs in 2017 and added 2 kick return scores.  Washington is fast.  There are limited college highlights of his available online so I watched some high school clips.  The frame rate can’t keep up with his legs.  In the few college highlights I was able to watch, I saw a number of successful goal line carries which surprised me.  I’ll be watching to see if Washington can play with enough physicality to overcome the inevitable questions his size will bring.
  • Olabisi Johnson, WR, Colorado State:  Johnson is a former high school track star with 71 career receptions, including a career high of 41 as a junior last season.  He averages 17.2 yards per reception, for a career total of 1,223 yards, and has 7 TDs.  The Rams are losing their top passer, rusher and receiver heading into 2018 so there is a lot of production to be had if Johnson can step up.  Colorado State’s last two dominant receivers (Michael Gallup and Rashard Higgins) were both good enough to earn mid-round NFL Draft picks so a payday could be in Johnson’s future as well.
  • Andrew Wingard, S, Wyoming:  The aforementioned Wingard is a box score dream.  In three years as a starter he has: 367 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 8 INTs, 7 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery and 5 forced fumbles.  At 6000/209, he may be a little undersized to earn a high draft grade for the NFL (nobody 6000 or less was drafted higher than the 4th round in 2018).  I watched Wingard’s 2017 film against Iowa.  He frequently lines up close to the line as a box safety and rarely drops deep into coverage.  I envision him earning a situational rover-safety role in the NFL where he would have the freedom to play close to the line of scrimmage.

Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State

I mentioned above that Rypien had a strange 2017 and that he’ll be looking to prove he is the BMOC in 2018.  Rypien lost snaps in each game to grad transfer QB Montell Cozart.  Cozart ended the year with 97 pass attempts and 86 rush attempts so it was a significant amount of time that Rypien ceded to his backup.  He has average size at 6020/210 but lacks speed despite running a zone read offense at Boise (I only saw him take one designated run in the two games I watched).  Rypien has above average short and medium accuracy; he’s also accurate while on the run, specifically rolling to his right.  When it comes to the deep ball, Rypien is no different than most college passers in that he struggles to hit his receivers with regularity.  He did make a number of 40-50 yard throws look effortless.  Those throws are made easier when Rypien relies on positive mechanics but he too often gets lazy.  I noted a number of throws where he was off-balance, throwing without his feet set, falling away, etc.  There were multiple “fade aways,” as I called them in my notes, that led to interceptions at the goal line because he lacked the requisite touch.  While Rypien may not have much speed, he does move well in the pocket; he often avoids the rush by shuffling to and fro while keeping his eyes downfield.  Keeping those eyes downfield may be an issue though because he takes frequent sacks.  What was most concerning in the pocket was his lack of ability to feel blindside pressure.  There was one play in each of the two games I watched where he simply turned his back to the rush from the RE and took a hit square in the spine.  If you do that against NFL pass rushers you are not going to be long for the starting role.  Rypien is going to come out as a four-year starter with a lot of experience so even if he has some flaws, he’ll get a late round NFL Draft look.  Right now I’m thinking he’s more of a backup with upside rather than a potential starter.  (Film watched: Oregon 2017, Virginia 2017)

Lexington Thomas, RB, UNLV

Thomas is an undersized back who made the most of the opportunity he earned when Charles Williams went down with an injury.  He’s listed at 5090 and just 170lbs but he does look and play bigger than that weight.  I’d expect him to come in at closer to 180-185 this season.  Thomas racked up 17 TDs and 1,336 yards last season and averaged over 6.0 yards per carry.  I watched his Ohio State and New Mexico films.  I figured those would give me a feel for Thomas at his best and his worst and I think that was about right.  He’s often the victim of poor offensive line play, getting contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage.  Luckily, Thomas displays good indirect contact balance so he is often able to bounce off and maintain his run.  He frequently tries to spin out of tackles, further showing his balance, and has a solid stiff arm.  You would not expect Thomas to be great in pass protection given his size but he is above average at worst.  He does not have the strength to hold off most defenders but he can still be effective, especially when cut blocking.  Thomas’ best trait may be his breakaway speed and acceleration.  He’s probably in the 4.45 range and he uses intelligent angles to make safeties miss in the open field and seem even faster.  Thomas has excellent ball security (zero fumbles on 335 carries over the last two years!).  Unfortunately I picked two games to watch in which he did not catch a pass and ran few routes so I cannot evaluate that part of his game.  Thomas will likely need to share the load with the returning Williams which may hurt his NFL Draft chances.  If he improves as a pass catcher (just 8 receptions in 2017) and continues to be a serviceable blocker he would be a viable late rounder or priority UDFA.  (Film watched: Ohio State 2017, New Mexico 2017)

KeeSean Johnson, WR, Fresno State

To answer your question… no, there is no relation between KeeSean Johnson and Keyshawn Johnson.  KeeSean is listed at 6020/202 and plays bigger than that height.  His highlights from 2016 and 2017 feature frequent contested catches in the air.  He shows strong hands in those situations so I wish he always used those hands to catch the ball.  Oftentimes, Johnson relies on body catches when he’s open or in the middle of the field.  I did notice inconsistent hand placement on a few of his jump ball catches.  Johnson has the ability it’s just a matter of getting the proper technique down so I’m not detracting anything from him at this point.  His speed should test in the 4.55 range which is fast enough but does not make him a burner.  His run after catch numbers are limited, again mostly because of bad habits rather than ability.  On multiple plays, Johnson was able to make a great diving play for the end zone but on others he lazily steps out of bounds to avoid contact.  My question of his mindset was reinforced when I saw him get a penalty for a throat-slashing gesture directed at a defending player.  I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, I just think he needs to be motivated to do what’s best for the team on every play.  There was no full game package of Johnson available online so I’ll need some further study to evaluate his route running, release and blocking.  Johnson will greatly benefit from another season with McMaryion.  His stat line from 2017 was 77-1,013-8; I don’t think 1,300 yards and 12 TDs is out of the question.  I have a feeling he will go from “off the radar” to “sleeper” in a few months time.  (Film watched: 2016 & 2017 highlight packages)


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 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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