The Watch List: 2019 C-USA Season Preview

Updated: July 3rd 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.

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: Mason Fine, QB, North Texas.  Fine is the C-USA quarterback most likely to put up Heisman-worthy numbers in 2019.  He also has notable, but winnable, non-conference games against Cal and Houston.  If the Mean Green end their opening slog 5-0, Fine may get some national publicity.  More on him below…

Underclassman to Watch: Brendan Knox, RB, Marshall.  Knox is a compact but powerful redshirt sophomore who took over as the starter last November.  In his five starts, he topped 100 yards in three.  The marquee game was a 27-204-2 explosion against Virginia Tech.  I found two highlight packages online and was surprised by how nimble he looked because he’s listed at 6000/223.  He’s definitely smaller than that listed size but he appeared to have a good combination of power and elusiveness.  I’ll flag Knox’s name for 2021 and check back in on him next offseason. (By the way, that late season makeup against Virginia Tech was such a fascinating situation for sports administration nerds like myself.  Va Tech needed the makeup because they cancelled a game in September due to a hurricane and wouldn’t have been bowl eligible with a 6-5 record.  Luckily for them, nearby Marshall also cancelled a game that same weekend.  So the teams devised a contingency plan that would schedule a game on December 1st if the Hokies were one win away from eligibility.  Marshall got a cool $300,000 and a future home-and-home series out of the deal.  If the game wasn’t needed, Marshall still would have pocketed $100,000.  Love it.)

Newcomer of the Year: BJ Emmons, RB, Florida Atlantic.  Emmons will see the field for the first time as an Owl in 2019 — he signed last year but sat out the season.  He’s reunited with Lane Kiffin who was his OC at Alabama in 2016.  Due to an injury and a backfield logjam, Emmons played in just seven games as a true freshman for the Tide that season, earning 35 carries.  He transferred down to Hutchinson Community College, where he rushed for 694-10 on 150 carries in 2017.  Emmons was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school and was the top running back per Rivals and ESPN, so he has a pedigree and some underlying talent.  He remains an unknown but he looks to have some power and some pop on his JUCO highlights.  It’ll be interesting to see if he can take over for Devin Singletary and show that he was worthy of his younger plaudits.

Coaching Carousel: The top C-USA teams all managed to hold onto their head coaches.  The only changes come at Western Kentucky (Tyson Helton) and Charlotte (Will Healy).  I won’t pretend to have had a feel for him before doing some research, but I’m interested to see how Helton does in his first year as a head coach (at any level).  He’s the younger brother of USC’s Clay Helton.  Helton the younger bounced around smaller schools for years — his first coordinator job was here at Western Kentucky — before landing on his brother’s staff at USC as the quarterbacks coach.  Last year he moved on to be the OC at Tennessee.  Helton’s resume may not yet inspire confidence, but his roster may.  The Hilltoppers return sixteen starters, ten on the offense; per Phil Steele’s experience chart, they return nearly 80% of their offensive yards from last season.  That will help the offensive-minded Helton find some success in his rookie season.  Non-conference games against Louisville and Arkansas offer the possibility of a season-making upset.  (Here’s a scheduling oddity that struck me: Western Kentucky and Louisville will be playing their neutral site game in Tennessee.)

Players to Watch

Mason Fine, QB, North Texas

Over the last two seasons, Mason Fine has put up an impressive 7,845 passing yards and 58 TDs. That yardage total leads the FBS over that span. You may have recently heard of some of the guys just behind him on that list: Drew Lock, Ryan Finley and Will Grier. I don’t think Fine will be a Top 100 prospect like that trio but I don’t think we should ignore him just because he’s undersized (5110/185).

When I watched Fine’s film from Liberty 2018, it was clear that his size did impact his game, however he is often able to overcome.  I noted a few times when he needed to improvise and either had to jump-throw or modify his arm slot to try and complete a pass.  His feet can be inconsistent, especially when on the move because he doesn’t always try to set himself, instead relying on his arm strength.  It may be a strike against him for his pro evaluation, but Fine’s improvisation can be successful and makes him fun to watch.  This play is a simple illustration of Fine needing to jump in order to complete a throw.

Fine’s greatest trait may be his awareness and how that translates to an ability to read the rush, the field and the situation.  When he scrambles he keeps his eyes downfield; if there’s nobody open, he decides when it’s best to throw it away or try to gain a few yards on the ground.  He doesn’t force the ball into his first read and instead checks it down underneath (I wish I saw him go to a second downfield read but I didn’t see that in my study).  Fine often deploys a pump fake to try and manipulate defenders — a skill that only the top prospects usually display.

Fine has a strong arm which is capable of 50 yard scrambling deep balls as well as deep outs to the opposite hash.  If he improves his mechanics he could have a great arm.  This play from one of Fine’s highlight reels shows a combination of some of the notes I shared above: pocket awareness, scrambling with an eye downfield, a strong arm and an unconventional delivery that ultimately ends positively.

Whether or not we value undersized quarterback prospects like Fine or Houston’s D’Eriq King for 2020 is going to weigh heavily on Kyler Murray’s rookie season. Admittedly, Fine is far from the athlete that Murray is, but he’s going to finish as one of the most productive passers of the decade and should get a shot to prove himself in an NFL camp.

Harrison Bryant, TE, Florida Atlantic

Before we get into Harrison Bryant’s stats and film, I have a confession to make. I consistently confuse the names of Harrison Bryant (TE, Florida Atlantic) and Hunter Bryant (TE, Washington) when I’m writing. I really don’t think it’s fair to have two H. Bryant tight end prospects in the same class. I’d like to submit that one of the two go by their middle name going forward.

Harrison Bryant improved on an encouraging sophomore season with an even better junior outing. All told over the two seasons, Bryant has 77 receptions for 1,070 yards and 9 TDs. Bryant’s size (6050/240) and production mirror the new trend of “move tight ends” who are basically big slot receivers. When I first flipped on his film, I was surprised at how much he really did look like a receiver out there — he’ll need to bulk up a bit prior to that combine weigh-in.

My first impression was that Bryant was going to be a liability as a blocker but that wasn’t the case.  He spends about half his time lined up in the slot with the rest in an h-back role (I only noted a handful of in-line alignments).  His best blocking attempts come from that h-back spot, either leading the running back through the hole or sealing off the edge.  This play might have been Bryant’s best blocking effort of the day.  He initially chips the end before getting to the linebacker in the second level.  He turns the defender to keep him out of the play and as the play develops he stays with the block.  He and the linebacker end up in the middle of the action so Bryant finishes the block by taking his man to the ground.  If he can consistently complete that play he’ll earn a lot of snaps in the NFL.

His soft hands and speed are especially valuable when he’s a believable blocker.  There was one sequence of plays against North Texas that perfectly encapsulate Bryant’s potential.  The first two plays have Bryant blocking up the gut for the back.  Once the defense was expecting run on 3rd and 1, Lane Kiffin calls for play action.  Bryant splits the defenders who are reading run and streaks up the seam for an easy touchdown catch.  It was a wonderful showcase for a player like Bryant.

Bryant is listed as the tenth best draft eligible tight end by DraftScout.com in Phil Steele’s season preview magazine.  I haven’t studied many tight ends yet this offseason but I think it’ll be hard not to put him higher.

Honorable Mentions

Spencer Brown, RB, UAB: UAB reinstated their football program in 2017 and true freshman Spencer Brown was a huge factor in their surprising 8-5 season. He amassed 1,329 rushing yards and scored 10 TDs. He followed that up with another great season in 2018: 1,227 and 16. His touches went up and his yardage went down which is a slight concern but he’s a high volume guy who hasn’t yet missed a game. The knock against his production would be that he has just twelve career receptions. Listed at 6000/220, Brown is built and runs with power. He lacks game-breaking speed but he’ll find a role in the NFL as an early down runner.

Rico Bussey, WR, North Texas: Bussey, a senior, enjoyed his most successful season in 2018. He totaled 68 receptions for 1,017 yards and 12 TDs, the biggest beneficiary of Mason Fine’s prolific arm. I was happy to see that Bussey was listed at 6020 because so many productive mid-major receivers are undersized slot guys. He’s a little light, especially in his lower body, but he appears to have enough speed and strength to win as an outside receiver in C-USA play. Whether he can do that against tougher competition will be key. The Mean Green have the aforementioned matchups against Cal and Houston which will give Bussey two tests this season against tougher non-conference competition. In his two career games against the Power 5, versus Iowa and Arkansas, Bussey has just 6-34-1. His highlights included a number of acrobatic contested catches so I’m excited to see more.

Ty Lee, WR, Middle Tennessee State: Speaking of undersized slot guys, Ty Lee is a name to know. Lee measures just 5090/178 but he’s a dynamo. He’s been a steady presence in the Blue Raiders offense for three years even though he has never eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in a season. His average receiving line is a solid 71-845-7. If he continues the trend he’ll have one of the most consistent resumes of all FBS receivers. Lee is also featured as a runner with 234 career yards and 2 scores on 49 attempts. Surprisingly he’s rarely been used as a kick or punt returner which would be the natural assumption for a player of his profile. With the ball in his hands, Lee is nearly unstoppable. His change of direction is silky smooth and he strategically deploys a wicked spin move. Players like Tarik Cohen have shown that there is a role in the NFL for Ty Lee and I expect him to get a shot. He may not be worth drafting in your rookie draft but I’d bet there’s a week or two in 2020 where he’s fantasy relevant.

 

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.

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