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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